Italy Roundtable: False Friends & a False Sense Security

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It was a pleasure to revive the Italy Blogging Roundtable. Now, imagine my delight to announce that we have a new contributor. Michelle Fabio , a long-time friend and blogger, joins the roundtable. I know she will bring her trademark blend of wit and thoughtful analysis to our group.

This month’s theme is TRANSLATION.

When I was young, the word pithy was something I heard. I created my own meaning for it, which was completely different from the original meaning. Pithy was my ideal description of an apple with a slightly soft texture. It has a grainy texture. Unaware of the contents, you bite into it and want to spit out all of it.

Pithy, in other words.

(Yes, I still do use it this way. Even though I know better.

This can happen in one’s native language. If you have the “this word sounds like it should be X but it actually means Y”, experience, it is possible to get very complicated when trying to translate between languages.

False Friends

One of my Italian teachers warned me early in my studies to watch out for falsi amici (or “false friends”) – Italian words that are similar enough to English words to make us assume they mean the exact same thing. Sometimes the assumption that the words are the same thing is fine. However, many times the meanings of words can be confusing and cause confusions.

These are some common falsi amici examples:

  • camera You might think it means camera, but it is not. It can also refer to room.
  • fattoria You might think it means factory. But it doesn’t. It can also be translated as farm.
  • libreria You will not be able to go into this storefront if you don’t have your local library card. It’s a bookstore.
  • peperoni You might think you are ordering cured salami with your pizza. You are ordering peppers.
  • stampa– This is the way to send a postcard. However, this word can also be used to refer to press or print.

There are many lists of Italian fake friends online. This is the longest list I found. It can be accessed by using the alphabet tabs at the side. The list of falsi amici that are causing you trouble can be confusing at the beginning. However, as you get more fluent in the language, the list will become shorter.

False friends are the hardest thing for me to overcome.

False sense of security

It’s no surprise that Italian culture is all around the globe. Many of us fall into a false sense security when we plan to visit Italy. These are not our fault. We’ve become so used to thinking things are certain, it’s easy to fall for these assumptions.

Partly, I began writing about Italy because I wanted people to get over their false sense of security. This would allow them to face less cultural misunderstandings and have an easier trip. It’s been a long time since I have had to give the equivalent of the “you think that you know, but don’t know” speech on many topics.

I have spoken previously about why it isn’t appropriate to say “ciao!” to everyone in Italy. It’s also not offensive when it’s used everywhere else around the world. These are just a few examples of the false sense we bring to Italy of our security.

Coffee Italian

Although I am not a coffee aficionado like my friends, I don’t love Starbucks. Although it is a “any port in an storm” coffee stop for anyone who wants to traverse any espresso wasteland with their coffee, I find their coffee tasteless. The thing that bothers me most about Starbucks is the way it makes us think we can speak Italian coffee.

The American latte is an espresso with lots and milk. However, the term itself means “milk” in Italian. A latte in an Italian bar will come with a glass of milk.

Another complaint about coffee-related language is the presence of crispy cookies in the vicinity of the cash register. You’ll often ask for “one Biscotti” in the U.S.

It’s possible that Italian baristas have come around to this, giving the benefit of doubt to non-Italians and only handing over one cookie despite the awkward phrasing. But it’s another time when we can be proud to complete a transaction, only to discover later about the error.

You can get very picky and look at the ounces in Starbucks drinks. The “venti,” which in Italian means “twenty,” has 24 ounces, while the “trenta,” or “thirty”, has 31 ounces.

This drives me crazy as a detail person.

These are minor issues, but they’re not major. It’s not difficult to imagine how simple it would have been for these things to be correctly translated into U.S. culture. Is it intentional? Why reinvent the wheel?

Transactional Italian

There was a campaign for Visa check cards many years ago that suggested anyone who paid cash for any item was either a luddite or a fool.

I am one of those Americans who rarely carries cash in the U.S. but that mindset is not common in Italy – a country Visa’s commercials praise. Yes, larger stores and hotels accept plastic but many places won’t. Or they’ll tell you that they won’t because it’s too complicated or because cash payments make it less trackable.

Cash is the king in Italy.

