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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Si tratta di’

What's this phrase 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 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?

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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.

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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?

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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?

or

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

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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 film parla di un robot che vuole distruggere la razza umana.
The film’s about a robot who wants to destroy the human race.

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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.

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian word of the day: ‘Così’

This Italian word is so useful to know.

Italian word of the day: 'Così'

The Italian language features plenty of very versatile little words, like allora, ecco, quindi, insomma, cioè, and così, which have a multitude of uses and come in handy in all sorts of situations.

Helpfully, as Italian native speakers will demonstrate during almost any phone call, these words can also be used as fillers at times when you’re not sure what to say – but are still talking anyhow:

Ecco, così è, così siamo messi, così è andata

There you go, that’s the way it is, that’s where we are, that’s how it went

Today’s word might just be the most versatile of them all.

Così is a word that you’ll hear used all the time in spoken Italian, in all sorts of different ways. Here are a couple that you’ve probably heard or used yourself:

È così – That’s how it is (literally ‘it is so’)

Basta cosi? – Is that all?

Per così dire – so to speak/as it were

Non si fa così – don’t do that/that’s not cool (literally ‘it’s not done like that’)

As you can probably tell, così in its most common usages translates roughly into English as so, thus, such, that, or like this.

You pronounce it ‘koh-zee’ – click here to hear some examples.

Much like the English ‘that’, così can also be used to add emphasis, as in così tanto (‘so much’) or così poco (so little), or to modify an adjective:

Non è così comune

It’s not that common

It’s used to mean ‘so’ as in ‘therefore’:

C’era sciopero dei treni, così non siamo potuti partire.

There was a train strike, so we couldn’t leave.

You could even use it like this to stress how strongly you feel:

Siamo così così dispiaciuti per ieri sera.

We’re so, so sorry for last night

But normally, when you see it doubled up, it has a different meaning.

Così così is the equivalent of ