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Fun Facts About The Italian Language

Italian language

Italian really is the people’s language. It’s the closest relative to Latin among all the Romance languages, and in medieval Europe was the everyday language before Dante Alighieri (the Divine Comedy guy) called for its evolution into a distinct language of its own. Ever since then, Italian has been evolving and growing more complex: there are now so many regional dialects that it’s difficult to count or classify them. (If you’re wondering where to start, learn Neapolitan Italian: with 5.7 million speakers, it’s the most common — and the most complex — of Italian dialects, with strict grammatical rules and strong similarities to Spanish and Catalan. Think of it as a three-for-one bonus!)

Now there are 63 million Italian speakers across the world, largely due to the impact of migration and international trade. Little Italy in New York City is one of the most famous examples of how Italian travels and adapts itself to new speakers. And there could easily be more Italian speakers, given how intuitive Italian pronunciation and grammar are. Italian is read nearly phonetically: the written word looks very similar to how it sounds, and the language has a lot of cognates with other Romance languages.

But Italian’s relatively simple sounds and grammar hide pitfalls that can make translating into or from Italian a little complicated, especially for English speakers. Additionally, the Italian language is witnessing growing gaps between spoken Italian and properly grammatical Italian, a difference that’s now creeping into written media. It’s important to be aware of the different registers that Italian can be spoken in, and to maintain a balance between grammatical correctness and ease of understanding. Below, we’ve gathered our best tips for crafting Italian translations and working with a changing language.

Italian 101: How it’s Built

Italian’s vocabulary and structure is similar to other Romance languages, which means that its nouns are male or female and require their adjectives to match. Spoken Italian is read as it’s written (formaggio is pronounced “for-MAH-djyo”) with clearly enunciated vocals. Like English, Italian has 26 letters in its alphabet, but five (j, k, w, x, and y) are considered foreign and you won’t find them in many Italian words. In recent years, the Italian language has incorporated at least 300 to supplement its vocabulary, including abstract, backstage, center, cash, community, contest, compilation, full-time, hot, snob, and more. So for English speakers learning Italian, the two language’s similarity makes learning easier. But for translators, there are a few key differences to keep in mind when translating between the languages.  

Vocab Troubles

Although Romance languages share words or borrow words from related languages, the meanings don’t always transfer exactly, leading to false cognates. Italian has these falsi amici, and it’s important to know the meaning of the Italian word and when to use it. For example, Italian speakers regularly use protagonista to refer to the main actors in movies. English uses “protagonist” to refer to main characters in books and stories, and the word has an academic register. Although the word sounds the same, it applies to two different ideas and signals two different registers: Italians on the train may chat about the performance of a movie’s protagonista, but English speakers on the subway would be perceived as snobby (or film critics) if they were to discuss “the film’s protagonist.” Picking the right word for your translation means knowing the correct register of the word and attending to the cultural meaning of a word, which may be different than its dictionary meaning.

The difficulty doesn’t end when you choose the right word: choosing the right article can be a source of confusion when creating Italian translations. Unlike English, which uses a single article, “the,” for all genders of nouns and doesn’t require adjectives to match gender, Italian does require gender agreement and has six different options for articles. And the gender of words isn’t always obvious: the word “la foto” (picture) is feminine, even though it ends in the typically masculine “o.” “Lo studente” is masculine, although it ends in the “e” typically signifying a feminine article. But there’s more–a word can change meaning depending on the attached article. So “il fine,” the masculine form, translates to “the purpose,” while “la fine,” the feminine form, means “the end.”

Confusing, right? But knowing to keep an eye out for these falsi amici simply means that translators need to be on their toes, and that automated translations may need some extra oversight. A bigger concern for translators and linguists is the progressive loss of grammatical correctness in spoken and recently, written Italian. Many Italian speakers misuse the subjunctive verb tense. For example, using “avrei” instead of “avessi” in the phrase, “Se avessi fame, mangerei” (If I was hungry, I would eat). This phenomenon is beginning to affect written and broadcast material, raising the possibility that more speakers will adopt this error.

Translating Italian

When translating between the two languages, it’s important to be aware of several differences that can affect both meaning and style.

For example, the English use of “do” as an auxiliary verb (Do you want dessert?) doesn’t have an equivalent in Italian–it’s implied and built into the verb conjugation itself. For those of you wondering, the correct Italian phrase is “Vuoi della torta”. Similarly, personal pronouns can often be omitted in Italian, since the verb conjugations usually include that information. Italians can say “Abbiamo giocato” where English speakers would have to say “We have played,” since both words are in the “we” case.

Another way that Italian simplifies English meaning is in the many uses of the verb “dovere.” Where English has several distinct verbs to express suggestions or commands, Italian has one, “dovere.” Italians convey the shades of meaning of this verb through inflections. And since it’s an irregular verb, it’s flexible enough to take on all sorts of conjugations. But there’s a side effect–when Italians speak English, they often find themselves overusing “must.” This could be a problem especially in plans for future action, for example the shades of meaning between “You must hire a new employee” and “You should hire a new employee.”

And finally, when crafting materials in Italian, keep in mind that Italian loves its long sentences, whereas English sentences try to be as short as possible. (Italians invented the vernacular; they should get to make their sentences as long as they want.) This can raise some difficulties for signage and website design: you may have to allot larger portions of your web page for Italian text or consider what could be conveyed through images. For example, “No smoking” translates to “In questo locale è severamente vietato fumare.” “Please hang on” becomes “Vi preghiamo di reggervi agli appositi sostegni,” and we translate “is” as “rappresenta.” When translating out of Italian, look for ways to shorten expressions, but when translating into Italian, don’t be afraid to use your words!

Our Italian experts here at Venga — one of whom already knows the Neapolitan dialect — are ready to help you get your next project in Italian started. Give us a call, send an email, or request a quote!

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