Avoiding False Friends in Technical Translations into Italian


ATA Chronicle, June 1999

By Roberto Crivello

Technical translators have few resources to help them meet the challenge of avoiding false friends.  Usually the books that address this subject cover terms/expressions more likely to be found in general or literary translations.  See, for example, Odd Pairs and False Friends by Virginia Browne (1987, Zanichelli), Bugs & Bugbears by Virginia Browne & Gabriele Natali (1989, Zanichelli) or Tradurre l’inglese by Tim Parks (1996, Bompiani).  These resources can help translators notice how easy it is to use false friends.  Specifically, Tradurre l’inglese covers broader matters of style.  With the following examples I will try to show an effective procedure (which unfortunately can be quite time consuming) to find solutions for technical false friends not included in the usual resources.

Control/Monitoring.  Controllo can easily lead to mistranslations because it indicates either the act of regulating/commanding or the act of monitoring.  One illustrative error is translating this device monitors the voltage as questo dispositivo controlla la tensione.  The proper translation is to write questo dispositivo controlla l’andamento della tensione or, through appropriate paraphrasing, to indicate that the device is un rivelatore della tensione.  The right choice of the term to use for control: controllo, comando, or regolazione, depends greatly on the subject of the translation and on the degree of internal consistency needed.  The following is a basic guideline: A control system can be either sistema di controllo or sistema di regolazione.  If the system operates only through direct human intervention or if its output can change, you use controllo.  If the system contains automatic subsystems or if its output must remain constant, you use regolazione.  Sometimes clarity can be improved using comando rather than controllo.  For example, control circuit (of a machine; the circuit used to regulate the machine’s operation) would be circuito di comando.  Other times controllo is the established term used in the technical literature, so you need to know that you must use a “false friend”.  For example, a control valve (like a throttle valve, which regulates the flow of a liquid) is valvola di controllo.  And sometimes you do not need to translate control.  For example, almost always the context makes unequivocally clear that a control board (or control panel) is simply quadro.

More information on control systems can be found in Control Systems for Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning by Roger W.  Heines (1987, Van Nostran Reinhold) and its translation, Sistemi di regolazione per impianti di riscaldamento, ventilazione e condizionamento d’aria (1993, Tecniche Nuove).

Keyed.  This term appears often in texts on computer hardware or electrical equipment, where it refers to various designs (a specially made slot/projection in each connector, a particular arrangement of the connectors pins/receptacles, etc.) for which two connectors can be inserted into each other only in one way.  The false friend inchiavettato is a double whammy.  First of all, in the mechanical field (where keyed comes from), when you have a rotating piece secured to another piece through keys, slots, etc., the correct term is imbiettato or calettato.  Secondly, there is already a well established term for plugs and sockets, so that the proper solution is to write that the connectors are “polarizzati” (a less specialized expression, which may be more appropriate depending on the technical knowledge of the intended audience, is accoppiamento irreversibile).

You will find a wealth of technical information on power systems products, accessories, tests and measurements, standards, certifications, as well as medical information related to the electrical current, in the bticino® books (1994, 1995, Maggioli Editore).

Measurement.  Here we have an example of a word, misurazione, which is appropriate in several technical context (as in the medical field), but which becomes a false friend in a specific technical context, the electrical field.  Engineers, technicians, and technical writers use constantly misura.  The usage of misurazione in an electronic related text may signal the reader that the text has been written by an outsider.

Misura can be found in the standards published by CEI (Comitato Elettrotecnico Italiano), the Italian state agency that issues technical standards for the electrical and electronic industry.  See, for example, Norma CEI 64-8 per impianti elettrici (1994, Comitato Elettrotecnico Italiano).

Versus.  This term may accompany charts (A versus B, where A and B are two physical quantities; e.g., power versus rpm, for an engine).  A typical mistranslation is controVersus means that there is a functional relation between the two quantities; consulting English-only engineering manuals shows that it is used interchangeably with as a function of.  See, for example, Mechanical Engineers’ Handbook (1998, John Wiley & Sons).  Therefore the correct Italian translation is in funzione di.  There are other solutions.  In the body of the text you could also write l’andamento della potenza al variare del regime.  (Refer to the example.) Andamento helps to avoid other pitfalls presented by charts and related text.  Consider, for example, temperature profile.  Here profile is not profilo, but andamento.  I did not find andamento for such context in bilingual dictionaries, neither hardcopy nor on line, but it is commonly found in the heat transfer section of any physics book.  See, for example, Fisica Tecnica by Alfredo Sacchi and Giovanni Caglieris (1990, UTET).

Strain relief.  Even the most popular hardcopy technical bilingual dictionaries do not include this term; in dictionaries available on the Web I found gommino di protezione, scarico/eliminazione della trazione, and premistoppa antideformazione.  How can one determine which (if any) of these answers is right or if all of them are false friends? Here is a procedure: First, if the document you are translating does not give you enough information, use the web search engines to find relevant English pages with descriptions and illustrations.  These will allow you to figure out that strain relief indicates a special fitting (it can be quite complex) which protects a cable from rubbing, and seals it against liquids and oils.  Thus it can not be gommino (a simple rubber seal ring), eliminazione (this is an action, not a device) or premistoppa (packing, which is used for shafts).  Secondly, you can consult relevant Italian reference materials (preferably catalogs and ad pages) on cables and related devices where it would be possible to find a figure and possibly a description of a strain relief.  You find pressacavo.  (This last search can be done either on the Web or in your personal library.  A search on the Web finds a wider range of relevant pages, but using a good hardcopy publication can be much faster.  In searching the Web you would look for descriptions and figures containing a word you still do not know; the usually time consuming task of using keywords in the search engines and then screening the several sites found, becomes even more laborious.)