Food Italian

Dining is the most dangerous area of an Italy trip that we take with a false sense security.

We have all been to Italian restaurants in other countries, and many claim that they are authentic. So we believe we know how to navigate an Italian menu. My introductory Italian students used to say that they would not starve in Italy no matter what happened. They knew so many food terms.

True to a certain extent. However, it is true that many Italian restaurants outside of Italy cater more to local customers than they try to be authentically Italian. My local Italian restaurant serves spaghetti and meatballs, a dish that isn’t on the Italian menu. Fettucine alfredo, another American invention, is loosely based on an innocuous dish that Italians offer to expectant mothers to ease morning sickness. As mentioned, children who are excited to try their first pizza in Italy will be shocked when their “peperoni pizza” turns out to have – gasp! – Vegetables instead of salami.

It works both ways

Italians are familiar with many English words. You may be reading this article on “il Computer” but they have twisted them into unique phrases that are uniquely their own. They refer to basketball as “basket”, and smoking is used to describe a tuxedo jacket. When they say “farefooting” (literally to make footing), they are implying that they are jogging.

These are the things that will make them feel like they’re in trouble when they travel to English-speaking countries. It’s just like how we confuse ourselves with Italian words.

Even if we pay close attention to translations, there are many mistakes we can make. The confusion only increases when so many words are merged between our languages. You won’t have all the falsi amici you need before you go to Italy. And you might forget to ask for “un Biscotto” instead. We all make mistakes. But, if we are conscious, we can learn from them.

You never know what you might order. Maybe you accidentally order a pizza with peppers all around it. And you’ll like it more than the spicy salami that you originally planned.

Italy Roundtable: Other Voices

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10 Responses to “Italy Roundtable – False Friends and a False Sense Of Security”

  • My boss from Calabria told me the most hilarious story about false friends. When she first met her husband’s family, they prepared a special meal for her. Naturally, she began waxing lyrical over how delicious all the food was, and especially about the fact that it was “senza preservativi”. After realizing what she had said, she was very upset!

    • Jess has the following:

      Damn! I was sure I had forgotten my best friend from my list!

      Non-Italian speakers will be able to understand that “preservativi”, in Italian, aren’t preservatives. They’re condoms. Let’s just say that food should be prepared without them.

  • Bleeding Espresso says:

    I have been known to stop by Starbucks whenever I’m in the US. I promise that the next time I do I will get a ventiquattro for you, Jess.

    • Jess has the following:

      Omigod! That would be so funny. They’d surely take revenge on you in the same way that all Starbucks baristas do: by completely ignoring the spelling of your name on the coffee cups.

  • Tabitha has the following:

    A) Thank You for including a picture of The Best. Bookstore. Ever.

    B) I have tried to explain the fettucine Alfredo to many of my family and friends, but they won’t listen. My college professor used to say that “Who is this Alfredo” and how did he get a whole country to name a dish in his honor?”

    • Jess has the following:

      Ha! It’s hilarious that your family doesn’t understand the explanation. The truth is that they may like fettucine alfredo. That’s fine. Let’s just call it what is: an Italian-American invention.

  • Caterina A said:

    Although I’m far from an expert in Italian, I do know a lot about it.

    It is an error I hear and see all the time. It’s the misuse of PANINI, it is!

    No one seems to be able to tell that ONE of these sandwiches is a PANINO and not a

    panini. Panini can be pluralized, while panino can be singular. People who don’t learn language don’t understand it, and that is a lot of people here in the US. It’s an honest mistake, I guess.

    • Jess has the following:

      Yes, that one is in the same category as the biscotto/biscotti I mentioned earlier. Although I don’t speak English, it is amusing to hear people ask for “one panini” in the U.S. It’s funny because I can hear them saying “one sandwich” inside.

  • I agree. I always find the “latte” reference hilarious. Imagine someone asking for a “latte”, in Rome, and getting a glass milk. Whoever thought of combining a hot cup of espresso with hot water to make an Americano?

    • Jess has the following:

      It’s a great question about the Americano. It’s a mystery to me as to where this name came from. I think it is Italians trying to make their espresso more like what you would get out of a drip coffee machine, which is what the Americans drink. Perhaps?


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