Compliments in Translation

Ok ladies, if you’ve ever set even one tiny toe in Italy, you’ve most likely been on the receiving end of a compliment from an Italian. Right?

American Girl in Italy – The object of many Italian compliments!

Right. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Foreign women (and men) are no strangers to the cat-calls, wolf-whistles and the choruses of “Ciao bella!” and “Che carina!” that seem to simply spill from the mouths of Italian onlookers – it’s part of the culture. Now that I’ve been living here in Bella Italia for over 3 months, I can faithfully report that Italy is a country that appreciates beauty, both internal and external. The beauty of a child, the beauty of age-old architecture, the beauty of a well-dressed woman, the beauty of sharing a meal among friends, the internal beauty of a person, the beauty of grapes still on the vine, the beauty of wine in a glass, the way everything seems more beautiful after downing few of those glasses….

Enough of that.

What happens though, when these famous Italian compliments about beauty or a job well done aren’t so complimentary?

Case Number 1:

After a very pleasant evening of meeting and socializing with friends of friends, one of the women in the group gave me the following “compliment” as she leaned in for the customary double kiss.

“Oh Sarah, it was so nice to meet you stasera (this evening). It’s so refreshing to meet someone so semplice!” 

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this scema (not a nice word) just squeezed my hand, kissed my cheek and called me “simple”. “Simple” is the word my Grandma or Dad would use to refer to someone who’s a few bricks short of a load. A few fries short of a Happy Meal. A couple doughnuts short of a dozen. Someone who is, in short, SIMPLE!!! What the heck kind of compliment was that!? And I knew, I was certain it hadn’t been a mistranslation on my part. “Semplice” is a pretty “simple” word to translate. Ha.

I huffed back into my seat and plunked myself down in front of my half-empty glass of Prosecco. I was not simple. I had depth! I had character! And personality! I wasn’t boring or stupid! Hmmpf! After fuming, stewing, broiling and silent name-calling because of this little “compliment” I decided to call in reinforcements. I explained the exchange to my Italian friend who had introduced the two of us, and then explained to her what the English word “simple” meant to me in that context. Of course, as it goes with all of my little misadventures in Italy, she began to laugh at me.

“Sarah, no! Calling someone semplice here really is a compliment. It means you’re sincere, you’re not two-faced, that you seem sweet and nice. That you don’t have ulterior motives. It really is a great thing that she said to you because sometimes Italian girls can be… Well, you know how Italian girls can be…” She trailed off.

Hmm. Ok. Fine. I could live with that. Actually, it was kinda nice. I could do semplice. I could embrace semplice. No problemo. Semplice it was!

Case Number 2:

After my “Broiled Biscotti” adventure, I took some of the cookies to my friend’s restaurant to share with the staff. I will modestly report that my broiled chocolate chip cookies were a big hit! And after sharing my scrumptious sweets-a-plenty with my Italian friends, they felt the need to compliment me on my superior Frazzled Chef cooking skills. I didn’t stop them. I probably should have.

Brava Sarah!” Good job, Sarah! (Now, isn’t that a sweet thing to say?)

“The cookies are buonissimi!” The cookies are great!  (So glad you like them!)

“Sarah, sei grande!!!” (PARDON?!)

Yep, for those of you who know a bit of Italian, that last one could translate roughly as “Sarah, you’re big!” Now, I know I had just eaten a bunch of calorific cookies, but I didn’t really feel that they had made a noticeable difference to my waistline.

Offended, probably red-faced with eyes bulging, I cried, “What do you mean, I’m big?! What the heck kind of thing is that to say to the girl who just brought you homemade cookies, the remnants of which you are currently licking off your fingertips!” I was leaning forward and pointing a questioning finger in the face of the culprit of this non-compliment.

“No, not big like fat!” He puffed out his cheeks and put his arms out to his side to mime “fat” while furiously shaking his head no.

“Big like great!” This time he gave me a double thumbs-up. “Great! That’s the English word, right?” He consulted the others. They all nodded in agreement. “Great” they said in unison.


No longer feeling fat, I put my pointing finger away, helped myself to another cookie and  filed “grande” away into the “Italian compliments” section of my brain.

“Now, if you eat too many of these cookies,” my friend warned, shaking the tupperware in front of my face, “you will be come grassa and grossa, like fat. So leave some more of them with us and we’ll help you avoid that problema.” He winked and stuffed another cookie into his mouth.

The moral of the story? These are just a couple more examples of the many things that can get lost in translation around here…

3 thoughts on “Compliments in Translation

  1. Pingback: Relative and Absolute Superlatives in Italian (or the BEST, the WORST, and HAPPIEST) | The Iceberg Project

  2. I enjoyed your anecdotes on how things get lost in translation. The woman I’ve started dating is on holiday in Italy and I was searching for compliments to give her which would not be misread or misinterpreted. I tried “Sei unica” and got a puzzled “Single? Alone?”. Oh, well.

  3. Pingback: 7 Creative Ways to Make Your Italian Study Time Even Better

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