Advanced search in the New Italian Books catalog

Skip to content Skip to footer
13 September 2023

The Sorrows and Joys of Translating Italian Dialects

Katherine Gregor, Literary Translator from Italian into English

I was struggling with the copious passages in regional dialect in a novel I was translating from Italian, so I asked my publishers to put me in touch with the author so that she could help me with those expressions I couldn’t find translated or explained on line. They kindly obliged.
A few weeks later, I happened to be chatting to the original Italian publisher of this book. “You know, when they requested the author’s details,” she said with a chuckle, “they sounded concerned about your knowledge of Italian. I had to explain that translators from Italian are expected to be proficient in Italian – not in all the dialects of the peninsula.”
After panic rose in my stomach (Oh, no, they think I’m incompetent!) then steadied into relief (Thank goodness the Italian publisher put them right), I thought about this calmly. Clearly, the person doubting my translating abilities was unfamiliar with Italy, its language and its literature, but then how many people outside Italy – even in the publishing world – are fully aware of the crucial, visceral role of dialects, or vernacular languages, in Italian culture? A Neapolitan friend, now in her early sixties, remarked that, like most Italians of her generation and earlier, she grew up bilingual: speaking Italian at school, at work and in official settings, and dialect (Neapolitan in her case) with family and close friends.
On my first trip to Milan, in 2019, I asked the hotel receptionist for an extra coat hanger. I used the word stampella. The receptionist’s eyes widened into a blank grey behind his thick lenses. “Una stampella?” he repeated slowly and expressionlessly.
Sì, una stampella,” I insisted, wondering if I was requesting something considered illegal or immoral in Milan. For hanging our clothes, I added in Italian.
Expression drifted back into the receptionist’s eyes. “Ah, una gruccia,” he said, removing his glasses and wiping them, I suspect to distract himself from an urge to giggle.
Neither gruccia nor stampella are dialectal words. They are standard Italian. Only in Rome, where I grew up, stampella tends to refer to a coat hanger (although its other meaning is crutch). In Milan, it seems, it is used only to mean a crutch. So here I was, encountering region-based language miscommunication even in standard Italian.
I recently read that at the time of Italy’s unification, in 1861, only 2.5% of the population are estimated to have been fluent in the standardised language we call Italian. This may go some way towards explaining why, even now, a very large number of Italian writers have dialectal words, idioms and sayings escape the lips of their fictional characters. As far as I am concerned, the frequent presence of dialect, or vernacular, in Italian literature is an added challenge – and treat – to my work as a literary translator.
My first conscious encounter with an Italian dialect that was non-Roman came in the form of venesiàn, witty, wispy, histrionic, suffering no fools and delivered at breakneck speed by gondoliers and shopkeepers in Venice. I listened to them, fascinated, able to make out only the odd word, though I immediately fell for its sound. A lover of the Commedia dell’arte, I subsequently had huge fun translating – solely for my entertainment – passages from Carlo Goldoni’s Venetian plays. As a professional translator, I have so far tackled Piedmontese, Sardinian, Lombard, Friulian and, most notably, Sicilian while translating I leoni di Sicilia and its sequel. Sicilian, I learnt, varies depending on the area of this 25,711 km2-island. As Stefania Auci, the author of I leoni, explained, what is said in Palermo is not necessarily said in Trapani, and vice-versa. The same is true of the other twenty regions of Italy. In Venice, fog is caìgo. In Verona, less than two hours away, it is nèbia. I have just been told that maize is called melgòt in Bergamo and furmintù in Brescia, even though the two cities are 53 km apart and both in Lombardy.


