But later, this small episode made me think more deeply about the process of language learning. As a writer, language is the medium through which you move most comfortably and if you're not careful you can fall into the trap of thinking that language and thoughts are the same thing: that expressing a more complex idea is simply a matter of learning more (English) words. First you learn sad, happy, angry, scared and later outraged, bashful, diffident, ambivalent. Talkative isn't quite right? Try garrulous, loquacious, chatty, conversational. In theory, you might know that all languages have their own particular set of nuances and capabilities. You might understand that often a non-English phrase is more or less elegant than the English version, like two images of the same thing that don't quite map onto each other. You might even read books in other languages and notice certain details that seem to have fallen into the gap between the original and the translation. (The same phenomenon as watching a subtitled TV show with a friend who knows both languages, and who keeps pointing out to you how rubbish the subtitles are). But perhaps it's only when you end up split between two languages, as most people in the world are, that you start to fully appreciate how different the mood, emotions, history, culture and sense of place belonging to one language can be from another. So, in celebration of all the things that the English language can't do, as well as the things it can, here are five of my favourite Italian words which I can't use in my writing because they're in the wrong language...
1. adeguarsi, meaning to change or adapt yourself to something: a challenge, a difficult situation, an altered set of circumstances, or even 'the times'. Literally meaning 'to adequate oneself'.
I first heard this phrase on a TV programme when a character was talking about a change in circumstances and the difficulties that he anticipated: 'Devo adeguarmi alla situazione,' he said. The meaning was instantly clear. To 'adequate yourself' to a situation is not just to adapt or conform to it, but to attempt to rise to that situation, to make yourself equal to it, perhaps with a bit of resignation about the change. Which is a much more clumsy way of putting it than adeguarsi.
2. meno male, meaning (roughly) 'Thank goodness!', 'just as well' or 'luckily'.
On paper, meno = less and male = bad, but that doesn't match the useful economy of this phrase. You can put it at the end of a sentence when you want to add a note of relief to what you've just said: 'Her house burned down, but she'd taken out insurance. Meno male.' Or at the start, to mean something like 'Just as well that...' For bonus points, add it to something someone else has just said: 'She finally broke up with her boyfriend.' 'Meno male.'
3. boh! / beh! Interjections that mean, respectively, something like doubt/incredulity and doubt/ disapproval. Also, sometimes, 'I don't know'.
People often claim these words are untranslatable, which isn't strictly true. But it's certainly the case that translating them doesn't take account of the myriad different situations in which they can be deployed to express various kinds of doubt. It's the kind of understatement that British English, for all its indirectness, doesn't really have.
4. rendersi conto, roughly meaning 'to realise' but in the specific sense of taking account of something which you hadn't previously appreciated or understood.
There's another way, in Italian, to say 'notice/realise' (accorgersi), but when you say mi sono reso conto (I realised) you are also, sometimes, talking about a deeper sense of realisation and understanding. In English, you can say things like 'I gradually realised what was happening' or 'I understood and properly took account of his situation for the first time', but that's about as elegant as it gets.
5. prego, figurati, ci mancherebbe, etc. Various phrases for when you want to graciously brush away someone's thanks.
If the owner of a bar rushes over to clean your table as you sit down, or offers you a glass of tap water without asking because he saw you hadn't ordered a drink and thought you might be thirsty, and you thank him profusely, he might say 'Prego' or 'Figurati' or 'Ci mancherebbe'. Roughly meaning that you don't need to thank him because he takes it for granted that he should do whatever he just did for you. Whereas in British English, we're limited to various awkward phrases like 'Don't be silly' or 'Of course' or 'I'm more than happy to' or 'It was no trouble'. Which are so unwieldy that they draw even more attention to your kind gesture, and the other person often then feels compelled to say something like 'No, no, but it really was kind of you', and then we end up replying, with even more emphasis, 'No, no, of course, don't be silly' - and if we're not careful we get stuck in an endless loop... A simple figurati! is much more straightforward.
Those are just a few of my favourite Italian words that don't (quite) exist in English. Let me know your favourite untranslatable phrases in any language. And if you have a better English translation for sfondare, meno male, ci mancherebbe or boh I would be very grateful to hear that too...