A good reference source for electrical standards, certifications, technologies and products per electrical systems is Annuario elettrico (Alberto Greco Editore).

Contact.  Consider Tighten until gasket contacts sealing surface on mounting base.  It may seem correct to translate it with Serrare finché la guarnizione va a contatto della superficie di tenuta sulla base.  But would you have used contatto if the writer had written instead until the gasket and the sealing surface on mounting base match (or fit together)? In this case any dictionary would allow you to get closer to the appropriate solution, because you would find combaciare.  This last term is perfect when your readers do not have a specific background in mechanics (for example, medical device operators).  If you are writing for mechanics, machinists, etc., you may prefer to write finché la guarnizione fa battuta contro la superficie di tenuta.

Disegno di macchine by Mario Speluzzi and Mario Tessarotto (1992 Hoepli) and L’ABC del fai da te by Massimo Casolaro (1996 EDIFAI) are a mine of information on specialized words and expressions in the mechanical field.

Earlier in this paper I hinted that sometimes you simply do not translate a false friend.  You recur to this solution when a “truly Italian language” rendering is required.  Consider the following example on Title.

In tables of contents sometimes there is a header with Chapter (or Figure), Title, and Page.  While Titolo (or Didascalia) is not a false friend, when you look up books originally written in Italian, you realize that this word never appears in a table of contents.  The headers Chapter or Page are also rarely used, since a table of contents is self-explanatory.

The cumulative stylistic effect of several such minor defects is the one that professionals in the translation field abhor: the translation appears stilted to the intended readers.

Next is a problem which requires technical translators to weigh the logic of the expression.  How to deal with absolute modifiers? These are expressions such as most unique, more complete, more perfect, etc.  They often appear in marketing contents where writer’s intention is to extol the products and services of a company.  Academic authors and communication consultants argue about the correctness and validity of absolute modifiers, so your solution depends on your taste (or distaste) for basically illogical expressions.  The following is a possible solution for an expression more often encountered in a “purely technical” context: Bring the vehicle to a complete stop before unlocking the attachment.  The writer wants to say: Do not unload the attachment while the vehicle is moving! To avoid the false friend and simultaneously highlight appropriately and effectively the required part of the warning, you could write Before unlocking the attachment, stop the vehicle.  (I did not provide a translation because this solution is independent of the language.)

Two excellent books which show how to analyze English texts and go beyond detecting only grammar mistakes are Style, Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M.  Williams (1990, The University of Chicago Press) and Line by Line by Claire Kehrwad Cook (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985).

Rotate (knobs, wheels, etc.).  If you frequently read technical English documents (not necessarily as a translator), it is easy to be “contaminated” by the false friend ruotare.  In a recent issue of a personal computing magazine published in Italy, in the review section of a digital camera, I read [Il display…] una volta aperto può essere ruotato e ribaltato di lato.  You only need to remember that as a transitive verb, ruotare means to cause to turn around fast and with energy.  In correct Italian, when you rotate knobs, wheels, keys, etc., you say girare.

Procedure.  This is an unlucky word.  The frequency of its occurrence in software documentation—for which loan translations are often used in Italian—has spread the use of procedura even in texts that are not software-related.  An examination of all the meanings presented in English and Italian dictionaries shows that procedure also means procedimento.  (Sometimes istruzioni may be more appropriate than procedimento.) Unfortunately procedimento is also being pushed aside by processo, which closely follows process.  However, procedimento is still used in technical sources; consider, for example, welding process translated with procedimento di saldatura in the UNI standards.  (UNI is the Italian Standardization Organization.) When used metaphorically in place of procedimento or istruzioni—for example, to introduce a few simple steps for the replacement of an instrument battery—procedura can have amusing effects.  Reflecting on the various meanings of procedure in context can help a translator avoid disseminating the word procedura in those sections of a technical translation where no software is involved.

Scrivere.  Una fatica nera by Alessandro Lucchini (1996, Deus Editore) and Lingua italiana e giornali d’oggi by Mauro Magni (1992, Guido Miano Editore) are two excellent books which provide guidelines and practical tips for an effective writing.

With the previous example I tried to show an effective procedure (which unfortunately can be quite time consuming) to find solutions for technical false friends not included in the usual resources: consulting relevant English sources (hardcopy or on line, but not bilingual dictionaries), comparing them with corresponding Italian materials, and making the appropriate parallelisms.  On a more general level, a method you can employ—very labor intensive though, at least at the beginning—is to have your monolingual Italian dictionary always handy (I keep mine always open on my desktop.) Every time you write a word/sentence/expression which resembles its English equivalent (technical or non-technical) look it up in the Italian dictionary, study the related words and meanings and ask yourself if you are using false friends.  I highly recommend Devoto-Oli ­ Il dizionario della lingua italiana, because it strives to avoid tautologies.  Compare, for example, the definitions given for messa (in the technical context), gettata, pertinente, presupposto, with those given in other Italian dictionaries.  I stress a monolingual dictionary, as opposed to a bilingual dictionary, because by reading about the meaning and etymology of the Italian words as you translate, you can fight the “language contamination” due to the constant exposure to English vocabulary and syntax.

In his book Civiltà di parole (1965 Vallecchi), Giacomo Devoto, an Italian linguist who wrote fundamental works on language and writing and who introduced the concept of prosa funzionale (clear, concise, highly effective writing), likens words to human beings.  Words can be robust and flexible (in terms of meaning), but through misuse they can become deformed, stiff and temporarily “sick.” Knowing how to cure their patients is one of the skills translators need to have in their quest for quality.