I have long wondered why, in the 20th and early 21st centuries, dialect is still so often used in Italian fiction. I suppose that if a novel aims to be an albeit intensified reflection of Italian social reality, then you cannot ignore that fact that Italian social reality tends to be, if not dressed in, then sprinkled with regional words and expressions. Perhaps because Italian is an official language, it operates more on a cerebral, rather than an emotional level. Historically, it is the lingua franca that permits communication with the others, those who – you assume consciously or unconsciously – cannot understand you fully because their ear is not attuned to the rhythm of your heart in your tongue. Dialect, on the other hand, can convey your emotions to those to whom you don’t need to spell everything out because they truly get – and not just literally – where you’re coming from.
Nobody can question my love for the Italian language. I have spoken it practically since birth. Although I also translate from French, which I feel as close to my heart as Italian, having partly grown up in France, it was reading an Italian writer’s books that first inspired me to become a literary translator. However, my devotion does not prevent me from often finding Italian prose somewhat didactic and overwritten. Very little is left to the imagination of the reader, when every i is dotted, every t crossed and every piece of information detailed within an inch of its life. And, while at times compelled to tighten the English rendition slightly to accommodate modern Anglophone ears, most of whom subscribe to Polonius’s adage that “Brevity is the soul of wit”, I wonder if this tendency towards over-explaining derives from the now forgotten, unacknowledged, but still deeply-rooted sense of Italian as a language of communication rather than personal expression. I speculate, of course.
What I find to be true is that the brevity and conciseness so treasured by Anglophone and French literati can undoubtedly be found in Italian dialects in abundance.
Although my family were not Italian, I was born in Rome and spent half my childhood and adolescence there. Even now, decades later, I sometimes find myself using the little romanesco I know when I need to express something that comes from my gut. I shout Dajeee! when cheering on a football team (sometimes even England) while watching the Cup Final on television with my husband. When he asks me if he has put a sufficient quantity of an ingredient into a dish we are cooking, I often reply Avoja (in Italian: a voglia, means “more than enough”). And I’m afraid that less than elegant Roman insults shoot out of my mouth when I watch some of our British politicians being interviewed on a news programme, insults involving the said politicians’ ancestors. When I chat to my old Roman friends, the odd word in romanesco, so maligned by non-Romans, who call it coarse, leaps into our speech and immediately adds colour and spice to it – a warming kind of spice. Sometimes, there is nothing like the sound of dialect to convey the taste of how you really feel.


If Italian dialectal idioms are sometimes hard to convey into standard Italian, translating them into English would make Hercules throw in the towel.


“When considering how to translate dialect I rejected the option of using a UK regional dialect as an alternative because of its potential for creating inappropriate associations in the mind of the reader. A case in point is Stephen Sartarelli’s use of Brooklyn Italian to represent Sicilian dialect in the Montalbano novels: although Sartarelli’s translations are undeniably popular, his strategy seems to me to diminish the sense of place. Replacing source language dialect with an invented dialect or with a working class idiolect seems equally fraught with risk.
“In Per una cipolla di Tropea the dialects help to bring the characters to life and to evoke the diversity of the seaport. I decided to highlight the fact that some characters speak in dialect by leaving a few words and phrases in the [source language], but allowing the characters themselves to ‘translate’, as when Vercesi, sniffing the red onions, says: “Bon odòr. They smell good.”
[Author] Alessando Defilippi himself sometimes uses this strategy, for example:
“Dulsa” bofonchiò il maresciallo. “È dolce.”
However, I tried to keep the inclusion of original dialect at a level where it didn’t become intrusive.”

Emma Mandley, Italian-English translator


Unlike, until fairly recently, in English, Italian regionalisms in spoken language do not tend to have connotations of social class. They are merely a sign of what, until one and a half centuries ago, was a political state in its own right, with its own way of dressing, its own cuisine, its own traditions and its own way of speaking. I must always remind myself that this kind of premise is unfamiliar to Anglophone, and in particular British readers, whose history is one of centuries-old political and administrative centralisation. If I chose to convey an Italian dialect through, say, Liverpudlian or Geordie, they could not avoid making social-historical-cultural associations that would be wholly inappropriate for a novel set in Italy. No regional English, Scottish or Welsh expression could possibly even remotely capture the culture, background and especially temperament of a Sicilian, Roman, Venetian or Milanese character.


“In my translation of [Domenico Starnone’s] Via Gemito (Europa, 2023) I relied on several different strategies to capture Neapolitan dialect: I chose to leave longer obscenities in Neapolitan so they could retain their unfamiliarity and musicality; for frequently used noun-adjective epithets I made a keen effort to steer clear of any easy-to-identify cultural subset; for the ubiquitous phrase di questo cazzo I relied on both Italian and English depending where it appeared in the text (either before or after the narrator’s fantastic explanation of the phrase); in dialogue, where it would be so very easy to use slang, I refrained from using words like gonna, wanna, shouda again to keep my distance from any stereotypes. There are many ways of relaying what it means to be Neapolitan, and Americanizing Starnone’s language is not one I endorse.”

Oonagh Stransky, Italian-English translator


If I were to translate a novel written or set before the 19th century, I suspect I could potentially use, sparingly, English regional expressions that would have been used in a large swathe of the country, and could not be linked to a specific city or region. As I have, so far, translated mainly 20th and 21st-century Italian fiction, I have deliberately avoided trying to find a match for a dialectal idiom among any British regional expressions.


