A Matter of Style: Effective Writing in Italian Technical Translations

ATA Chronicle, August 1997.

By Roberto Crivello and Anna Taraboletti-Segre

One of the most difficult tasks for a translator is to produce documents that are technologically accurate, respectful of the source text and, at the same time, written in a clear and effective style.  This task is even more complex if we consider the time constraints of most translation projects, and the cultural and syntactic differences between source and target languages.  A question that we must ask is:  How much latitude are we allowed in a technical translation?

Faithfulness to the original work is a must in literary translation, where it is imperative to convey the author’s message and voice.  The situation is different for technical documents, most of which are purposely voiceless, produced in a cost-effective manner and released within strict deadlines.  In a technical translation, faithfulness to the source text can be double-sided.  On the positive side, it is faster, especially when the translator can overwrite an electronic file.  A drawback, however, is that it encourages the reproduction of linguistic conventions, syntactic structures and even mannerisms typical of the source language, which can weigh down the final document. The obvious solution is a compromise, where the translator reproduces the format and technical content of the original document, without ignoring the uniqueness of the target language.  This flexibility, which implies an accurate usage of grammar, syntax and style, does not necessarily require extra time but, rather, a linguistic versatility that can easily become a habit.  With the following examples we will try to illustrate how style improves clarity, and how a flexible approach to technical translation is often necessary to produce clear, concise documents.

1) Do not mirror the English grammar and syntax.

  • Follow the Italian sequence of tenses.  In English, if you use the present tense in the protasis, you may use the future tense in the apodosis; in Italian, you must use the same tense for both protasis and apodosis[1].

    a) “If you turn this knob clockwise, the attachment will tilt to the right” should be translated as “Se si gira la manopola in senso orario, l’attrezzo si inclina a destra.”

    b) “Push this button, and an asterisk will be displayed” should be translated as “Premere questo pulsante; si visualizza un asterisco.”

  • Pay attention to less obvious cognates.  “The higher speed of this system results in better performance” should be translated as “Dalla maggiore velocità del sistema conseguono prestazioni migliori,” rather than “La maggiore velocità del sistema risulta in prestazioni migliori.”
  • Change the order of phrases when necessary to clarify an action.  English manuals often introduce instructions (condition) followed by a final clause (outcome).  In Italian, and at times in English as well, it may be preferable to put the outcome first, followed by the instruction [8].

    a) “Do not choose the same name as a physical port on your computer or printing problems may occur” should be translated as “Per evitare problemi di stampa, non scegliere lo stesso nome di una porta fisica del computer.”

    b) “Push on the connector bail wires to release the connector” should be translated as “Per sbloccare il connettore, premere sulle apposite clip.”

    c) “Turn the switch ON (I) to connect the equipment to the networkshould be translated as “Per collegare l’apparecchio alla rete, portare l’interruttore in posizione ON (I).”

2) When choosing between active or passive voices, focus on the clarity of the translated phrase, rather than simply reproducing the original text.

  • In an Italian translation, this means being able to use a whole range of voices and idiomatic forms:  from active to passive, to the impersonal and the reflexive uses of “si“.

    a) Use the active voice to translate basic instructions without making them sound needlessly complicated.  For “This button is used to operate the lift cylinder,” it is preferable to write “Questo pulsante serve ad azionare il cilindro di sollevamento” rather than “Questo pulsante è utilizzato per azionare il cilindro di sollevamento.”

    b) The impersonal “si” achieves the same result, while helping to avoid a common grammatical error.  “When you press this button, a window is displayed” should be translated as “Premendo questo pulsante, si visualizza una finestra,” rather than the grammatically incorrect “Premendo questo pulsante, viene visualizzata una finestra.”

    c) The passive voice may help maintain the same subject within a paragraph, avoiding repetition and strengthening the logical flow.  “Now you can set the equalizer to work as a graphic equalizer or as a parametric equalizer.  This flexibility can help meet your needs as different situations arise” is translated as “L’apparecchio può essere impostato come equalizzatore grafico o parametrico, per consentire una maggiore flessibilità.”

3) Avoid linguistic clichés—words and expressions that are overused in technical writing.  The same English word can be effectively translated with a whole range of terms.

