Back to top

Falsi amici between Italian and English

A wonderful and quasi-oxymoronic expression: it’s one of the first things I was taught when learning Italian, but new depths to the concept will doubtless emerge throughout my career. With increased globalisation, the spread of English as a lingua franca in modern technology* and more culture sharing, more “false friends” are set to be coined, perhaps misappropriated, and spread.

You’ll find these tricksy words and phrases at every level of the language and in every translation specialism. There are also different levels: some are just pure wrong, others depend on context. Sometimes they’re borrowed only for their meaning to shift.

Barking up the wrong tree

With some of these words, there’s no avoiding it – they’re just plain wrong!

E numbers

When translating from English to Italian, you want to be careful of “preservatives”. These “E numbers” could be natural or chemical, but their purpose is to preserve your food. To put it into Italian (or Spanish) you just add an “o”… right? Well, a preservativo will offer protection of sorts, but in modern parlance you’re referring to a condom. The noun you’re looking for is conservante.

Source: Pixabay

Loud rumours

Looking from Italian to English, you don’t want to go spreading rumori. While there’s a clear etymological link between the false and the true translations, rumori – noises – are much louder but less vicious than English-language rumours.

Fickle friends

Life isn’t ones and zeros, though, and not all false friends are false all the time. Take these Italian words that have a synonymous corresponding term in English, but also vary subtly with context:

  • Identificare – “identify” can be accurate, but is often too formal or strong for the context. Consider whether “pinpoint” is a better fit.
  • Importante – of course, this can mean important in the same way as in English. But it’s so often used to mean large or significant (subtly different from important, partly in that you can use it to mean large in English).
  • Contratto – this is a contract, of course, but in an English-speaking legal setting the term differs according to the type of contract. Often, you would refer to an agreement (e.g. a vendor agreement, a sales and purchase agreement, an NDA).
  • Anche (and overuse thereof) – this means “also” or “even” but is used far more in Italian than either solution would be in English. I often find I can leave it out.
  • Introdurre – “introduce would be too formal where “insert” or “add” will do. I might introdurre un altro cliente, but that seems awkward in English where, more idiomatically, I would add another client (to my books).
  • Esperienza and its etymological relations – my nemesis! So difficult to translate well. To give a few examples: esperienze (plural) is often used to refer to several examples or instances of work experience. In a simple sentence, that might be ok. I’d just swap the plural for singular: in this scenario in English it would be more natural as an uncountable noun. But when explored in more detail, the idea can become more complicated. Remember, sperimentare can mean experiment as well as experience.

False borrowings

Italian loves to nick words or phrases from English, although sometimes they’re corrupted in the process. Take fare il footing for example – to go jogging. And marketing texts – product descriptions and so on – love to talking about il feeling where I would find it more natural to refer to “the feel” of something.

English certainly isn’t innocent in this regard. Have you ever had “a panini”? “A” being the singular indefinite article in English, “panini” being the plural for a type of sandwich in Italian.

Source: Fooding Around on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Another pair of sleeves

I’m straying from the false friends theme slightly here, but idioms can still be deceiving. And by that I mean, you can’t translate them literally. If something is un altro paio di maniche in Italian, you might say that to describe it as “another pair of sleeves” in English would be something else entirely.

You might also get some strange looks if you say, Piove a cani e gatti! Although the equivalent, piove a catinelle, does come very close to “it’s bucketing it down”.

Treading carefully in familiar territory

It all comes down to a cautious blend of familiarity and suspicion. When translating, your familiarity with the source language will help you navigate its landscape, but you should never take your knowledge for granted. Question everything and make sure you uncover which of your friends are false.

But don’t forget to enjoy the quirks of terms and phrases that only partially crossed borders along the way!


*This is a simplistic overview drawn from words like “computer” or “smartphone” being used across several languages, despite being the English terms for these devices. There’s a lot of existing and ongoing research into the role of English as a lingua franca and the landscape definitely seems to be changing. Funnily enough, MT plays a role in that.