Lost in translation | The Gap Life Diaries
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Lost in translation

From time to time, I come across a good, old-fashioned language barrier.

Usually these come in the form of a word or phrase that my students want to know the English for, when the English term just doesn’t really exist, or is so ridiculous and archaic that it’s just not worth them knowing. Even worse, sometimes they ask me how to say an Italian word, and I realise I only know that word in Italian, so have to pretend there is no such word, or tell them that “we don’t have those in England”. Easy with things like breadsticks, harder when you draw a total blank on something like pencil.

There are the obvious untranslatable words and gestures from Italian, ranging from boh, which roughly translates as “I haven’t got a sodding clue and I don’t even know why you asked” to the one- or two-handed (depending on the severity of the situation) “che cazzo fai’” hand gesture that has become synonymous with Italianness amongst foreigners and is regularly to be spotted in the Torinese traffic, often accompanied by shouts and beeping horns.

Obviously there are also a few English words which don’t translate into Italian; serendipity is the classic example, and there are certainly many more too.

However, I’ve discovered that there is one word that simply doesn’t exist in Italian but, unlike serendipity and the like, is actually quite necessary.

Ready for it?


In Italian, the closest you can really get is imbarazzante (embarrassing), strano (strange), difficile (difficult), or scomodo (uncomfortable) and whilst they all explain awkwardness to some degree, there’s still an element lost in translation. Embarrassing or uncomfortable come close, but they still don’t quite cut it. If I wanted to use those words, I would have.

I don’t know if it’s because Italians never truly feel awkward or because we Brits are hyper-sensitive and have an innate ability to feel uncomfortable in absolutely any situation (I suspect it may be a combination of the two) but what’s sure is that I miss this particular item of lexis quite a lot.

Awkward might not seem all that useful as a word, but when it is no longer at your disposal, you come to realize just how handy it is. Let me run you through a few real-life scenarios:

1. I was on my way to work. I was running a little bit late because every bike-share in the city seemed to be already out or missing some vital part (wheels, brakes, chains and the like), so I briskly walked down to the station but needed to get the first Metro train so as not to be late (cheers, TObike). As I got half way down the stairs to the platform, the train pulled in. I trotted down the remaining stairs and, 10 feet from the doors, heard the beep signalling that the train was going to leave. I broke into a full-on run, slipped with my horrible M&S Ugg boot knock-offs on the extra shiny floor (where are you, Health & Safety?), and proceeded to go flying, falling at quite some speed onto the bone-breakingly hard surface. Not only did I make a total prat of myself in front of all of the rush-hour commuters and bruise myself quite impressively, but not a single person asked if I was ok, and the chavvy youths closest to me stared, pointed, laughed, and walked away. Oh, and I missed the train. Awkward.

2. A while back, I was cycling home from school. Whilst going round a corner and trying not to be killed by ruthless Italian grannies behind the wheels of their bashed-up Cinquecentos, I failed to notice the tram line directly in front of me. Before I could do anything, my front wheel had slipped neatly into the tyre-sized groove in the road, and I had flown over the handlebars in front of a group of amused onlookers. To make matters worse, in the process of embarrassing myself monumentally, I managed to make a bit of a mess of the bike, and had to walk it back to the bike-share stand I’d taken it from, where (you guessed it) some more sniggering youths were sitting, having witnessed the whole episode. To make matters worse, it was the last bike, so I had to find another way to get home. Awkward.

3. While getting my hot lunch out of the microwave at EXKI, not fully realizing how hot the plastic container had become, I burnt my fingers and subsequently threw the entire pot of pasta all over the microwave, napkin dispensers, table, floor, and myself. Since then, every time I heat something up, the guy who works there offers to carry it to wherever I’m sitting so I don’t make a mess again (a service not extended to any of the other customers). Sweet, but awkward.

4. The other day, I was peckish, so I ordered a pizza. Forty minutes or so later, my buzzer, um, buzzed. I’d been sat around and had nothing ready, so quickly grabbed my bag and opened the door while fumbling around for my purse in the abyss. The pizza guy told me how much I owed him, I found my wallet and thrust a note into his hand. Twenty of Her Majesty’s pounds, to be precise. He stared at me, and gave me a very baffled “Ma….?” as I took a few seconds to realise my error. Bit awkward (but mostly quite amusing).

5. Finally, and my personal favourite: one of the first times I went on the Metro, I didn’t get a seat so was standing in the ‘entrance vestibule’ as I suppose it’s meant to be called. In England, there’s always a piece of glass separating this section from the seats, so without checking, I leant back until my hand was resting neatly on… a seated man’s bald head. Was it simply ‘difficult’, ‘strange’ or ‘embarrassing’? No. It was just plain awkward.

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