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McElroy is continuing this series of interviews that highlight some of the characteristics of languages used in doing business globally. This month, we look at Italian.

What are some pitfalls to avoid, specific to this language, a client should be aware of when translating into this language?

For a client who wishes to enter a foreign market, it is very important to consult with someone who has a good knowledge of the culture of the countries to which the products and their relative documents are addressed. Therefore, the main challenge for clients and translators is to deal with cultural differences between countries that sometimes can be very subtle.

For example, work-related slogans and corporate mission statements can be easily misunderstood in different locales. It is important to keep in mind that certain aspects of American work culture and ethics may be considered unusual in other countries.

From a linguistic point of “you,” it is important to specify who the target audience will be, as Italian uses three different forms to address the readers or audience: the generic infinitive, the plural “voi,” used to be more direct, or the singular “tu,” which is used instead to give an informal tone to the writing.

It is also important to know that in Italian all nouns have a gender, and that articles and adjectives must agree with nouns in gender and number. Therefore, the translation of some English generic expressions such as “the device/s” requires more space in the Italian translation, “il dispositivo/i dispositivi,” which sometimes raises a problem when space limits are set.

What are characteristics of this language that are unique or different from English and/or other languages?

As mentioned above, in Italian there are three different ways of addressing the readers of a document; therefore it is important to know what type of audience will read the translated documents.

In addition, Italian makes use of articles and prepositions much more frequently than English. For example, “User Manual” is translated into “Il manuale dell’utente.” As can be easily guessed, the Italian translation expands in a significant way with respect to the original English, which often causes problems and ambiguities when the translation needs to stay within certain character limits. This restraint is quite common in the translation of software strings.

Another main difference between English and Italian is the fact that Italian nouns are either masculine or feminine and adjectives and articles must agree with nouns. For example “the new device” is translated into “Il nuovo dispositivo,” but “the new machine” is translated into “La nuova macchina.”

How do these characteristics make it important to use properly qualified, professional translators?

A qualified, professional translator has a very good knowledge of both the source and the target languages and cultures. Living in the two countries for a sufficient amount of time is therefore essential to understand their different societies and master their idioms. This way, a professional translator is able to point out to a client any cultural issues that may require some adjustments in the translated text. This is important, for example, when it comes to translating concepts such as striving for excellence and leadership, from English into Italian. Another difference that a professional can point out pertains to visual images, which are often used in ads and software. For example, photos of baseball should be replaced by photos of soccer games, which are definitely more appealing to the Italian public.

In addition, a professional translator is aware of possible new trends of the languages, keeps up with the introduction of new foreign terms into the target language, especially in the high-tech and business sectors, and uses several reference sources when it comes to translating new topics, such as terrorism. A professional translator offers all these skills and ultimately keeps up with the new software tools especially developed for our profession.

Do you know examples where translation or localization mistakes have occurred with this language, such as problems with text expansion, date/time formats, counting errors, character encoding, etc., or mistakes with the translation itself? Perhaps you’ve been asked to review a translation that did not seem to be the work of a properly qualified, professional translator.

Since the Italian translation of English text expands by about 30-40%, during the QA phase of localized strings, I have often encountered enormous problems with cutoff strings, which were simply replaced by dots…in addition, the use of several codes in the software localization business can often cause the wrong order of words in a sentence, and lack of agreement between nouns and adjectives, if the translator is not familiar with the process.

Another example can be taken from a typical technical manual, where the word “replace” is sometimes used with the meaning of “to put back” (in Italian “riposizionare”) and sometimes it means “to substitute” (in Italian “sostituire”). As an editor, I have seen many cases in which a certain cover that had been disassembled in step 1 simply needed to be put back (replaced) as described in step 5, but the translator used “sostituire” (substitute) instead of “riposizionare” (put back).

Other typical examples are mistranslation of dates. For example 2/3/2008 becomes 3/2/2008 in Italian, as the day precedes the month.

Relate an example or two where you found a website page or form difficult to use because it was poorly localized into your language/locale. How might a business lose money, prestige or incur legal risk due to this bad translation?

Most of the problems I have encountered with localized websites had to do with typos and meaningless sentences. My impression was that the text was either translated in a hurry, and evidently not rechecked, or it was done by a machine. Since a website reflects the professionalism or lack of professionalism of a firm, if a company presents itself through poorly localized websites, it can easily lose possible customers. If a website is accurate and easy to read and use, it suggests that the corporation it represents looks for quality and has therefore relied on professional agencies and translators who pay attention to details.

If possible, provide one example of a particular phrase or concept that only a properly qualified, professional translator would be able to correctly communicate.

It is often hard to translate software strings from English into Italian, especially when the English text uses adjectives and/or past participles of verbs that require different translations in Italian due to the gender and number of the words they refer to.

For example:
  • an Album
  • a Folder
  • Selected

In Italian "album" is masculine and "cartella" (folder) is feminine, therefore "selected" needs to be translated into “selezionato” when it refers to "album" and “selezionata” when it refers to "cartella". Since translators need to respect the codes provided by the software developer, a skilled professional will need to work around the given placeholders and words.

In our case, the solution would be to use a noun (Selection of) that can be used for both album and cartella to avoid the past participle (Selected) that would require different gender agreements with album and cartella. A possible translation would be:

  • Selezione di
  • un album
  • una cartella (equivalent of “Selection of an album or a folder”)

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