Influences of English in Technical Translation into Italian

ATA Chronicle, November 2001

By Roberto Crivello

(This article originally appeared in Italian in the June 2001 issue of Tradurre, the newsletter of ATA’s Italian Language Division, with the title “Influssi dell’inglese nella traduzione tecnica.” The notes have been partially translated. For the complete list of notes, please refer to the original article.)

One of the pitfalls that technical translators must take care to avoid is the gradual absorption of the lexicon and syntagma of the original language. Through overuse, semantic and syntactic loan translations and loanwords become fixed, “ready-to-use” forms. This leads to an impoverishment of terminological and stylistic choices that tend to standardize and, in the end, erode the quality of the translation. This problem, regardless of the country in which the translator lives, can be remedied only through the careful use of language. Let us look at a few examples.

In translations of references, often the English form refer to is reproduced with the loan translation fare riferimento a (i.e., refer to Chapter 7, translated as fare riferimento al capitolo 7 rather than vedi capitolo 7 or, depending on the case, vedere or si veda il capitolo 7). Thus, translators tend to use fare riferimento a even when the context calls for consultare il manuale, vedere il disegno allegato, vedi figura, leggere la sezione, and so forth. An analogous lack of flexibility occurs when one translates refer to with the verb consultare, perhaps writing consultare la sezione when the section consists of barely 10 lines of text, thus creating an unintended ironic effect that will not escape observant readers.

When translating technical documents, one often encounters references to lists. In English, we speak of the numbered list (lista numerata) and the unnumbered list (lista non numerata). The latter term, which is often a bulleted list, is also rendered as lista puntata. Because marks preceding the items in the list could be bullets, dashes, boxes, etc., the extension of the meaning of puntare from “to mark with dots” to “to mark with symbols” is noteworthy with respect to conciseness. However, the problem arises the moment the term lista puntata becomes a fixed form to be used in all cases, as if it were the only acceptable translation for bulleted list. While it is correct to write lista puntata in a manual on designing Web pages in which various methods for highlighting the elements of a list are explained, the term would be redundant in a handbook for a product in which lista is a simple reference. For example, in translating the sentence For instructions, refer to the bulleted list on page 8, it would be quicker to write Seguire le istruzioni della lista a pagina 8 (if on that page there is only one list and, therefore, no possibility for confusion). Within the appropriate context, one could also write Seguire la procedura a pagina 8. To summarize, in general it is correct to follow the English literally when the term and its context serve a didactic or illustrative purpose, whereas one could increase speed by using an alternative or a shorter term when the word serves only as a reference.

On and Off are two very simple words that illustrate nicely the problems that can result from English words that have multiple meanings and whose brevity make them attractive, even in cases where clear, appropriate Italian terms already exist. On and Off mean, in the most general sense, “operating” and “out of operation.” Their brevity and seemingly singular meaning make them ideal for use on keys, buttons, very short text fields, and wherever it is necessary to use the least amount of space possible. On and Off also allow one to communicate to a broader audience (often composed of nonexpert users of a product) information such as turn the switch on/off through the translation portare l’interruttore in posizione on/off. Conversely, the phrase portare l’interruttore in posizione “chiuso”/ “aperto” (“turn the switch to closed/open position“), theoretically more formal, is quite obviously only for those who have specific technical competence. Before moving on, we should note that it could be unnecessary to use these two English terms. In fact, often times turn the switch on/off, when speaking of a piece of equipment, means simply accendere/ spegnere l’apparecchio. This information is more useful when there are no labels on the buttons, except only the universal symbols | and O, or when there is only one button with, for example, the label PWR. (Note that it would be a blunder to write accendere or spegnere l’interruttore, since the latter is an electromechanical device. Instead, it is correct to write—in the area of telecommunications, for example—accendere or spegnere lo switch, since here we are referring to an electronic switch for the transmission of data packets.).

Along the same lines as the cases illustrated above, On and Off—or the corresponding terms so common in information technology translations, attivare and disattivare, whose true meanings are actually mettere in funzione inizialmente (to place on an active status) and rendere inutilizzabile (to render inoperative)—can become fixed as two seemingly multifunctional technical terms that, when careful attention is not paid to the appropriate register, are used even in cases in which different translations exist. For example, avviare or arrestare (engines, pumps, machines); inserire or disinserire (circuits); aprire or chiudere (valves); portare in saturazione or in interdizione (transistors of a logic circuit); and innestare or disinnestare (mechanical systems for transmitting motion, such as clutches or gears). It is interesting to observe that in the automotive field, besides these last two very technical and monosemic words, Italian has, like English, two short common words for upshifting and downshifting, namely salire di marcia and scalare di marcia.

