Translating from English to Italian: Linguistic tips and tricks

Translators are essential to what we do at ZOO. Their passion, expertise and hard work allow us to bring movies and shows to life in a new language – connecting and entertaining audiences across the globe.

In this Translator Spotlight, we spoke with Italian audiovisual translator, Noemi Zucca, who shared her top tips on finding the balance between subjunctive and indicative language, as well as her experience in creating complex gender-neutral translations in Italian.

Meet Noemi Zucca

Hi, there! I’m Noemi, a freelance audiovisual translator from Bologna, Italy. In this Spotlight, I am excited to share a couple of linguistic tips and tricks that I hope you will find just as interesting as I do.

Audiovisual translation is such a fascinating and creative art but, just like any other art form, it can be a big challenge. Sometimes all you need to do is trust your best judgement, but that is not always the case. So, today I’m going to tell you a bit more about my personal experience of audiovisual translation and my way of approaching the two specific linguistic challenges below.

I hope you enjoy reading!

Subjunctive or indicative mood? That is the question…

At school, we learn that we should use the indicative in our everyday language because it’s the most common mood, as well as the most informal. On the other hand, we also learn that the more formal, subjunctive mood is just as important in (supposedly) showing a higher level of language proficiency.

I’ve often asked myself: “Should I use the subjunctive mood or not?” I often decide not to because, as subtitlers, we want to achieve a certain level of fluency and readability and, most of the time, we can only do so by using the most simple language. Furthermore, reading speed is a parameter that we should always keep in mind when subtitling and the subjunctive mood requires many more characters per second and/or words per minute.

Now, I’m not saying that we should ban this mood and never use it again, or that it should always be replaced with the indicative; all I’m saying is that we should be able to choose which mood to use depending on the context.

We should be able to choose which mood to use depending on the context.

We tend to use the subjunctive just because it “sounds better”, but this often leads to hypercorrection in translation. So far, I’ve noticed that people tend to use the subjunctive mood with verbs that express judgment and the perception of feelings, as if it’s sort of automatic for them when they use “che”, but for these verbs the indicative mood can work just as well. Here are a few examples:

– I’m sorry that you didn’t call me > Mi dispiace che non mi abbia / hai chiamato.

– I’m sure it’s not an issue for them > Sono sicuro che non sia un problema per loro / che non è un problema per loro.

– It’s a shame that it didn’t snow > È un peccato che non abbia nevicato / È un peccato che non ha nevicato.

It’s all a matter of context and style. Diaphasic varieties are what we want to focus on, because language changes depending on the circumstances, the subject and the interlocutors involved in the communication process. Once again, it all centers on our intention and goal as subtitlers – creating a fluent and readable target text – because that ultimately gives us the answers we are looking for.

Of course, there are many more rules and uses that I can’t cover here, but here’s one little trick that is really helpful if you’re ever in doubt. Just remember that the alternation between these two moods reflects the level of feasibility of the information you want to convey. So, ask yourself if you want your audience to understand that your statement is true or not, realizable or unrealizable, etc. Are you 100% sure about something or are you sceptical? Are you trying to be exhortative? On one hand, if you believe something is true, just go for the indicative mood and you won’t be wrong; on the other hand, if something is possible but uncertain, then consider using the subjunctive mood.

Is it really as simple as it sounds? Yes and no, but it’s definitely less complicated than it sounds. After all, it’s all about nuances!

Gender neutrality vs. The challenges of the Italian language

For languages such as Italian that have both masculine and feminine grammatical genders, rules are very different from those in English. Why? Because it’s much harder to create gender-neutral sentences.

Gender-inclusiveness means that we should work with the existing lexicon and come up with further solutions by creating feminine job titles, by using the pronoun “loro” (= “they”), the suffix “-u”, the schwa or the *. However, from a linguistic point of view things are much more complicated since there are still no official rules and although some specific guidelines do exist, everything else is still up to our best judgement.

Gender-inclusiveness means that we should work with the existing lexicon and come up with further solutions

For example, “engineer” can be “ingegnere” or “ingegnera”, “doctor” can be “medico” or “medica”, “judge” can be “giudice” or “giudicessa”, and so on. Although some may say that these feminine versions are less used, they’re still grammatically correct. But what about the word “baby”?

I recently worked on a TV series where a non-binary couple was going to have their first baby. I discussed the matter with my family, friends and colleagues, hoping to find a common ground… and we (sort of) did.

“Baby” is either “neonato / neonata”, “bambino / bambina”, but these are binary terms. “Creature” (= “creatura”) is a feminine word that can be used both for boys and girls, but would you actually ever say: “We’re going to have a creature” (= “Avremo una creatura”)? I don’t think so, unless you’re a poet!

So, how did I translate it? In the end, it was easier said than done (quite literally!). I ended up rephrasing dozens of sentences in order to make them all gender neutral. So, here are some of the solutions I came up with:

– “We’re going to have a baby” > “Diventeremo genitori” (= “We’re going to be parents”)

– “I can’t wait to meet my baby” > “Non vedo l’ora di diventare genitore / mamma / papà” (= “I’m looking forward to becoming a parent / mum / dad”)

– “My baby will have the best grandma” > “Sua nonna sarà la migliore del mondo” (= “Their grandma will be the best in the world”).

What’s the key for achieving gender neutrality then? In my experience it’s transcreation, transcreation and transcreation! What would be your approach?

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this feature. I think it’s very important to share our experience and ask for advice, because creativity comes from inspiration, and inspiration comes from people.

I would love to hear what you think about these matters and how you approach gender neutrality. I’m really looking forward to learning more about the other linguistic challenges that you face.

Thanks, everyone!


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