The problem with Italian to English translation: An American professor in Italy

“If someone has something to say, he or she should say it.” This phrase in English is grammatically correct, but can be translated into Italian many ways.

On my mini-vacation I’ve been spending a lot of time at the University of Modena where I studied last year. Yesterday, I was invited by an Italian literature professor to attend a guest lecture on translation. The lecturer, an American professor of Italian at Northwestern University, talked about the difficulty in translating phrases word for word.

If you’ve ever studied Italian, you know that certain phrases in Italian cannot be translated literally into English and vice versa.

The lecturer, Thomas Simpson, demonstrated the dilemmas in translation with the particular English phrase I mentioned earlier: “If someone has something to say, he or she should say it.”

If an American translated this in Italian, it would go something like this:

Se qualcuno ha qualcosa di dire, e’ importante che parli! (If someone has something to say, it’s important that they speak!)

But to an Italian this sounds a bit strange. Simpson pointed out that the Italian language is all about aesthetics. Even if there are many ways to say something in Italian, there will always be the “more correct” way to a native speaker. In English it rarely matters how you phrase a sentence. The flow of words is not an important component to everyday English usage.

So how would a native Italian speaker aesthetically say the above phrase?

Se qualcuno ha qualcosa di dire, lo dica subito! (If someone has something to say, he says it immediately!)

Or

Se qualcuno ha qualcosa di dire, e’ bene che lo dica! (If someone has something to say, it’s good if he says it!)

Written by OSIA National Office Intern, Carol Cummings. Cummings is a senior at American University, majoring in print journalism, with a minor in Italian.

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