They say it’s the most important meal of the day and personally, I cannot function properly without it: I’m talking about breakfast. People do it in every culture, so it should not be a problem to translate it, right? Wrong.
I always struggle when I have to translate text related to breakfast because this meal in Italy is conceived in a completely different way than in other cultures. You can see it from the name: breakfast in English means “something that breaks the fasting”, so something that should be substantial and fulfilling. The origin of the Italian word colazione is uncertain, but the Dictionary of Etymology traces it back to a frugal reunion of the monks after the prayer or to the Latin term “colatio“, meaning soup. Even the Treccani dictionary defines it as “the first, light meal of the day”; in Italy ,therefore, the meal might not be frugal or too light, but it’s generally quick and hassle free. There is no cooking involved and there is not a savoury ingredient in sight.
For an Italian, the most quintessential breakfast is consumed at the cafè (which we call “bar”) with a cappuccino- you all know what this is!- and a sweet pastry that in my region is called cornetto and is similar to, but not exactly like a croissant. Done at home, breakfast generally involves coffee and milk to drink and cereal, yogurt, a sweet roll, bread and jam or cookies to eat. Foreigners generally are quite amused by this but yes, we do have cookies for breakfast and in every Italian supermarket you’ll find an extensive display of the so-called “breakfast cookies” coming in the widest range of flavours: cocoa, chocolate chips, apples, malt, nuts- you name it. I am personally very frustrated because I cannot find the same range in the UK as here a breakfast with cookies is regarded as extravagant.
That’s how we do it in Italy (photo: Bruno Cordioli 4sq.com/xKkguV)
So what do you do as an Italian translator working on a diet plan, a survey on eating habits or a cookbook when eggs or bacon suddenly come up in the text? Is not the thing itself– be it scrambled eggs, cheese sandwich or rice and fish- that’s untranslatable, is the context in which it is presented that does not make much sense for an Italian. You just have to adapt the text for your audience so you can either leave it out or adapt and explain to your reader why that strange item is there, in the breakfast chapter, where the audience would expect to see an iced bun or a muffin. Obviously, it also depends on the text you’re translating: if it’s a book you cannot suggest to skip a whole chapter, but maybe agree with the editor a way to explain the reader why some recipes with unusual ingredients are there. I am wondering how they managed with the Italian translation of the Dukan diet books, since a part from yogurt, all other suggested foods are savoury and certainly atypical for an Italian breakfast.
Some time ago I was translating a questionnaire on eating habits and the options given included porridge and “cooked breakfast”; I added a note to the client to point out that item was irrelevant to an Italian reader and even in the case they knew what it was, really few of my countrymen would actually have it in a regular morning eating routine. I suggested the same for the item “cooked breakfast” but added that, should the client be keen on keeping it, we could specify “such as pancakes or waffle”: they are quite popular at the moment in Italy and albeit not being traditional, I see it as the only dish an Italian would cook in the morning, being sweet and relatively quick to rustle up.
Something as simple, unexciting and maybe even trivial as what we eat in the morning could sound very exotic or unusual to people from a different culture so it is important to bear this in mind when translating, for, as a famous quote says “translation makes intelligible a whole culture”.
Here’s an interesting article about breakfast of the world; I’d love to hear what is yours!