“Imagine That!” in the Italian Language

Mar 12, 2012

Blog figura


Just imagine!

For years when my Italian friends punctuated our conversations with the exclamation, “Figurati!”, I loosely translated the phrase as “Go figure!”  While I wasn’t completely off the mark,  I didn’t get it quite right. Depending on the context, figurati or si figuri translates as “Imagine that,” “Not at all,”  “Sure,” “My pleasure” or “Ridiculous!”  My dictionary adds the quaint-sounding “Fancy that!”

Whenever you try speaking figurativamente (figuratively) in Italian, you have to be careful. Unfortunately, there are lots of ways in which you can seem  una figuraccia (bad figure), fare una cattiva figura or una figura barbina (cut a poor figure), fare una brutta figura (give a bad impression) or fare la figura dello stupido (make a fool of oneself).

For instance, you might make yourself look (fare la figura di) like all sorts of things: un ignorante (ignoramus), ficcanaso (busybody, from the words for “stick your nose in”), ingenuo (simpleton) or taccagno (tightwad). The masculine il figuro translates as knave, cad or scoundrel but is always preceded by an adjective (preceduto da aggettivo), as in un losco figuro (a sinister figure), un triste figuro (a sad figure) or  un oscuro figuro (an obscure figure).

Then there are those who fare la figura del signore (act like a perfect gentleman), which doesn’t mean behaving in a certain  way per figura (for show only). In a classic anecdote, the rich owner of a chocolate manufacturing company (fabbricante di cioccolato) was living in Turin in 1823, at the time of King Carlo Felice di Savoia. This nouveau-riche (nuovo ricco)  businessman used to go around the streets of the town in a carriage more sumptuous (in una carrozza più sontuosa) than the king’s.  Infuriated,  Carlo Felice declared, “Quando esco in carrozza non voglio fare la figura di un cioccolataio!”  (When I go out in a carriage, I don’t want to look like a chocolate-maker!)   

Of course, we all want to fare un figurone or una figurona (literally, make a big figure or a wonderful impression).  Since this may not always be possible,  what do you say when someone makes you feel or act like a fool (un fesso)? 

Che figura!  (What a disgrace! How embarrassing!)

Words and Expressions

figura di prua –- figurehead

figura retorica –- figure of speech

figurabile –- imaginable

figurina –- picture-card

collezione o album di figurine –- picture card collection or album  

figurinista –- fashion designer

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. 

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