This from Caroline over the weekend:
Something to cheer you up: I’ve finally realised that it doesn’t matter what the translation of a word or a sentence is, it just matters that you understand it!
But, club members will be spluttering into their cornflakes as they read this, how could you possibly understand a word or sentence without being able to translate it??
I could give you plenty of ways – for example, from its use in a context. Italians say ‘Ciao’, when? When they’re greeting someone, and when they’re leaving, right? So it could be both ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’. There, ‘understood’, at least partially.
But lascia stare the complexities of ‘understanding’, what about the ‘translating’ part of things?
Decades back, before I was wise enough to know better, and before ‘machine translation’ destroyed the market, I used to earn a few extra lire taking on casual work translating from Italian into English.
Understanding what the Italian original meant could be a challenge, especially as clients would pass me the kind of text they couldn’t translate themselves or get their secretaries to do.
But it wasn’t the main problem. What did have me cursing a lot of the time was the requirement to render something into respectable English that, frankly, had no right to exist in English. The pointless, pompous, overlong, and intentionally difficult-to-read style of Italian formal writing, for example.
I’m assuming you have no idea what I mean by that, so think of it like this: you’re a professional Italian person and so have spent, or will spend, years, perhaps decades, learning to write in a particular style, one that is utterly divorced from the way anyone ever speaks, with the primary purpose that this will identify you as a competent professional worthy of extravagant fees.
Think a really abstruse legal document in English, multiplied in terms of needless complexity by 99, and you’ll get the idea. That’s the way professional Italians like to craft a formal letter.
But then they decide to translate it! See the problem?
I was reading a book review in French the other day, I don’t recall the details, but the prize-winning novel told the story of a colonial (black, African) solider during the first world war. It was written by an African writer I’d never heard of, and translated from the original (African language) into French by someone else I’d never heard of.
The writer and the translator BOTH won an award for their efforts. Why? Not because they were such good friends and decided to share the credit, I’m sure.
Writing a novel (a communicative act aimed at a particular audience) and translating it (so that it will make sense to an entirely different audience) are distinct tasks. For the work of translating to actually qualify as ‘art’ itself, and so be worthy of a prize, by definition it will be a very different task from what the author did.
In effect, the translator is creating her own ‘version’ of the original, a job which is far, far more complex and creative than what Google Translate might do for you.
Conclusion? If you think learning Italian means being able to translate what you read/hear first, before learning to speak, interact, write and so on, you are barking up entirely the wrong tree!
Speaking and writing basically involve using ‘chunks’ of language IMPERFECTLY to signal your intent. With practice you can be reasonably sure that your time and energy, and that of your listener/reader, will be used economically, and hopefully effectively, but no one ever speaks or writes perfectly. It’s a sliding scale, see? And eventually you’ll reach the point at which there’s no sense in investing more time to be able to do things ‘better’.
You need to know when and why people say ‘Ciao’, only to the degree that you can use that word for your own communicative needs. At least at the start, no thesaurus is necessary. ‘Ciao’ = ‘I’m here’, or ‘I’m off now’. E’ basta.
Translating isn’t language learning, and even if it fascinates you, assuming your primary aim is to speak/write/read/listen efficiently and effectively, don’t let it distract you from that.
Back to ‘understanding’, and ‘Ciao’, to finish off, today.
People often write to ask me why I begin these articles/emails with ‘Buondì’, a phrase they tell me their Italian teacher says is wrong, or not used, or Latin, or something, so what the hell do I think I’m doing???
Well, I do it because, where I live in Italy, that’s what people typically say. Italian is nothing if not varied in the way that it’s used from one place to another, so whose version SHOULD I use, and why? Sorry, but it’s not my job to impose a sanitised version of the language on people (an unfortunate priority of the Italian education system). Vive la difference, I say!
But anyway, WHY do people here in Bologna say ‘Buondì’ (literally, ‘good day’) when they could say ‘Buongiorno’ (literally, ‘good day’)?
And there you have it. The translation/understanding problem again. Do we need to know why? No, just to know what to say and how to react. But the ‘why’ can be fascinating, if arcane.
‘Ciao’ is for friends and family members. It’s casual.
‘Buongiorno’ is much more formal and respectful – use it to show the respect that’s due, when respect is due. Or sarcastically, to imply that someone can go to hell as far as you’re concerned.
Mid-way between ‘Buongiorno’ and ‘Ciao’ is ‘Salve’, which avoids the problem of being too informal or too formal. But not entirely, as when respect is due, respect is due, and ‘Salve’ would therefore be disrespectful, though not as in-you-face rude as ‘Ciao’.
A common situation – this happens to me ALL THE TIME – I meet a neighbour in the street and say ‘Ciao’, she replies with ‘Buongiorno’, so I have to add (signalling that I understood my erroneous lack of respect and wish to make ammends) ‘Buongiorno’.
Or vice versa. She ‘Ciao’s me and (thinking in English) I reply, absently-mindedly, with ‘Buonogiorno’, meaning that she needs to rush out a ‘Buongiorno’ to avoid upsetting me. Not that I would care, but she doesn’t know that.
I can say ‘Good morning’ to my kids, and often do. But I’d never, or shouldn’t say ‘Buongiorno’ to them. It would be laughable.
See? Italian and English work differently. You CAN translate from one to the other, but imperfectly and with masses of effort. And why would you bother, when a little exposure to what people actually DO in various contexts solves the language-learning problem?
It’s widely used (here) as a quick-and-easy solution to the ‘Ciao’/’Buongiorno’ condundrum. Everyone involved knows it to be a time-saver, so won’t use it if what they actually want to convey is the appropriate level of formality or informality.
The bank teller recognises me and greets me with ‘Buondì’, then uses ‘Ciao’ when phoning a colleague for help resolving my problem, and finally, as I’m heading out the door, ‘Buongiorno’ to the next client in the queue, a fur-wrapped and bejeweled lady of eighty or so years.
Caroline says “it doesn’t matter what the translation of a word or a sentence is, it just matters that you understand it”.
Caroline is right.