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Language Matters

Language Matters

A month or so ago, I found myself wandering the streets of an unfamiliar town in northern Italy as I checked Google Maps on my phone for a specific address. As I rounded the corner in proximity to my destination, a sign caught my eye that made me stop in my tracks. I saw the words RIP-OFF (the actual name has been changed to protect the innocent, but the meaning was exactly the same) in large letters, and I couldn’t imagine what kind of establishment it might be. In the many years I’ve been in Italy, I’ve noticed that the use of English does make for a certain “cool factor” when it comes to Italian shop and business names, but its use can be misguided.

When I used to have a long commute to work in Milan, I’d often sit on the tram in traffic and marvel at the variety of English words used in bar, restaurant and store names and the “creative” use of grammar. As the little orange tram crawled and creaked along, we would pass places like “Dream’s Bar,” “House’ of Coffee” or “I Love’s Fashion.” The poor apostrophe. So misunderstood by native speakers and non-natives alike.

As a journalist and translator, I may be more of a stickler about the use of language than your average Italian bar or clothing store owner, but I also often face a certain amount of resistance from my own professional clients who feel that they know as much as I do. Like the case of the manager at one multinational company who called to tell me that her daughter (an Italian student of English at a liceo linguistico) had “proofread” my translation and was shocked to come across many words she didn’t know. The subtext was, “My teenage daughter who studies English at school and once did a weekend in London didn’t understand your translation, so it must be riddled with errors.” I had to explain that it was only natural that a native speaker of the language would know more words than her (non-native) daughter.

All of this isn’t to say that English speakers can boast superior language skills. The fact that they know they can “get by” in many parts of the world without having to learn the local language tends to make some people complacent (and even arrogant). What’s more, English speakers typically aren’t known for their stellar foreign language skills. Most of us who live in Italy have had the experience of going to Italian restaurants back in our home countries and being offered “broooshetta” or “ganocchi” (and we may have butchered those same words—and many others—in our struggle to learn the language). I know I never correct the server in those cases because I feel ridiculously pretentious. I also remember my days of waiting tables and being asked to describe the “au jus” sauce, which I don’t think I ever pronounced correctly.

When it comes to language, we need to be flexible, forgiving and humble. But we also need to be aware of the importance of words. Words matter. Language matters. There’s sometimes an attitude of “It may not be exactly right, but, c’mon, you understand all the same, don’t you???” When I see something like “Dream’s Bar,” for example, I do understand what the intention was, but it also does nothing to entice me to patronize the business. In my mind, sloppy signage is equivalent to a sloppy service. If I were ever to open a bar, restaurant or shop and decided to use a foreign name to represent that business, I would certainly have it vetted by native-speaking experts before having the sign and letterhead printed.

As for RIP-OFF? It turned out to be a travel agency. Call me picky, but RIP-OFF won’t be planning my next holiday.

Article by Michelle Schoenug

Michelle Schoenung is a professional journalist and translator who has lived in Milan since 2000. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Departures magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, Wired and in the Frommer’s Italy guides. She can be reached at mschoenu@gmail.com

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