Determiners in Italian Translation

A determiner is a word that specifies the denotation of a noun phrase. It indicates the kind of reference the noun has. Like adjectives, it modifies and clarifies the noun. There are many types of determiners in Italian and English, but five among these types create more problems for an Italian translation than the rest.

The five types are:
Definite and indefinite articles (English: a, an, the; Italian: il, lo, la, etc. Italian has a greater number of articles because the article in Italian indicates gender as well as number)
Demonstratives (English: this, that, those; Italian: questo and quello. Italian demonstratives correspond in gender and number with the nouns they modify.)
Possessives (English: my, your, his, her; Italian: il mio, il tuo, la mia, la tua. Italian possessives are compound words which include a definite article; while translating into English the definite article remains “untranslated”. Another important difference is that in English the gender of the possessive pronoun corresponds with the gender of the possessor, while in Italian it corresponds with the gender of the possessed subject.)
Relative pronouns (English: what, which, whose, whom; Italian: che, cui, il quale)
Quantifiers (English: some, any, each; Italian: qualche, ogni, qualsiasi, etc.)

Many of the problems with determiners in Italian translation arise because of the differences mentioned above. These differences often lead to asymmetry, that is, the form of the determiner is changed when translating from Italian to English and vice versa, or a determiner is omitted from or introduced into the target text. For example, an indefinite article may replace a definite article, or the relative pronoun may be left out.

There are other significant ways in which the use of determiners in Italian differs from the use of determiners in English, and complicate the problem of using determiners in Italian translation. One of them is the Italian preference for using definite articles in places where this would not happen in the English language. English plurals (“houses”, “apples”) and English uncoundiv nouns (“furniture”, “kindness”) are not preceded by the definite article “the”. (Exceptions: “the” is used if the uncoundiv noun is followed by prepositions and relative clauses that provide more information about the noun).

The Italian preference for nominalizations contrasted with the English tendency to avoid them aggravates the problems posed by determiners, especially definite articles, because a noun will always be accompanied by some form of article. The decision to leave out or to include or to change the form of the determiner in Italian translation will ultimately be dictated by the register and style, the ideas or objects that need to be stressed, the rhythm and intonation of the language and the context in both the source and target texts. An Italian translator also has the option to replace the definite article with a possessive adjective in the target text. There are some other methods of rendering determiners in Italian translation, and they will be discussed in the next unit.


The previous unit has referred to three ways of rendering determiners in Italian translation: an Italian translator can remove the article from the target text; he or she can use the definite article instead of the indefinite article and vice versa, or he or she can replace the article with a possessive. Often enough, though, these options of conveying determiners in Italian translation prove inadequate, especially if an Italian translator has to give precedence to concerns about accuracy and idiomaticity. Partially overlapping translation can be one way to solve this problem.

Like the use of the definite article, the use of the indefinite article, too, varies between the two languages. Where the English language differentiates between an and one, the Italian language uses the same word to denote both concepts. Sometimes it may so happen that an Italian translator would need to introduce an article in the target text to replace the determiner that has been used in the source text. The Italian demonstratives quello and questo are a case in point, and it is customary to replace them with articles in the target text. It may even be advisable to leave out the demonstrative altogether from the target text. An Italian translator needs to consolidate his or her knowledge of the various possible discrepancies that can exist between determiners in Italian and English languages, and also has to learn to rely on suidiv grammatical transpositions to make up for any Italian translation loss created by omitting determiners.

Apart from articles, determiners known as relative pronouns also cause problems in an Italian translation. Retaining a clause using a relative pronoun is not ungrammatical in English, but it mars the naturalness of the language by making it sound stiff and pedantic. If an Italian relative pronoun is translated into English, it is done with the purpose of maintaining the sequential focus of the source text. But, unfortunately, its distorted nature often has the contradictory effect of drawing the reader’s attention away from the meaning of the text. Admittedly, relative pronouns in an Italian translation are a source of many difficulties, but an Italian translator should not be tempted by the easy way out of omitting as many of them as possible from the target text.

From the above discussion it is evident that though the Italian and English languages share the same kind of determiners, their use varies from language to language. Often determiners have to be grammatically transposed in an Italian translation; grammatical transpositions may be a matter of conventional usage or their form may be determined by the immediate context. Context usually plays a very important role in alerting an Italian translator about what kind of reformulation might be required. So does an Italian translator’s own experience, which will stand him or her in good stead when selecting the appropriate determiner for the target text in hand.

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