Style in Italian Technical Translations

ATA Chronicle, October 1998.

By Roberto Crivello

Translators of technical documents from English into Italian must surmount several potential barriers to clarity.  This task demands an understanding of historical, linguistic and socio-linguistic factors.  I will illustrate here three main problems that prevent a document from attaining an adequate level of quality: semantic loan translations out of context, bureaucratic and alienating language, and a style different from that expected by the intended audience.  I will also offer insights into possible solutions to these difficulties.

In the past 20 years, we have witnessed a substantial influx of English words and Anglicisms into the Italian language, especially within the domain of computer technology.  This foreign influence has generated a large number of loan translations that have spread from specialized software documents to nearly every kind of technical document.  Semantic loan translations, those in which an existing Italian term assumes a new meaning, are the most detrimental to a document’s clarity.  The verb supportare is a prime example.  Misuse of this verb can result in a final product that resembles a carbon copy.  In translating A supports B, A supporta B is appropriate when to support means to sustain (as in weight, pressure, strain, etc.).  In other contexts, however, different Italian expressions correspond better to the functional relationship expressed by this verb.  To communicate the fact that entity A allows for the proper functioning of entity B, a translator must choose from several possible words and expressions.  Depending on the context of the given sentence, one might select permette (e.g., di usare, di comandare determinate funzioni, di compiere determinate operazioni), realizza (e.g., uno specifico collegamento), funziona con, etc.  For example, The product assures that all links will support expected performance requirements of the standards could be translated word-for-word as Il prodotto assicura che tutti i collegamenti supportino i requisiti per le prestazioni degli standard.  But the translator could more clearly and specifically communicate the meaning of this sentence by writing Per tutti i collegamenti il prodotto assicura la funzionalità richiesta dagli standard.
Other computer-language terms for which semantic loan translations have been created include dedicated, desired, and proprietary.  They are rendered as dedicato, desiderato, and proprietario, respectively.  The appropriate Italian terms are rather riservato, prescelto, and di proprietà esclusiva.
Specialized terms such as hardware and to setup require careful consideration as well, because their meaning varies greatly according to the context in which they are found.  The translator should first determine whether the English hardware corresponds to the Italian hardware (“physical parts of computer equipment”), or whether it refers instead to mechanical components, (i.e., fasteners).  In the latter case, the correct translation could be dispositivi di fissaggio.  Similarly, the verb to setup is equivalent to impostare when it signifies “to create a series of conditions necessary for a specific activity,” but when used in certain other contexts, it means to adjust or to establish a setpoint.  These other meanings should be rendered with either registrare/regolare or prefissare un punto di funzionamento.

Another impediment to overall quality in writing is the use of a bureaucratic style.  One cause for this stylistic tendency in Italian documents resides in the influence of political and administrative bodies on the development of public life in Italy.  We see the repercussions of these bureaucratic institutions reflected in the customary usage of the Italian language.  Bureaucratic language is found outside of the circles in which it is normally used and spreads by way of the mass media. [1], [2]  This language often uses technicalities, either real or metaphoric.  It replaces simple, meaningful words and expressions with stereotypes, complex words, and figures of speech.  For example, in bureaucratic texts, we find apportare modifiche, evidenziare, prendere in esame, and procedere a un controllo instead of modificare, mettere in evidenza, esaminare, and controllare.  An additional cause of this problem is the high school reform that took place during the fascist era.  Philosopher Giovanni Gentile, Minister of the Department of Public Education, demanded the adoption of a complicated written style and mandated that Italian students gradually learn to write in a complex manner. [3]  Due primarily to these historical linguistic trends, we now find many Italian documents written in what Italo Calvino called l’antilingua (“the anti-language”). [4]  Use of this alienating language persists in spite of efforts by famous linguists, such as Tullio De Mauro, Giacomo Devoto, Bruno Migliorini, Leo Pestelli, and Italo Zingarelli, to promote simplicity and clarity in writing.

