Learning Italian: Three Italian Phrases that Don’t Translate Well into English

Living in a foreign language takes work. It is never boring, sometimes amusing and often downright appalling. Verb tenses, grammatical errors, unclear phrases … It can overwhelm.

But at some point the Italianisms creep into your mind and attach to the dull gray matter in your brain, rendering you … no, not bilingual … but actually questioning your inherent mother-language skills.

Does that even make sense? See. I’ve lost English already.

Here are three Italian phrases I’ve learned, unconsciously translated into English and sounded simply silly when I said them.

1. Per me è lo stesso. Normal English speakers, aka, those of you who speaka the English good, would say, “It doesn’t matter to me” or “Whatever you want” when asked your preferences. Others of us – I know I’m not alone here – translate literally. I made this gaffe last summer when I was visiting my parents in Texas.

Mom: “Where do you want to eat lunch?”

Me and my pitiful Italian/English translation: “For me it’s the same!”

She looked at me strangely and said, “You don’t care?” I grinned, “Nope, Mom. I don’t care.”

2. Chiudi il televisione. A few weeks ago I unwittingly told my husband to “close the TV.” I credited his amused grin to the fact he wanted to continue watching the news. When I called him on it, he said, “You don’t know what you told me?” He shrugged, reached for the remote and said, “I’ll just close the TV, then.” He consoled me with a “Don’t worry. I can teach you English, too.” Note:The proper verb in Italian is spegnere, or switch off, but many Italians interchangeably use the verb “chiudere.”

3. Along those same lines, I have also been known to say “the gas is open,” when I really want to say “the gas is on (on the stove, for example.) Once again the verb accendere, or turn on, should be used, but most Italians use the verb aprire just as often.

All jokes aside, there is a part of me that is proud of these blunders. Apparently there is some part of the Italian language that is taking control and – aside from the indecent butchering of my own mother tongue – it shows my hard work is paying off.

Have you ever made bloopers like these when learning a foreign language? What did you say? How did your English-speaking comrades react?

16 Responses
  1. Pat

    “For me it’s the same!” Italian Americans over the last century and a half in the U.S. had the tendency to translate certain Italian expressions literally into English, the other first generation speakers knowing what the intended meaning was. Hence in Italo American communities, depending on region, etc. many of these direct translations have assimilated into common spoken English. You could say “For me it’s the same” where I live and everyone would not only know what you said but not realize that it was not proper English. I myself didn’t realize it until I read this blog entry. Here a common expression would be “For me it’s the same no matter what we do” translating, “I don’t care what we do.”
    That is so interesting. I love to get your IA perspective on things like this. I am *so* American, you know! 🙂

  2. I think I finally figured out what I *maybe* used to say instead of “for me it’s the same.” Ready? Same difference. Another weird saying to be sure, but I’m pretty sure that’s what I used to say.

    P doesn’t say “chiudere” the TV, so we’re cool there. Of course I’ve also heard Americans say “close the lights” (although not where I’m from) so maybe it’s not that far off for certain areas of America either.

    I do a lot of literal translations to myself (you know I don’t actually speak English all that much anymore!) like “It rains on the wet” just because I find them funny, but nothing else is coming to mind right now….
    I am pretty sure I get the “chiudere” from my FIL! He is wearing off on me. he he. I said something really odd to my sister on the phone last night, too. I called her and there was static on the line and I said, “It’s not working, the phone.” Instead of “the phone’s not working.” Gah!
    michelle of bleeding espresso’s last blog post..love thursday: bringing home the bacon

  3. maryann

    These kind of things are fun and helpful 🙂
    Thanks, Maryann. Glad you enjoy them.
    maryann’s last blog post..Dining With Johnny Depp

  4. It happens all the time. Not only that, but I can hear my friends are also rearranging the verbs, adjectives and nouns in English to fit Italian grammar. I catch myself doing it, too. When writing you can catch it in editing, but in speech, well, the bird small quickly flew above there…
    I know. It so funny how our minds somehow confuse one language’s grammar with another language’s vocab. It is fun when you around people who “get that it is funny.”
    Judith in Umbria’s last blog post..Giusy Ferrero: hot and new

  5. joanne at frutto della passione

    I deliberately use *I know my chickens* (from the Italian *conosco i miei polli*) because it makes me laugh and I have older relatives back in Canada that say things like *guarda bene* (for the English *it looks good*) So it really happens both ways.
    That is funny. I know it works both ways – I hear P slip up all of the time! And I like knowing my chickens, too…
    joanne at frutto della passione’s last blog post..Eurochocolate revisited

  6. Always such a treat learning another language.

    Though not Italian, one of the funniest things I ever witnessed was in French class in High School.

