Every language has phrases or words that can stump a local when translating to an outsider. Italian has many untranslatable terms that are woven into not only the language but culture, too. If learning Italian, it’s important to know how to use “Mamma mia!” without automatically saying “here we go again” and fill your plate at an “apericena” buffet.
Here are 10 untranslatable Italian terms.
This is my favorite one. It’s so hard for me to refrain using it when I’m speaking in English because it’s very common and easy to say. Literally, it doesn’t mean anything but we use in place of “non lo so” (I don’t know). While you say it, shrug your shoulders and twist your mouth downwards. It’s the laziest word we have.
2. Ti voglio bene
It puzzles me how to differentiate between friendship and love with someone in English, if you say “I love you” to both friends and lovers. In Italian, we have two different and separate expressions: “ti amo” for your partner and “ti voglio bene” for your friends and family. It avoids any misunderstandings…
The closest word to translate “abbiocco” is food-coma. It’s that feeling you get after you stuffed yourself with your grandma’s lasagna. The only thing you’re capable of doing during an “abbiocco” is hit the couch and give out some sort of death rattle. Embrace it, it comes with the territory of Italian food culture.
As you can imagine, “spaghettata” has something to do with spaghetti. If you get a call from friends inviting you to have a “spaghettata” you are obviously going to a spaghetti-party. It doesn’t necessarily have to be spaghetti — the pastabilities are endless.
5. Tizio, Caio e Sempronio
Tizio, Caio e Sempronio is used in a dialogue when referring to multiple unspecified people. It is the equivalent of Tom, Dick, and Harry (therefore we could say the English language actually has a translation) and I found out many other languages have their Tizio, Caio, and Sempronio. But sometimes we only use “Tizio e Caio” without including “Sempronio“. We also use “Tizio” to refer to a random guy.
Why these names in particular? Because they were the most popular ones in juridical exemplifications and they were first used in the 1100s.
6. Mamma mia
It’s a classic and I use it very often. If someone bothers you, say “Mamma mia”. If you’re in front of the Colosseum and you find it beautiful, say “Mamma mia”. If you’re enjoying your mom’s spaghetti always say “Mamma mia che buoni!” (Mamma mia, it’s so good!).
Magari has many meanings depending on the context but generally, they can be translated with “I wish”.
“Did you win the tickets for the game?”
Aperitivo + cena = apericena. It’s a very new word that made its way into the dictionary in the 00s. Whereas an “aperitivo” is a meal consisting of a drink and a small bite consumed before dinner — generally between 6 and 8 PM — an “apericena” takes place at dinner (“cena“) time and has way more food. It often consists of an unlimited buffet. On your next trip to Italy find a good apericena.
This word has a literal translation but we use it for something else too. “Passeggiata” means to walk. However, when a situation is straightforward we say it’s a “passeggiata”.
“How was the exam?”
10. Dolce far niente
I know you know this one. “Dolce far niente” translates to “sweet doing nothing” and it’s a thing we love. Having a break after lunch, a walk on the beach while eating gelato, watching Netflix — they’re all dolce far niente activities.