Toward this end, one should try to avoid words and expressions that carry bureaucratic connotations.  The verb effettuare, for example, is frequently used to translate to make.  Since effettuare is widely used in official documents (i.e., police reports, governmental writings, and posted public messages), it can give a bureaucratic tone to virtually any text.  Many times, verbs such as fare, compiere, eseguire, etc., more appropriately render the meaning of to make.  Also, effettuare often derives from an abuse of nominalization, as in this example: Prime the (tubing) system before turning it on.  An “antilingual” translation might say Effettuare il priming del sistema prima di avviarlo.  An appropriate translation is rather Prima di avviare il sistema, riempirne di fluido i tubi.  A translator can approach the goal of writing clear, simple texts by avoiding the abuse of nominalizations and unnecessarily complicated expressions.  For instance, rather than writing il sistema effettua una lettura sul disco or eseguire la regolazione del dispositivo attenendosi alla procedura di seguito indicata, the translator could use direct verbs and expressions like il sistema legge (i dati, i file, etc.) sul disco, or regolare il dispositivo procedendo come segue.  One should also avoid technical metaphors borrowed from bureaucratic language, such as utilizzo, which should always be replaced by the more appropriate uso or utilizzazione, according to the context.

Finally, a failure to consider the socio-linguistic appropriateness of terms and expressions often causes redundancy or awkwardness in the final document.  Translators should know not only what the readers of a technical document can infer, but also what they take for granted as the common knowledge of their culture or community. [5]  A simple example is current flow.  Since current is the rate of the flow of charges, current flow means literally “flow of flow of charges.” It is, therefore, always redundant to write flusso di corrente. The following sentence provides a more elaborate example of redundancy and awkwardness: The front end antenna and the preamplifier circuitry provide a 50 ohm match and increase the level of the signal before the signal is fed to the mixer circuit.  An outsider to the given technical community might translate this as L’antenna frontale e la circuiteria del preamplificatore forniscono un adattamento a 50 ohm e aumentano il livello del segnale prima che questo sia inviato al circuito del mixer.  By restructuring the sentence and eliminating unnecessary terms, we arrive at a concise, direct translation: Il miscelatore è preceduto da un’antenna, per l’adattamento dell’impedenza d’ingresso a 50 ohm, e da un preamplificatore.

Although the verb to turn on/off appears simple, it actually requires special attention.  The correct translation depends on what is turned on and off.  The most common translation, accendere/spegnere, is appropriate when to turn on/off refers to switching on and off lights, electrical devices, etc.  In reference to machines (pumps, engines, etc.), it signifies to start/stop, which should be rendered as avviare/arrestare.  Within the context of circuits (electrical, pneumatic, and hydraulic), its meaning is similar to that of to engage/disengage and should, therefore, read inserire/disinserire un circuito.  In more specialized applications, other translations may be required. For example, when a transistor operates as a switch the correct expression is portare un transistore in saturazione/interdizione.

Unfortunately, the only method that I can recommend to avoid redundancy and awkwardness caused by socio-linguistic inappropriateness is quite labor-intensive.  To avoid dictionary-type translations, one should acquire a working knowledge of technical language by carefully reading technical documents written in Italian by specialists.  Technical dictionaries are usually not helpful, because they do not indicate the proper usage of the terms they provide, and thus cannot assist translators in reaching beyond “single-term accuracy.” As we have seen, a translator must select not only the correct terms, but also the wording and style that speaks most effectively to the target audience.  The Nuovo Colombo [6] is a useful source for translators who do not have an extensive background in a given technical subject.  By referring frequently to this manual, translators may become familiar with the style and terminology characteristic to the language of a technical audience.

In this paper, we have seen how the use of semantic loan translations out of context, bureaucratic and alienating language, and a style different from that expected by the intended audience can impede the production of documents of adequate quality.  I have also provided possible solutions and suggested how to select them appropriately.  As Tullio De Mauro writes in an invaluable book, “Every time we use words, even if we are not aware of it, we are forced, so to speak, to make choices.  We are forced to be free … But, of course, choice does not mean whim.  It means, rather, the coherent utilization of the verbal tools available in the situation in which we are writing.” [7]

[1] Maurizio Dardano. Il sottocodice burocratico, in Il linguaggio dei giornali italiani. Editori Laterza 1973.
[2] Gabriella Alfieri. Il linguaggio figurato, in Manuale di scrittura e comunicazione. 1 ed., Zanichelli, 1997.
[3] Vittore Vezzoli. La comunicazione scritta non è morta. È cambiata. In Comunico, N. 1, Ottobre 1996.
[4] Italo Calvino. Per ora sommersi dall’antilingua, in La nuova questione della lingua, a cura di O. Parlangeli, Paideia, Brescia 1971.
[5] Williams, J. M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 4th ed., Harper Collins College Publishers 1994
[6] Nuovo Colombo ­ Manuale dell’ingegnere (3 vol.). 83 ed. Hoepli, 1997.
[7] Tullio De Mauro. Guida all’uso delle parole. Editori Riuniti 1997.