Lost in translation

She thought she has mastered the basics of Italian, but she found she still had a lot to learn.

FOREIGN HIGHWAY: A traffic sign in Italy reads tornante, which translates to 'bend' in English, alerting drivers to a winding road.

It's funny how languages work. I've been in Italy for some months now, studying diligently, and just when I think I have things figured out, I'm wrong. I check the dictionary to find what appears to be the right word, but time and again I'm told that I'm wrong. As it turns out, in addition to learning the words, I also have to learn the cultural implications that go with those words.

One example is orgoglioso (proud). I have heard several times that Americans are just so "proud." According to my dictionary, "proud" means "to have proper respect for oneself, one's work, one's family, etc." And so I nod my head, sit up a little taller, and agree that yes, we are proud.

What took me a while to understand is that for Italians, "to be proud" is not a compliment. What we think of as self-confidence, they think of as self-importance.

However, "jealous" (geloso in Italian) is a word I consider negative, but Italians use it frequently and, dare I say, use it with pride (by the English definition). For Italians, to be jealous is to demonstrate how much you love someone. With great admiration they describe fathers and husbands as exceptionally jealous of daughters and wives. This sends chills down my spine.

My husband, Massimo, often has to remind me that for his countrymen, to be jealous is to be passionate. And to be passionate about someone or something deserves respect.

Then there is bella (beautiful). For years, I thought I was a fantastic gift giver. When Massimo and I lived in the US, we'd bring gifts to Italy for the family each year. There would be "oohs" and "aahs" and cries of "Che bella!" (That's beautiful!) Usually, this began before the box was opened. I'd sit back and congratulate myself on getting it right – once again. It was no easy task since I didn't know my husbands extended family well.

Last fall, we had visitors from South America. This couple brought a very heavy gift, and we were all curious to see what it could be. For the opening of the gift, our nieces and nephews gathered around, admiring what they called the most wonderful, beautiful, fantastic gift. When the crowd finally parted, we saw the ugliest thing I've laid eyes on since Grandma James decided to make a Cabbage Patch doll with her own pantyhose.

There, in the middle of the table, was a rectangular, beige agate with a metal stick in the center. The stick was bent with a metal leaf poking out from its side and it was topped with a dozen carved agate petals. It looked as if it were under immense strain and that it would fold at any minute. Someone paid money for this?

When the group went outside for a tour, I turned to Massimo's niece.

"This is the gift?" I asked.

"Yes. E bellisima," she said, looking at her hands and nodding.

"Really? It's beautiful?"

She paused, looked over both shoulders, pulled a face, and shook her head. It was immediately clear. The word bella is overused and has lost all meaning. Americans "love" every gift. To Italians they are bella. My self-imposed status of gift-giver extraordinaire was destroyed.

The final Italian word that confuses me is sexy. The dictionary says it means "causing or intending to cause sexual desire; erotic." So, imagine my horror when our 6-year-old niece came in to show off a new outfit and the adults in the room exclaimed "Oh, how sexy!" At first, I found it disgusting.

Then, at Christmas, I went to dinner at my sister-in-law's house. The whole family was there. I wore something I would have worn to work – a brown turtleneck, a knee-length brown skirt, knee-high brown boots, and a little jacket. When I arrived, I was greeted with, "Oh, Kristi, you look so sexy."

I just stood there, thinking, No, I don't!

Then my mother-in-law told my sister-in-law, Teresa, "That is a sexy tree."

A sexy tree? I asked why they used the word "sexy" that way, when it's an English word and, actually, a bit risqué.

"Ah, but sexy for an Italian is the ultimate compliment," I was told. "It means beautiful. Everyone wants to be sexy."

As I recounted my frustrations to Massimo, I became indignant.

"It's an English word, why don't they use the English definition?"

Massimo thought for a moment, and I expected him to shrug in defeat. Instead, he asked, "Why does Starbucks call chocolate-flavored coffee mocha? Mocha is an Italian name for the machine that makes an espresso. There is no chocolate involved." He paused a moment longer, "It is what it is, Kristi. You have to use the language as it's needed in each country."

And so I've learned that I just have to accept the particular meanings of each language's words and not worry about the analysis.

While I'm in Italy, I need to be sexy so Massimo can be jealous, and I should never be too proud of any bella things I have. And when I go home to the States, I'll describe things in the exact opposite way, knowing that in the end, it's exactly the same.

Now, if I could just effectively pronounce the difference between carne (meat) and cane (dog), my life might get easier at restaurants.

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