Italian You Won’t Learn in Class: 12 Expressions You Can’t Translate into English

Nov 12, 2016

Carrara 4

Parole intraducibili

Untranslatable Words

A guest post by Martin Gani

After living in Italy for over three decades, I understand and use some expressions as a matter of course, but when it comes to translating them I'm stuck for an English equivalent carrying the same depth of meaning or precise nuance. Here are a dozen examples:

  1. Abbiocco — drowsiness; feeling of sleepiness, especially after a sizeable meal, e.g. Dopo pranzo mi viene un'abbiocco tremendo. After lunch a feeling of tremendous sleepiness comes over me
  2. Apericena – a combination of aperitivo (aperitif) and cena (dinner) indicating a popular social activity involving pre-dinner drinks accompanied by free food; this may well extend into dinner, e.g. Ci vediamo per un'apericena sta sera? Shall we meet for a pre-dinner drink this evening?
  3. Cazzeggiare — whiling away the time with meaningless or unproductive activities  or pranks. e.g. Non gli piace cazzeggiare tutto il giorno.  He doesn't like futzing around all day.
  4. Ciofeca — of uncertain origin, the word describes a poor quality drink  or any watery food like a soup, e.g. Ti è piaciuto il caffè?  Did you like the coffee? Era una ciofeca. 
  5. Meriggiare — derives from pomeriggio (afternoon), meaning to have a rest or siesta in the shade after lunch. It also refers to cattle or other farm animals resting in the shade in the afternoon, e.g. Mi piace meriggiare dopo pranzo. I like to have a siesta after lunch.
  6. Palestrato — a man with rippling muscles, derived from palestra (gym)
  7. Pantofolaio – derived from pantofole (slippers), it nicely describes someone who likes to have a quiet life or often stays at home; a couch potato. if you like, e.g. Giorgio è un pantofolaio, non esce mai. Giorgio prefers a quiet life, he never goes out.
  8. Qualunquismo — from qualunque (anyone), describes a philosophy of life showing disinterest and apathy regarding politics and social issues, e.g. Oggi il qualunquismo è una malattia sociale. Today 'qualunquismo' is a social disease.
  9. Raccapricciante — gruesome, bloodcurdling, horrific. Although all define it accurately, the long Italian word with five syllables sounds even more horrific, e.g. L'uccisione del ladro era fu veramente raccapricciante. The killing of the thief was truly horrific.
  10. Realtà — can be translated as "reality" but in Italian it has a more outreaching scope, describing particular conditions in a particular place, e.g. La nostra realtà è molto diversa dalle città grandi. Our situation (referring to the conditions in our town) is very different from what happens in large cities.
  11. Roccambolesco – an adjective describing an incredible, high-adrenaline, audacious, adventurous occurrence. e.g. il nostro viaggio in Turchia è stato roccambolesco. Our trip in Turkey was truly adventurous
  12. Valorizzare – literally to value something, used in the sense of adding value or worth to something, e.g. Bisogna valorizzare il territory. It is necessary to add value to, enhance, promote the local economy.

GaniMartin Gani, a British journalist and author of 16 books,  has lived in Italy for some 30 years. His latest book is Learning Italian, available as an e-book.



Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language, now available as an audiobook.


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