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Italian expression of the day: ‘Si tratta di’

Have you ever wondered what this phrase is all about?

Italian expression of the day si tratta di.
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s expression is one you’ll hear a lot in spoken Italian.

It’s also a tricky one for anglophones to wrap our heads around, because although it appears simple – ‘si tratta di’ basically means something along the lines of ‘it concerns/discusses/deals with/is about’ – it actually doesn’t translate very cleanly into English most of the time.

Let’s start with the use that’s easiest for us to grasp: asking and answering the question of what something’s about/what it concerns.

– Pronto, sono l’ispettore Jackson, posso parlare con la signora Hoffman?
– Sì, sono io – posso chiedere di cosa si tratta?

– Hello, this is Inspector Jackson speaking, can I speak with Mrs. Hoffman?
– Yes, this is she – may I ask what this is concerning?

Boris Gabrieli GIF - Boris Gabrieli Padre Gabrieli GIFs

We can also use the phrase to say that something is ‘a matter of’ or ‘a question of’:

Se si tratta di qualche ora, rimarremo qui ad aspettarla.
If it’s a question of hours, we’ll stay here and wait for her.

Ora si tratta solo di scoprire dove ha lasciato le chiavi.
Now it’s a just a matter of figuring out where she left the keys.

And si tratta di can also be as a translation for ‘when it comes to’.

Adoro mangiare bene, ma quando si tratta di cucinare sono una frana.
I love eating well, but when it comes to cooking I suck.

Where things start to get a bit more complicated is that you’ll often see the phrase used where the English translation doesn’t require anything.

For example, you might hear the following exchange at work:

– Michela non viene al lavoro oggi perché la sua bambina è malata.
– Spero che non si tratti di nulla di grave.

– Michela’s not coming into work today because her little girl’s sick.
– I hope it’s nothing serious.

You could say ‘I hope it doesn’t consist of anything serious’, which would get you closer to a direct translation – but in English this would sound oddly formal and overblown (in the above example we use tratti rather than tratta because spero che requires the subjunctive).

What if you want to say that a certain thing – a song, a book, a film, a speech – discusses or ‘deals with’ certain themes or issues?

Firstly, note that impersonal si there. It’s standing in for a subject, which means we can’t have both the subject and the si in the same sentence together – one of them has to go.

You can say, for example, ‘Il suo terzo libro tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘her third book deals with ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom.’

Or you can say, ‘Nel suo terzo libro, si tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘In her third book, she discusses ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom” (a more literal translation would be ‘in her third book, ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom are discussed’, which sounds a bit awkward in English).

You could ask:

Di cosa tratta il libro?
What does the book discuss?


Di cosa si tratta nel libro?
What’s discussed in the book?

What you can’t do is say, ‘Il libro si tratta di…’ or ask ‘Di cosa si tratta il libro?’. Neither of these constructions work because you can’t have both the impersonal si and the subject (in this case, il libro) together.

What if you want to say, for example, ‘the book/film is about…’?

The easiest way to do that is either to just say ‘il film parla di…‘ – ‘the film talks about…’ ; or ‘il film racconta la storia di…’ – ‘the film tells the story of…’:

Il libro racconta la storia di un ragazzo che scopre di essere un mago.
The book tells the story of a boy who discovers he’s a wizard.

Hopefully now you have a better idea of what this phrase is all about!

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

Don’t miss any of our Italian words and expressions of the day by downloading our app (available on Apple and Android) and then selecting the Italian Word of the Day in your Notification options via the User button.

Member comments

  1. I appreciate your piece on “si tratta di.” However, I was VERY pleased to also learn how to express when “I suck” at something. Google translate uses: “faccio schifo.” I’d be interested in the difference, and if – as is often the case – Google misstates the situation. Grazie!

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For members


Italian word of the day: ‘Merenda’

No need to chew on this word for too long.

Italian word of the day: ‘Merenda’

Merenda is a word you may come across pretty early on in your Italian language journey, especially if you happen to have Italian colleagues at work or simply hang out often enough with Italian relatives or friends.

A merenda (pronunciation available here) is a small meal usually enjoyed in the mid to late-afternoon to keep hunger at bay until dinnertime.

In English this would generally be called a ‘snack’, though a merenda can also be a bit more substantial than what would normally qualify as an afternoon snack in other countries.

Oddly enough for a country with dozens of food-related dos and don’ts, there are no precise rules over what should (or should not) be eaten as a merenda.

You might opt for sweet foods (for instance, a slice of cake, cookies, bread and jam, or some yoghurt with dried fruit) or go for something savoury (e.g., a slice of focaccia, salted crackers, a tramezzino sandwich or even a panino with cold cuts or cheese).

For schoolchildren, pane e nutella (bread with nutella cream) is by far the most popular option, though pre-packaged snacks, often referred to and advertised as merendine, or ‘little snacks’, have grown in popularity in recent years.

Regardless of exactly what they’re snacking on, Italians see their afternoon merenda not just a way to beat hunger but also a key break during their day, which is why the following workplace scenario isn’t all that rare:

Ma dove diavolo stai andando? Abbiamo una riunione tra 20 minuti!

Scusami, devo fare merenda. Torno subito.

Where the heck are you going? We have a meeting in 20 minutes!

Sorry, I need to have a snack. I’ll be right back.

Remember: Italians don’t ‘have’ a snack, but they ‘make’ a snack, hence the expression fare la merenda, or, for short, fare merenda.

Ho appena fatto merenda con due fette di torta alle mele.

I’ve just snacked on two slices of apple pie.  

As a nice bit of trivia for your next Italian general culture quiz, the word merenda comes from the late Latin verb merere (‘to deserve’), and means ‘things that must be deserved’. 

Do you have a favourite Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

Don’t miss any of our Italian words and expressions of the day by downloading our new app (available on Apple and Android) and then selecting the Italian Word of the Day in your Notification options via the User button.