Localisation and the return of fascism

People are expressing themselves from bad to worse. It is a sorry sight indeed. With the advent of the Internet and content produced by users, language is evolving at an ever increasing rate. Common mistakes eventually become systematic and accepted as the norm once the next generation forgets the correct form. For example, I bet that within five years it will be acceptable to write “their are several ways [to do something]”. Confusion between the use of “there, their and they’re” is a common grammatical mistake that many people make or read without picking up on the error.  This rapid corruption of language is one of the reasons why crowdsourcing of translation is to be avoided as much possible. Likewise, I urge you to have your virtual content translated by a professional translator – an absurd idea perhaps – but you never know. It might work.

Among those languages progressively losing their cultural identity, Italian has pride of place. Italy has only been a united country since 1861 and this unity was not confirmed on a linguistic level until after World War II, through the advent of television among other things. It was a time of literacy campaigns and national pride. Now gone when you see that young Italians no longer know their own language and even institutions in the country hardly seem to care about preserving it. I could give you many examples to illustrate how corruption – rampant on various levels in Italy – even influences the very language (I am Italian). However, I will confine my discussion to localisation.

The most common source language on the Internet is English, but the aspects I will present to you here are also common to websites translated from the French.

Calques (or loanwords). Italians think that English is a much “cooler” language. That is why they prefer to use “supporto” instead of “assistenza” to translate the English word support, or “registrarsi” instead of “iscriversi” for register, and so on. These words are not used at all in Italian in the natural language, but are now commonplace on the Web. This does not mean they are correct.

Pronouns. Italian uses very few pronouns. Firstly, it is a language that is written as it is pronounced: “I love” is “io amo” and “you love” is “tu ami”. So we just say “amo, ami” because we don’t need the pronoun to understand who the subject is. In fact, we only use possessive pronouns when there is cause for ambiguity. So we would say “dammi la mano” (and not “dammi la tua mano”) for “give me your hand”. It is obvious that we are referring to the hand of the person we are speaking to (unless that person is carrying a dissected corpse…). That is why it is easy to recognise a poor Italian translation by the impressive number of pronouns contained within it.

Formal “you”. Where formal “you” is used in English and the French prefer “vous” to address Internet users, very bad Italian translators have invaded the Internet with horrible constructions based on the pronoun “voi”. See the Italian website for Chanel, for example:

Yet, not only is it the informal “tu”, or the infinitive form of the verb that should be used in this context, if you do really want to speak formally to someone, you have to use “Lei” in Italian – the third person singular. That said, “Lei” is only used in very formal situations and therefore never on the Internet.  Also, “Lei” must always be reciprocated which means you demand that your customers speak as formally to you in return.

Used until the 19th Century in parallel to “Lei” and “tu”, “voi” was reserved for those people of very high rank. In southern Italy, it is still very common to speak formally using “voi”, but this is more a mark of dialect. These days, “voi” is a plural pronoun that addresses several people at once, as explained by Luca Seriani from the national linguistic institute Accademia della Crusca. In 1938, Mussolini banned the use of “Lei” and ordered the return of “voi” in formal speech. Ettore Scola quotes this law in his 1977 film “Una giornata particolare“. Italianists will note that Marcello Mastroianni uses “Lei” whereas Sophia Loren uses “voi”. They argue in fact, as Sophia Loren is afraid of reprisals for refusing to apply this fascist grammar. Mastroianni resolves the dispute by moving straight to the use of “tu”.

That is why each time I browse a badly-translated website where I read “voi”, I turn to check whether there isn’t someone doing a Roman salute in the room. Is this the effect desired by those who mandate these translations?  Far from it, I’m sure…