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What to Know About Translating from English to Italian

85 million people speak Italian, and not just in Italy. Here is what our expert Italian translator wants you to know about translating English to Italian.

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One of the most iconic “romance languages,” Italian is a close cousin to Latin. English speakers already know plenty of Italian words, from operatic and musical terms like “finale,” “sotto voce,” and “diva” to imported (and much loved) food categories like “gelato,” “spaghetti,” and “pepperoni.”

While Italian may not be the first language you explore as you translate from English to foreign languages, it’s certainly an important one to consider. 85 million people speak Italian, and not just in Italy. You’ll hear the language spoken in Switzerland, the United States, Croatia, Argentina, and Slovenia. It’s also one of the working languages of the European Union.

Going from an English translation to your target language requires more than just fluency on the part of your translators.

They need to understand your target audience, intent, and overall meaning you’re trying to convey.

We spoke with one of our Italian translators about balancing the different elements — and how to solve the most common localization challenges.

4 common challenges when translating English to Italian (and how to solve them)

Every language has its own quirks, and Italian is no exception. Translating English to Italian has a few specific challenges, which is why we interviewed one of our top-notch translators at Smartling to go over everything you need to know.

1. Italian translations will be longer

In general, a foreign language like Italian will expand text compared to its English counterpart:

EnglishItalian
PleasePer favore
Looking for something special? Search by color or collection and start cooking right away. (Le Creuset)Alla ricerca di qualcosa di particolare?Cerca per colore o collezione e mettiti subito a cucinare.
We take coffee preparation seriously. (Starbucks)Prendiamo con serietà la preparazione del caffè.

That’s why taking the time to internationalize your website and application before hiring a translation service is so important. Internationalization is the process by which developers make sure a given set of code can accommodate other language structures, such as additional currencies, changing text length, and the translations themselves.

“The biggest challenge in English to Italian translation is the length of the target text. Normally, Italian uses many more words to express concepts, and this can be a problem when there are space limits, such as on websites or mobile apps, where a final check is required to prevent the strings being truncated.” — Antonella G.

Consider how you plan to incorporate translations into your overall design and development process. With languages like Italian that expand English text, you’ll need to make sure your designers build a flexible UI. (Spoiler: Italian isn’t the only one that expands!)

The same is true for other content types, like one-pagers, flyers, or presentations. Stay flexible with the content length for document translation and work directly with your design team to make sure the text can be moved around accordingly. Otherwise, you’ll spend extra hours going back and forth over presentations or web pages after translations are completed, slowing down your overall process.

At Smartling, we integrate directly with design tools like Figma. Anyone using the platform for design can incorporate real or pseudo-translations into the design process from the beginning, fine-tuning any text expansion before development begins.

2. Italian requires more context than English

The English language uses many of the same words to mean different things. There are over 6,000 homonyms in English — words like “pen” that could mean a writing instrument or an area for animals, for example. It makes language translation into Italian more difficult because it uses more nuance and complexity to communicate ideas.

Technical translations and common e-commerce technology don’t always translate well into other languages, and Italian is one example.

“There are a few common words that are very difficult to translate into Italian because English uses them as a key that goes into all locks. Two examples of the technical language are the words ‘feature’ and ‘delivery,’ which must be adapted to the context. ‘Feature’ is a widely used word in IT terminology, and it can mean capability, functionality, or characteristic. The literal translation of ‘delivery’ can only be used in Italian to indicate a postal shipment. Therefore you have to find a meaning for the concept using other words.” — Antonella G.

That’s why providing context to your translators is so important. When you submit your request for translations in tools like Smartling, make sure you include notes on how words and phrases will be used through images of the UI, a content brief, or more extensive strategic information on brand and tone of voice. You can do this directly through Smartling’s translation tool that automatically creates a glossary and translation memory for reference.

It’s also why you’ll get to know one or two translators as extensions of your team when you use Smartling — not only to build deeper relationships across cultures but also to make sure your brand “speaks” consistently across your materials.

3. Italian is more expressive

Italian is an expressive language, born from poetry and Latin. Part of what makes Italian so beautiful to listen to is the rhythm of syntax and vocabulary. By contrast, most English-speaking audiences favor concise, short sentences that get straight to the point.

“In my opinion, the most marked cultural difference is the tone of voice. English is much more concise and brisk, while Italian is less direct in expressing itself because there is often an underlying fear of offending someone. This comes from the formality of interpersonal relationships and from the willingness of keeping a certain distance in language, at least generally speaking.” — Antonella G.

It is even more true when it comes to business writing. For accurate translations, you may have to be flexible with length. Marketing slogans are meant to be catchy, and character count limits on advertisements guarantee their directness.

EnglishItalian
The future of health is on your wrist. (Apple)Il futuro della salute e qui. Al tuo polso.
The all-new 500: welcome back, future. (Fiat)Nuova Fiat 500: Bentornato futuro.
Even richer. Even better. (McDonald’s)Ancora più ricche. Ancora più buone.

While the Italian translations may look more concise, they lose some of the meaning of the slogans due to their directness. As you think of your localization strategy holistically, consider leading with different value propositions or adding space for longer explanations of concepts that better suit Italian audiences’ cultural expectations when they interact with brands.

4. Italian requires different levels of formality

Similarly, the Italian language can be much more formal. In Italian, as in other romance languages such as French or Spanish, it’s appropriate to address spouses, friends, and peers differently than doctors, managers, customers, and professors.

EnglishItalian
You (singular, informal)Tu
You (singular, formal)Lei
You (plural, informal)Voi
You (plural, formal)Loro

“Understanding the tone of voice, especially formality, is essential. English always uses ‘you’ even in legal documents, such as terms and conditions or a privacy policy. Italian, on the other hand, is more formal. It has only recently abandoned the third person singular ‘Lei’ to address people, but this form is still used in letters and certain types of documents.” — Antonella G.

While the use of “Lei” and “Loro” is much less common today, especially for younger generations, it’s still a more formal style of language than English-speaking audiences may realize. Even if you want your brand to feel informal or friendly, you risk offending members of your audience with the wrong form, especially with traditionally formal documents like contracts, business agreements, or policies.

Translators need to strike a balance between formality that makes sense for an Italian audience and that still captures the general feeling of your brand. Remember that localization isn’t always about strict translations, but it is also about the cultural nuances required to have your content feel local and natural — and formality is one of those elements.

With Smartling, you’ll always know your translators

Focus on creating localized experiences for your customer; we’ll take care of the rest. No need for Google Translate or machine translation — whether you’re translating into Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian, German, Dutch, Japanese, Polish, Czech, Danish, Chinese, Arabic, or another of our many languages offered, we have you covered with an English translator.

Our suite of translation management technology and language services eliminates manual translation efforts, removes black-box project management, and creates high-quality translations while lowering your costs. You’ll be able to directly communicate with our professional translators on your translation team, like Antonella.

Meet the translators behind our localization engine >https://www.smartling.com/translation-services/translators/