    Obviosuly the word *moi*, meaning me, is a fairly easy word, learned on like what the 2nd or 3rd day??

    Well, in second year French, we were reading from the textbook and one of my not so astute classmates came to the word *moi* (which is pronouned like *mwah*) and said *moy*.

    Yeah, *MOY*???!!!!

    We all fell off our chairs laughing. Teacher got soooo mad at him, she kicked him out of class for the rest of the day.

    True Story.
    Wow. I wonder how he’d say “oui?”
    My Mélange’s last blog post..Travel Photo Friday : Greece is the Word

  7. carol

    I too grew up hearing (and using) *close the lights* and *open the TV* from my immigrant grandparents.I always thought it was just that my grandparents were a little odd. Now I know.
    He he… seems your grandparents were perfectly normal Calabrians!

  8. When I am speaking English I throw random Italian words into my conversation without realising. Normally it’s just ‘aspetta’ or ‘cosa’ but still I didn’t mean to say them in Italian…
    Sometimes when I am not thinking and I am speaking English I say ‘Shall we take a coffee?’ Because in Italian I often say ‘prendiamo’ This really sounds odd.
    That is cute, Leanne. Aspetta is a HUGE one I tell my family all of the time in the states. LOL. Maybe they can learn Italian, too, eh??
    Leanne in Italy’s last blog post..Cinema review; Vicky Cristina Barcelona

  9. Hi Cherrye…I am in Italy now, for the next 10 days…Liguria…I speak such little Italian, but getting by..but forget verbs etc..just try and ask for something..I normally end up talking with my hands..:-)
    Welcome to Italy, Anne! Using the hands worked for me for years!! Still does when I am listening in dialect! :0
    Anne’s last blog post..Taking a break…….

  10. Carla

    So funny! 🙂 It happened and still happens to me and my family/relatives here talk like this (translating literally)…Also like Leanne said, throwing in a random Italian word (in an English conversation) every now and then…You don’t even know all the laughs we get listening my aunts talk! I agree with Pat, could be an Italian-American thing…or perhaps just being in Italy far too long, but I definitely think it shows your hard work of learning Italian is paying off by making these blunders… 🙂
    Thanks, Carla! Imagine how strange it is for people without a history of Italian language … they seriously think I’m losing my mind!!

  11. I always heard “close the lights” or “pass the vacuum” growing up from my stepdad who was raised by Italian immigrant parents.

    My maternal grandad – English but raised in SE Pennsylvania, had equally unique idioms which I always took for granted.
    Like “pass the vaccum” over the floor?? I could *so* see my husband saying that. These bilingual idioms are charming, aren’t they?
    jenn’s last blog post..bad bad kittehs

  12. I butcher French. I used to speak it better as a kid, but lost much going to school.

    I’ve butchered the English also. I always mix my metaphors/

    Good new is that I amuse those around when I speak either French or English.
    Keeping it interesting, at least, Nadine!!
    Nadine’s last blog post..Virtual Personal Assistant

  13. Lauren

    My grandmother says “Close the light!” she’s not even the one from Italy, her parents were!

    my sister and I have been making fun of her for years for saying it, now I know its just an Italian thing.

    she once said “You just wanna stay your face open” when she meant “You just want to stay awake” too. is that just a blunder on her part or could that have some base in Italian too?
    Ha. I’ve never heard you just wanna stay your face open, but it sounds like something that could be translated directly. That is fun. Thanks for sharing!

  14. nck

    I know this post is old, but I HAD to respond!

    I’ve been saying “close the this” and “close the that” all my life…..I thought I was the only one! “Come on , close the TV!” still cracks my wife up!!!!

    Ha! That’s funny. My friend’s little boy (Irish) asked his mom to “conserve” something for him the other day instead of “putting it up.” Too cute.

  15. Information on Italian phrases or phrases that don’t translate instantly into English | Posts

    […] Learning Italian: Three Italian Phrases that Don’t Translate Well into English  – Thursday, November thirteenth, 2008 – blogger: Cherrye Moore – Supply: My Bella Vita – “Calabria: Take the Toe by the Horns!” […]

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