The other day a colleague was working on the localisation of a tweet and asked me “what would you say is traditional Italian Christmas dish?”. I gave him one answer, another colleague a different one, and he came up with another idea, too. What said “Christmas” to him wasn’t familiar at all to me, and the other way around. Italian traditions are so many and different that it’s hard to find a particular dish that’s typical everywhere (except for those mentioned in point 5, maybe). Obviously, traditions are hard to transpose, too. Christmas is a holiday celebrated in the Anglosaxon world, in Italy and in Spanish speaking countries- to mention only the places where my working languages are spoken- but everyone celebrates them differently. We all have Christmas tree and some typical carols, we all exchange presents and get together with family and friends and consume far too much food and drinks… but there are also so many differences that one might be surprised! Here is my list of top 5 issues one can encounter when translating about Christmas traditions.
1. Christmas dinner: In some parts of Italy, the celebration starts on the 24th with a succulent dinner; I’m from Rome and there, la vigilia (the eve) is quite a big deal! The food consumed is generally fish and in more religious households they would refrain from consuming meat on that day, as sign of penance and purification. In the Northern regions of Italy, the celebration is only on the 25th, as in the UK. On Christmas day, we don’t call it dinner: we gather for lunch, around 1pm, so we have more time to spend together, open the presents- and eat, of course!
2. The turkey: Again, in some parts of Italy, stuffed and roasted poultry is typical on Christmas day, whereas other don’t eat it all, such as in my case. Thanks to British and American Christmas & Thanksgiving movies, we are now used to conceive turkey as a festive dish, but you will not find endless series of articles about how to roast the perfect turkey in Italy. I know vegetarians in the UK might opt for a nut roast, but don’t even try to ask for it in Italy- or expect a blank stare in reply if you do. Christmas was a big festivity and in the past was one of the few occasion were eating meat was possible, so vegetarians are not really catered for on this occasion.
3. The sprouts: I love Brussel sprouts and I love all the little cards and sprout-themed fun gadgets you can find around this time of the year in the UK. The other day I was about to buy some cards to give to friends in Italy but then I thought they would not appreciate them, as this lovely little cabbage is not associated with Christmas at all in Italy, so it would have only seemed cute or quirky, but not Christmassy.
4. All the trimmings: Bread sauce appears to be a UK delicacies nobody else understands outside of this country, so it’s obviously not known in Italy; for those who do turkey or roasted meat there’s not such a passion for gravy, either, and other sauces are used in its place, such as salsa verde or mostarda. Much to my disappointment, cranberries are not a local fruit and there’s not a cranberry sauce in sight; the translation for cranberry is also a bit weird as it is called mirtillo rosso (literally “red blueberry”), but to be honest, I have ve never heard anyone referring to it. Another big unknown is the parsnip, whose Italian translation is pastinaca; I have never seen it in a market or supermarket as it is not traditional nor imported, and if you ask for a pastinaca in a supermarket they would probably not know what it is.
5. Christmas puddings & mince pies: Christmas pudding is quite a dramatic dessert and its round shape topped with cream and holly is one of the most quintessential images of a British Christmas, as are mince pies. As you can guess, there’s nothing like it in Italy, where we tend to gravitate towards more cakey desserts; although there’s an endless variety of them, typical to each village or town, the ones that you can find throughout the country are the panettone (from Milan, a brioche-like dough enriched with raisins and candied peels) and the pandoro (a buttery cake topped with icing sugar, from Verona). They are probably the most similar thing we have to a national traditional Christmas food.
Bonus: the Christmas crackers. There’s no British Christmas party without them, but the first time I came across one I was totally puzzled. Cracking them is fun, but the jokes are honestly cringeworthy!
The translation of these words and concepts, as ever, depends on the context: do we have time or space to insert a note and explain what they are? The real accurate meaning of it is not relevant, so we can come up with the best possible translation, even neutralising them (ie. translating “Christmas pudding” as “dessert”)? The most important thing is to evoke a feeling or an idea, so it’s better to localise them, and maybe substitute “Christmas pudding” with “panettone”? We just need to be aware of the different implications the words we translate might have in a different culture, and balance their impact according to the communicative purpose.
Don’t you feel uber- festive already? Don’t be naughty: share this, or I might tell Santa!