On one of my trips to Italy, I bought a small bilingual dictionary, by Collins/Boroli, having left my large, heavy and very authoritative one at home. I’ve used it mainly to look up Italian words that I didn’t understand, or occasionally an English word when I couldn’t think how to express the idea in Italian. As language teachers will tell you, you need to try to think in the second language, not in your own, so it’s better to avoid using the dictionary to translate from your own language.
But the best bit of the dictionary were the little notes in italics that the authors had included when they didn’t feel that a strict translation conveyed the essential information. I got so intrigued that I scanned through the English half of the dictionary looking for them. ‘Cheddar’, for example, is one of the shorter ones. It says “formaggio duro di latte di mucca di colore bianco o arancione” — hard cheese coloured white or orange from cows’ milk.
‘Morris Dancing’ gets a much longer entry. “Il morris dancing è una danza folcloristica inglese tradizionalmente riservata agli uomini. Vestiti di bianco e con dei campanelli attacci alle caviglie, i ballerini eseguono una danza tenendo in mano dei fazzoletti bianche e lunghi bastoni. Questa danza è molto popolare nelle feste paesane.”
Or, roughly, “Morris dancing is an English folk dance traditionally reserved for men. Dressed in white and with bells attached to the ankles, the dancers perform a dance holding white handkerchiefs and long sticks. This dance is very popular in village festivals.”
But I do wonder why the authors of a very compact little dictionary felt that their work was not complete until the details of Morris Dancing had been explained. Surely “an English folk dance” would be adequate for the vast majority of purposes? There’s an entry in Italian Wikipedia for those who need more.
Among the other entries with explanatory notes are the ones for the BBC and the Open University. ‘Chip Shop’ gets a few extra words too. There’s a note differentiating the American usage of ‘prom’ (as in a student ball) from the British one at the Royal Albert Hall (“prestigiosa” it says). I suppose I should have called it a trilingual dictionary. (‘Labor Day’ and ‘Thanksgiving’ have extended entries as well.)
‘Jumble Sale’ and ‘Car Boot Sale’ also have to be explained in detail. I happen to know that both are rare in Italy, which is reason, I suppose, for describing the concepts. The entries on food items are particularly telling. While English-speakers hardly need to have carbonara or parmigiano explained to them, it’s sad but true that the English culinary terms include ‘chicken nuggets’, ‘banoffee pie’ and ‘thousand island dressing’.