Italian Translators and 5 Worst Mistakes to Make

Italian Translators and 5 Worst Mistakes to Make

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Image of a pizza to illustrate an article on Italian translators. Photo by amirali mirhashemian on Unsplash

The Challenges Faced by Italian Translators

Translators find themselves facing challenges everyday no matter their language pair. In fact, there are universal challenges that are a reality for every language combination. However, each pair does have specific and generally unique challenges that translators must deal with. When it comes to translating from English into Italian and the other way around, there are some things that Italian translators need to keep in mind. Of course, for professional and experienced Italian translators, these aren’t issues but simply annoyances that must be dealt with.

What Are Some Common Challenges for Italian Translators?

Before delving deep into the peculiar challenges translators working from English into Italian and vice versa, it is good to have a glimpse of the most common general difficulties translators face daily, no matter the languages the work with.

Idioms: The first common challenge for every translator is translating idioms. To translate idioms correctly, translators must recognize them as such. This requires a deep understanding of the target audience’s culture and its linguistic nuances. For example, literally translating “a piece of cake” wouldn’t make sense in another language, so translators will typically replace it with a similar idiom. For instance, “una passeggiata” in Italian (“a stroll”), or the French might even mention a “finger in the nose” (“les doigts dans le nez“). However, some idioms don’t have a similar phrase in another language. When that’s the case, Italian translators need to paraphrase it to convey the same message in the target text.

Humour, slang, and cultural references: these can also be difficult, if not impossible, to perfectly replicate. That’s because, just like idioms, they can’t be translated literally in any case. When that’s the case, Italian translators may need to replace a joke, colloquialism or cultural reference with another one that will be better understood in the target culture.

Degree of formality: Another common challenge is to render the degree of formality of the source text. This must necessarily be replicated in the translation. However, it’s not always possible to mirror it completely. Some languages have an intrinsically more formal tone than others. When that’s the case, Italian translators need to tone up or down their translation to meet the needs of the target audience. They may do so by paraphrasing, transforming a verb into a noun or opting for a more formal/informal equivalent among other strategies.

Specialised terminology: Finally, the fourth main difficulty translators of every language often encounter is specialised terminology. Notably, this is the main challenge concerning technical and medical translators. Industry-specific terms in some instances have no equivalent in the target language. Thus, Italian translators must use a descriptive phrase to accurately convey the information. To this purpose, it is vital they conduct some research in their native language— i.e. the target language— on the subject matter. This will allow them to thoroughly understand the source text and avoid mistranslations.

Five Common Challenges for Italian Translators

Focusing on the peculiar challenges of English/Italian translation, here are five of them Italian translators working with this language pair face daily.

Gender: Italian is a strongly gendered language, unlike English. Italian lacks of the gender neutral pronoun and  everything has a gender, even objects. If this is not a big issue for Italian translators working from Italian into English, it’s definitely tricky for Italian translators working from English into Italian. Specifically, they must be careful with the gender of groups of people and animals as objects have an assigned gender that won’t change. When that’s the case, Italian translators when speaking Italian need to grasp every contextual and/or visual clue to understand whether a group of people is male-only, female-only or mixed-gender.

When it’s not possible to gather this information, they must stick to the male form per language convention. To make a practical example, let’s analyse the sentence “The children are eating”. In Italian, there are two ways to translate “children”: the male and mixed “bambini” and the female “bambine”. If there are no clues or there’s not enough context to determine the exact gender of the children, the correct translation of the above sentence would be “I bambini stanno mangiando.”

On top of that, there’s no such thing as singular use of “they”. So, Italian translators need to rely on the biological sex of the person if the addressee is know. Otherwise, they need to stick to the male form.

Formal you: Italian has two ways to address people when speaking, “tu” and “lei”. They both mean “you”, but “tu” is informal and “lei” is formal. Precisely, “tu” is used when speaking with friends, family and peers while “lei” is reserved to strangers, older people and important figures.  Since English doesn’t make such as distinction, translators who translate from Italian into English need to compensate the lack of a formal pronoun by other means. First of all, they need to grasp any visual and/or contextual clue to understand the relationship between the people involved. After that, the process is not always straightforward.

That’s because Italians don’t always follow the rule to address someone formally by their title and last name even though that would be the correct form of addressing someone when you’re in “lei” terms. In fact, it’s not uncommon to be on “lei” terms and call someone by their first name when the relationship is not highly formal but yet not so informal to be on “tu” terms. When that’s the case, Italian translators need to tone up the text  by using more formal vocabulary to replicate the slight degree of formality. A way of doing so, could be using a formal greeting instead of an informal “hi”.

Subjunctive: Italian has a widespread use of the subjunctive mood, way more than English. On top of that, it’s hardly ever translatable with the English subjunctive mood. When that’s the case, Italian translators working from Italian into English need to rely on the linguistic context to replicate the subjunctive verb in the correct tense in English.

Sentence average length: Italian sentences are longer due to the fact English and Italian belong to two different language families. Italian is a Romance language while English is a Germanic language. Thus, Italian follows Latin grammar, which require the addition some words that can be left out in English, such as “that” when it’s used as a conjunction and articles. This could be a problem for translation practices that need to consider character count, such as subtitling and transcreation. When the most straightforward options exceed space constraints, Italian translators who translate from English into Italian need to find equally context-accurate synonyms. This is an especially important factor when considering video translations or audio translations.

But, and, or at the beginning of the sentence: In English it’s common and correct to start a sentence with “but”, “and”, “or”. However, that’s not the case in Italian. So, Italian translators translating from English into Italian need to find alternative connectors or tweak punctuation, syntax and/or sentence order in the target text. For instance, the sentence “We used every strategy we had at the competition. And we won!” in Italian could be rendered as “Abbiamo attuato tutte le strategie che avevamo durante la gara, e abbiamo vinto!” In this case, the comma replaced the full stop to conform to the Italian rules.

So, now you know the potential difficulties of working on Italian translations, whether it’s for text translations, transcription, or subtitling, you can take the steps needed to avoid falling into these traps.

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