From the RK archive: Learning Italian — a terrific experience

Life just isn’t fair. Right when you think you have got the better of the Italian language, along comes the horrible realization that the more you know, the greater the risk of getting things wrong. For, if you think about it, when you are at the stage of struggling with your masculines and feminines and, bright and early one morning, you ask at the news-stand, for the Corriera della Sera, the worst that can happen is that the guy points you towards the bus-stop and mutters about you’re having a long wait. Sure there are the excruciatingly embarrassing moments when pena gets muddled up with pene and tetto becomes tetta. But these happen once. And once, only. You learn, quick. Or you decide you to get thee to a –– Trappist –– nunnery.

No, the trouble really starts when you’re pretty much up to speed. For, however diligently you may have studied the language, nothing — except the first time it happens — prepares you for the fact that costipato does not mean constipated, and vice versa. Actually, vice versa (it.) is not really the same as vice versa (eng.), but we leave that for now. Let’s stick to the big ones. And the biggest, surely, is that eventualmente does not mean that something WILL happen in the fullness of time, but that it might perhaps, just possibly, happen.

An Italian might be puzzled that the English-speaker is annoyed at being told that his or her plan is grandioso. Nothing to do with “grandiose” or “exaggerated”, but more like “great!” “fantastic!”. A certain degree of bemusement when an Anglo says “That was terrific, I really enjoyed it”. Why would something that is terrificante i.e., “terrifying” be considered fun? Then, how about the diplomatic incidents caused by the difference between a “tremendous kid” and un bambino tremendo? Nothing short of the difference between “fabulous” and “a total horror”.

That said, just because consistente does not mean “consistent”, and coerente does not mean “coherent”, that importante usually means “big” and that there is no Italian word for “relevant” since rilevante means “important”, that is no reason to lose hope. As the Nike ad used to say, “Just do it”. Which, in Italian, comes out as fallo, which can mean something else entirely. And goes to show that not even super-successful multi-million dollar organizations can avoid creating cross-cultural confusion at times.

And it keeps getting more complicated. You’d think you could be safe with something that came from a language that was long-dead, like Latin. No such luck. For, there is this strange phenomenon whereby — cut off from Europe by the Channel, one presumes — the English meaning of a Latin expression has evolved from the original and, as a consequence, from the Italian sense.

So, ad hoc in both Italian and English refers to something done with a specific purpose in mind and without taking account of further considerations. But, where in Italian it means “made-to-measure”, “designed for the purpose”, and is thus very positive, in English it tends to have a negative connotation of “improvised” or “done in a slap-dash manner”. Another one of these is quid pro quo (Italian qui pro quo) which in English, according to the Webster’s Dictionary signifies, “something given or received for something else” while in Italian the meaning (Zingarelli) is given as equivoco, confusion. So “something heard or understood for something else”. Same but different, if you get my drift.

Then there are Italian expressions used in English with diametrically different meanings (we can discuss the English to Italian shift some other time). Dining al fresco is one. In English, this sounds wonderful and most refined: fine china, sparkling crystal glasses, and the best silver while seated at the table under the pergola, while in Italian it would be much more prosaic: meal-times “in the slammer”.

If you think this is all getting a bit eccentric and you are tempted to switch off and read something more enjoyable — just hold on a second. For the word eccentrico offers another example. Its first meaning in Italian is “off-centre”, so un disegno eccentrico can merely mean something that is not symmetrical rather than something that is “over the top”. Which reminds me that someone told me the other day that the latter expression was a British figure of speech but I find defined in Webster’s without the chiefly Brit. gloss. Which, of course, brings us to another topic — this time the proverbial two cultures separated by a common language. But we can discuss that another time. Eventualmente.