  • Gestione” is too often used to translate  “Handling,” even when other word choices may be more effective.  For instance, “Paper Handling – Bottom Feed or Top Feed” should be translated as  “Immissione della carta – Alimentazione dal basso o dall’alto,” rather than “Gestione della carta…”
  • “Input” is often left in English.  While this is correct in computer documentation, “ingresso” is the right term in analog electronics (“input circuit” is “circuito d’ingresso“), and “entrata” is more appropriate in the automotive field (“transmission input shaft” is “albero di entrata [or primario] del cambio).
  • “Configuration” is often translated with “configurazione,” even when “schema” or “disposizione” may be more appropriate.  “The lights in these exhibitors can be configured horizontally or vertically” can be translated as “In questi espositori le luci possono essere disposte a fila o a semaforo” (or “in orizzontale o in verticale).
  • The English word “design” (of an equipment, a device, etc.) is appropriate in marketing texts that emphasize aesthetics over functionality.  In technical writings, it is more appropriate to write “esecuzione” when highlighting the functional aspects of a product.
  •  “Position” and “location” are often translated with “ubicazione.”  While “ubicazione“is a good choice for “site,” “posizione” may be more accurate elsewhere. For example, “ Posizione dei comandi” for “Controls position.”
  •  “Routing” is often translated with “instradare.”  This is correct for software expressions, such as “data packet routing” (“instradamento di pacchetti di dati“), but is not a valid choice for other components, such as “tubing,” for which proper terms are: “disporre,” “infilare,” “posare,” etc.
  •  “To use/using.”  In most cases, it is preferable to choose usare/uso” (or “impiegare/impiego“) over the inflated “utilizzare/utilizzo.”  These two Italian words have different meanings:  “usare” means to employ something for its specific purpose; “utilizzare” means to use something to one’s advantage [2], [4].  Therefore, “usare” can apply to an instrument, while “utilizzare” refers to one’s spare time employed to learn about the instrument’s features.  In another example, “usare” is the best choice for a technical manual “used” to disassemble a piece of equipment, while “utilizzare” may refer to the way one can “employ” the equipment’s spare parts to repair another machine.

4) When a sentence is cumbersome in the original language, rewrite it with accuracy but also with style.  This does not necessarily mean to talk down to the reader:  to quote Albert Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but non simpler.”

  • For “The RF interference sources include, but are not limited to, the following,”  it is better to write, “Si elencano di seguito alcune delle sorgenti di interferenza a radiofrequenza,” rather than “Le sorgenti di interferenza a radiofrequenza includono, in modo non esclusivo, quelle elencate qui di seguito.”
  • For “The flow to and from the tank is through a pump,”  it is preferable to write “Una pompa invia il fluido nel serbatoio e lo preleva…”  or “Una pompa fa circolare il fluido attraverso il serbatoio…”  rather than “Il flusso dal/al serbatoio avviene tramite una pompa…”
    For “Secure the accessory to the tool, snapping accessory adapter into tool head,” it is better to write “Collegare l’accessorio alla testa dell’utensile mediante l’apposito raccordo a scatto,” rather than “Assicurare l’accessorio all’utensile facendo scattare il raccordo del primo nella testa del secondo.”

5) Be creative in order to keep the translation concise.  The English language leaves considerable room for inventiveness and neologisms, which can be frustrating for a translator.  Some creativity and use of a good Italian dictionary can help find solutions.

  • “Fan the paper before loading it into the printer” can be translated as “Prima di caricare la carta nella stampante, sfogliarla con il pollice.”
  •  “Follow these bulleted instructions” can be rendered with “Procedere come segue.”  (However, if you need to emphasize the word “bullet” as a typesetting term, then it is necessary to use the appropriate technical term.  For instance, the sentence “To differentiate between different items of a list, you can use bullets of different color and sizes” should be translated as “Per distinguere tra parti diverse di un elenco, si possono impiegare pallini di diametro e colore differenti.”  In this case, the word “pallini” is definitely better than  circumlocutions such as “richiami di lista.”)
  •  “The durable latches and case ensure impact resistance and long life of the equipment” can be translated simply as “L’apparecchio è protetto da una custodia antiurto con chiusure a scatto durevoli.”
  • “Save these instructions for future use” can be translated as Conservare queste istruzioni.”These are just a few guidelines to translate concisely and effectively into Italian.  To develop our own personal flair for accurate writing and to achieve the best results, we need to overcome the clichés that are typical of most English and Italian technical writings, and to approach translations as a creative process.  Although we spend our working days on the task of translating, it is important to remember that the translation is not an end in itself, but a means to better communication.  A concise, clear, well-written translation can be rewarding to translators, clients and readers.


[1] Dardano, M.;Trifone P.  La lingua italiana.  Zanichelli 1985.
[2] Beccari, C.  La tesi di laurea scientifica.  Hoepli 1991
[3] Gabrielli G.; Pivetti P.  (curatori).  Parlare e scrivere meglio.  1a ed., Selezione dal Reader’s Digest, 1996.
[4] Matricciani, E.  La scrittura tecnico-scientifica.  CittàStudi Edizioni 1994
[5] Strunk, W.  Jr.; White, E.B.  The Elements of Style.  3rd ed., Allyn & Bacon 1979
[8] Williams, J.  M.  Style:  Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.  4th ed., HarperCollins College Publishers 1994