False Friends : Part One

In socially up-market Italy you can have lots of different sorts of friends: amici del cuore or close friends, amici d’infanzia or childhood friends, amici per la pelle (literally “for the skin” i.e. close) or best friends, and amici di penna or pen pals. But amici falsi (false friends) are a trial both in real life and in teaching English. Together with Englitaliano (more of that later) they form an absolute nuisance for teachers and students alike and are to be avoided at all costs. It sometimes helps to learn a language with no hooks at all, like Basque or Hungarian for example.


As false friends (or trabocchetti = snares as they are called in Italian) seems to crop up in life as well as in translations all the time here are some that are particularly insidious

“Un posto suggestivo” is an evocative place in Italian but a suggestive place in English may mean the back-alleys of Soho after 2 am.

I am a “professore” in Italy but a plain teacher in the UK, not a university lecturer.

A “toast” in Italian will mean a toasted sandwich, not a toasted slice of bread as in English.

Similarly an Italian sandwich is much more elaborate than an English one which would translate as tramezzino in Italian.

A “vocabolario” is a dictionary in Italian, not a vocabulary.

A “cosa triviale” is a vulgar affair in Italian, not a trivial matter!

“Ultimamente” is recently, not ultimately.

A “voto” is a mark you get at school not a politician’s vote.

A “straniero” is a foreigner (i.e. alien), not a stranger.

A “simpatico” friend is a good fun one, not one sympathetic to your problems.

To “ricoverare” someone is to take him/her to hospital, not to recover (e.g.) from a road accident which is ricuperare.

“Parenti” are, of course, relatives – not your mum and dad, who are “genitori”.

A “preservativo” is a rubber Johnny (as we used to say), not a preservative which is a “conservativo”.

And all that’s just a few on the last page of my list! Go to http://www.reference.tjtaylor.net/false-friends/ for more.

Englitaliano is another linguistic headache. I’ve got round it by treating it as a peculiarly Italian phenomenon and not by correcting students, in much the same way as French expressions enter English all the time and are constantly mispronounced and misapplied.

The latest item to enter this confounded list is “service tax”. Goodness knows what it will eventually turn out to be – probably another tax on existing ones in Europe’s most heavily taxed country…

The fact is that if Italians can find and misapply an English word where their own ones could be utilised they will do so in a mistaken attempt to increase credibility and authority in the definition. An example of this is the use of the verb “stalking” (with the silent L noisily pronounced in Italian) used all the time in Italy (and which offence has entered into the criminal code only quite recently) when “perseguitare” or “braccare” could quite equally be applied.

There are so many other examples of this abominable usage of English words in Italian. Meeting, Review, chance, mission, come to my mind in just one second…and all the time if you watch RAI news.

One of the worse practices is the way that English words are cut in half when “translated” into Italian. Night-club becomes “night”, basket-ball becomes “basket”, self-service becomes “self”, for example.

For me, however, the most despicable example of Italinglese is the Italianization of English words. “Testare”, for example, means “to test”. But take “testo” by itself and it reverts back to its original meaning as “text”. As for “ciattare” !!!

France, of course, with its “academie” has another point of view with “ordinateur” (computer) as a prime example. But then the French…

PS Traduttore traditore = translator traitor…



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