“When I translated La cognizione del dolore [by Emilio Gadda] (The Experience of Pain, Penguin Classics, 2017), the problem of dialect arose, fortunately, with just one character, Colonel Di Pascuale who, we are told in chapter 4, was descended from a family of Italian origin that immigrated to Maradagàl (the fictitious south American country where the novel is set) at the end of the previous century. His language is impenetrable even in the original Italian and is largely there for the effect. The story is told by the narrator and the colonel’s blusterings provide a comic garnish.
I was helped by the advice of the eminent translator Michael Henry Heim who suggested creating a unique dialect through a combination of contractions, grammatical mistakes, and the like, to produce a speech pattern that had no distinct geographical identity but can still convey core information.
In the following example, the colonel has unmasked a fake invalid:
« …. Guagliò, fernìmmola ‘na bbona vota!…. cu sta’ pazzïella d’ ‘o sordo!…. Dàlle, dàlle…. e’ cuccuzielli devéntane talli…. Cca stanno ‘e testimonia…. due testimoniuni belli…. comme vo’ ‘a leggia….». (gli scritturali tacquero)…. [La cognizione del dolore, Adelphi, 2017, p. 120]
“…. Okkay boy, stop’t ’ere once and for’ll!… and dis maddness ’bout you bin deaf!…. Tall sturies git longr ’n longr…. den turn bad…. Now ’ere’s de evidence…. Two gud witnissis…. jus’ as law ricuires….” (the clerks fell silent)… [The Experience of Pain, Penguin, 2017, p. 118]”

Richard Dixon, Italian-English translator


Depending on the context of the original Italian, I sometimes opt for a colourful time, place, class and age-neutral colloquial expression to convey the message in dialect.


Oliva’s mother [in The Unbreakable Heart of Oliva Denaro by Viola Ardone, HarperVia], is rejected by all the “scissor-tongues” in the provincial Sicilian town because she is Calabrian. The challenge was how to render the gulf between two dialects when any attempt at finding regional equivalents in English would carry too many connotations and would be presumptuously culturally-specific (if I chose two regions in the UK, for example, would an Indian, Australian or American reader appreciate the differences?). Once it was established that the mother mutters imprecations or yells at her family in a Calabrian dialect that nobody understands when she is angry or frustrated —which is almost always— the solution was quite straight-forward: to reflect her character, social status and point of view in her direct speech and add to the reporting verb, “she muttered in Calabrian” or “she yelled in her dialect.”

Clarissa Botsford, Italian-English translator


As a rule, and depending on the volume of dialect in the novel I am translating, I am inclined to leave as much of it in the original, in italics, either immediately followed by a translation or a paraphrase. Too many occurrences of paraphrasing can make the English version heavy, so, for the sake of elegance, when absolutely required, I have also been known on occasion to add a little something to the response of another character, so that his or her reaction makes the meaning of the words spoken by his or her interlocutor clearer. If this word or expression is used many times in the original text, I will paraphrase or translate it only once and trust the reader to remember its meaning either consciously or else absorb it into his or her imagination.

I often wish that Anglophone publishers were not so opposed to explanatory footnotes, especially when a dialectal idiom is particularly colourful or when it refers to an event in history or a religious belief. Returning to the subject of insults, what would be an Anglophone copy editor-acceptable translation of the Roman Mortacci loro? “Damn them”? Powerful message a couple of centuries ago, when summoning damnation on someone was the worst possible fate you could wish them, but nowadays diluted into your garden variety, unimaginative verbal abuse that far from reproduces the creativity behind Mortacci loro, which is not, in fact, a curse, but an offence to the interlocutor’s very ancestors for being a bad lot, a very bad lot.
Another favourite expression of mine in romanesco is E’ come cercà Maria pe’ Roma. Literally, it means, “Like looking for Mary in Rome”. “Like looking for a needle in a haystack” is such a poor equivalent and nowhere near illustrates the wild goose chase involved in finding a woman called Mary in a city that is the historical capital of the Christian Church. I know that when I read books in non-English translation, I welcome such titbits expanded on in footnotes. After all, reading a novel isn’t just about following the plot. As things stand in the current trend, we feel that footnotes disrupt the flow of reading. Perhaps, publishing budgets allowing for an extra page in the book, we could add a glossary of the most choice dialectal items featured in the novel, for those readers interested in etymology and history of language.