The automatic use of certain English words, or of corresponding loan translations or loanwords, often results in acquiescence with respect to the original text, especially because of faulty or incomplete analyses. In marketing texts, one often comes across the expression seamless integration (of products or services). This expression is part of a series of clichés, like state-of-the-art, on the leading edge, and user-friendly—terms that have lost all meaning because of widespread and careless use by people in marketing. Among the various translations of seamless integration that I have encountered, I mention integrazione senza soluzione di continuità and perfetta integrazione (not surprisingly, one also finds integrazione seamless). It takes very little thought to realize that the English expression—and, therefore, the Italian equivalents modeled after it—suffers from a problem of redundancy. Both the English integration and the Italian integrazione already imply the concept of “harmonious fusion between several parts of a system” or “completion through the joining of appropriate complementary elements.” Instead, in some cases it could be useful or necessary to specify that integration can be, for example, more or less rapid or more or less difficult. But every integration is seamless; otherwise, it is not integration, but rather an imperfect blend of the components originally separated. Translators often think, however, that because seamless appears in the English expression, the adjective should, at all costs, be translated as “perfetto,” “uniforme,” “ininterrotto,” or as other words found in bilingual dictionaries under the entry “seamless”—translations that are theoretically correct but out of context, and that eventually become commonplace. Therefore, the fixation of the English form and its passive reproduction in translation lead to an analogous fixation of corresponding Italian forms. This could be avoided through alternative expressions that have the merit of originality or, at the very least, the lack of banality.

Let us now consider the following introductory paragraph from a users’ guide to software for a digital audio processor: Welcome to the ABC System Processor software guide. The goal of this document is to help you gain an understanding of how the ABC functions as you learn to use the software interface. The hardware stands alone as both a front-end and back-end system processor that can be externally controlled by a simple end-user interface, and the software is the tool that configures the device’s internal signal routing and audio processing.

We will focus on two terms: front-end processor and back-end processor. It is not difficult to find various definitions in English on the Web, although without specific reference to audio equipment. In English, one frequently resorts to semantic redefinitions of words, terms, and expressions from everyday language, which in Italian become loan translations and turn into exotic technical terms that generally remain incomprehensible to the majority of readers. Hence, as one would expect, in Italian the terms processore front-end and processore back-end are widespread in information technology, but even in Italian we can find differing definitions for these two terms. Front-end literally means “on the input side,” “on the side closest to the user of the application,” and, using a technical register, “providing an interface” or “communicating through external devices.” Back-end, on the other hand, literally means “on the output side,” “on the side farthest from the user of the application,” or even “reserved for specific or secondary tasks that do not need to be shown to the user.” A back-end processor, for example, is typically used to perform database operations. By adopting the above loanwords, would you be helping readers—probably audio equipment experts who are not very experienced with data processing equipment—to understand the description of this particular piece of equipment, or would you be leaving them to grope in the dark? In light of the above considerations, we can find many translations that avoid the use of the fixed terms processore front-end and processore back-end, and describe the equipment with clarity and terminological accuracy. I will propose one possibility: La presente guida al software del processore audio digitale ABC spiega l’uso dell’interfaccia utente e le funzioni dell’apparecchio. L’hardware è un un’unità autonoma, preposta sia all’elaborazione e memorizzazione interne dei dati sia al trattamento dei segnali e dati di interfaccia con gli apparecchi esterni; può essere controllata esternamente mediante la semplice interfaccia utente. Il software è lo strumento per la configurazione dell’elaborazione e dell’instradamento dei segnali audio all’interno del processore.

Among the various factors that contribute to the use of loan translations and loanwords from English—appropriate or not—in technical language, the brevity of many English words stands out.1 Specialists, technicians, and translators, as well as journalists who deal with technical and scientific fields, often do not recall enough Italian equivalents or do not have them handy. Compelling deadlines and inadequate technical expertise can lead one to use fixed terms or forms, and a lack of familiarity with linguistic mechanisms can keep one from constructing neologisms that, in the long run, could effectively render the English words. Even translators who are opposed to snobby usage of English are often forced to accept the most common foreignisms.

According to one of the principles of glottotecnica—the study of linguistic matters from the point of view of the harmony of linguistic structures and their functionality, with the possibility of technical suggestions of a normative nature—foreignisms whose structure is totally incompatible with that of Italian words are translated or substituted with neologisms.2 But in order to apply this logical criteria—very often disregarded today—certain conditions must exist, as Bruno Migliorini illustrates3: “Because most foreignisms have spread through the special languages of technicians, the substitutes have caught on every time they have made their way into general usage by way of experts.” Migliorini cites, among others, the example of primato, which is prevailing over record thanks to the manner in which the National Aviation Administration had used it (a quick search on the Web shows that record has once again surpassed primato in frequency of usage).

Let us look at another, more contemporary, example: black-out. This term has existed in Italian since at least 1983 in the sense of “a period of failure of all electrical power.” ENEL, the Italian utility company, writes in its public statements “interruzioni dell’erogazione di energia elettrica” (“interruptions in the delivery of electric energy”). Perhaps because of the cumbersomeness of this expression—in addition to the usual snobby reasons—journalists prefer the English word. Black-out has the obvious advantage of brevity, even if it lacks clarity for those who do not know English well. Arrigo Castellani has suggested an excellent substitute in his essay on the invasion of Anglo-American terms4: abbuio, a deverbative with zero-suffix of abbuiare, “oscurare, mettere al buio” (“to obscure,” “to put in the dark”). The Italian word has the same advantage of brevity offered by black-out and adds further clarity and phonetic facility. But only if ENEL, with its technical authority, had consistently used abbuio would this term have had a good chance at replacing black-out at some point. In the above-mentioned essay, Migliorini writes, “Every substitution, whether well-suited or authoritatively upheld, needs a certain incubation period.”

At this time in the evolution of Italian in which we witness the “progressive affirmation and acceptance of a ‘middle level’ in the use of language,”5 one also hopes that in the technical language with which translators are faced with today, both the indiscriminate use of foreignisms that are often incomprehensible to the majority of readers, and the pompous style that is the enemy of clarity, will be abandoned. In the realm of professional writing, a 1996 initiative provides communicative techniques written for the various types of professional texts: the Servizio d’Italiano Scritto.6 In addition, the Accademia della Crusca7, one of the foremost Italian linguistic authorities, is establishing an important linguistic consulting service, the Centro di Consulenza sulla Lingua Italiana Contemporanea (Centro CLIC). The goal of the Centro CLIC will be: “[…] to promote research and reflection on evolutionary tendencies of contemporary Italian, observed not only in the lexicon (where attention must be given to the problems of foreign and technical words), but also in syntax, morphology, pronunciation, and spelling. The fundamental principle that should guide the activity of this center can certainly not be a rigid purism, but rather a principle of developing the functionality of the language, which means to keep alive its productive mechanisms and capacity to assimilate innovations. On a practical level, to guide the public, the center will circulate many explanations of evolutionary phenomena in the current usage of Italian in order to make speakers more knowledgeable, increase their mastery of the language, and distance them from passive behaviors and from the taste for pure display of originality. In particular, the center will take care of relationships with schools, as well as with the principal public institutions (central and peripheral), the mass media, and the main national companies.”8

If a fruitful collaboration develops between the Accademia della Crusca and state and regional institutions, the mass media, the companies, the professional associations, and the organizations active in the field of translation, it will create the conditions to trigger a virtuous circle from which, as far as the field of technical translation is concerned, all will benefit: both those who write, no longer prisoners of linguistic fashions, and those who read, no longer forced to quiz themselves on cryptic terms or expressions.


Thank you to Anna Taraboletti-Segre for her precious suggestions during the revision of this article.


For a treatment of foreignisms or related matters within a technical-scientific context, refer to:

· Giovanni Adamo, La terminologia tecnico-scientifica in lingua italiana – Alcune osservazioni sulla terminologia dell’informatica.

· Bruni, Francesco. L’italiano ­ Elementi di storia della lingua e della cultura, UTET, 1984. (See Chapter III, 4, L’influsso dell’inglese.)

· Cortelazzo, Michele A. Italiano d’oggi, Esedra. (See Chapter 1, La lingua italiana di fine millennio.)

· Dardano, Maurizio, L’influsso dell’inglese sull’italiano d’oggi, Terminologie et Traduction, 1.91, 145/162. (This essay treats phonetic adaptation, morphologic adaptation, linguistic loanwords, terminology, loan translations, and semantic loanwords.)

· Nencioni, Giovanni. Plurilinguismo in Europa, in La Crusca per Voi, Foglio dell’Accademia della Crusca, N. 15, Ottobre 1997.

· Nencioni, Giovanni. Il destino della lingua italiana, in Italiano e oltre, 1996, n.4, p.198-207.

· Rando, Gaetano. Dizionario degli anglicismi nell’italiano postunitario, Leo S. Olschki, 1987 (presentation by Luca Serianni).

· Marri, Fabio. La lingua dell’informatica, in Storia della lingua italiana, II, Scritto e parlato (edited by Luca Serianni and Pietro Trifone), Einaudi, 1994.

· Mengaldo, Pier Vincenzo. Il Novecento, Il Mulino, 1994. (See Section III, Lingue speciali.)

2. Devoto,Giacomo. Il linguaggio d’Italia, BUR Saggi, 1999. (See Chapter L.)

3. Migliorini, Bruno. La lingua italiana nel Novecento, Casa Editrice Le Lettere, 1990. (See Section I. 4, Purismo e neopurismo.)

4. Castellani, Arrigo. Morbus Anglicus, in Studi Linguistici Italiani, Salerno Editrice, 1988.

5. Sabatini, Francesco. L’italiano: dalla letteratura alla nazione ­ Linee di storia linguistica d’Italia, attachment to La Crusca per Voi, Foglio dell’Accademia della Crusca. (This text by Sabatini is an overview of the history of the Italian language, originally written for the work L’Europa dei Popoli, by Sabatini himself and Antonio Golini, edited by the Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato – Editalia, in vol. 5, Rome 1997.)


7. (The site of the Academy is under construction. The new site will be available soon at a URL to be determined. The new address will be posted at the old site.)

8. From the minutes of the Centro CLIC’s foundational meeting, held in Florence on Thursday, January 18, 2001, cited courtesy of the Accademia della Crusca.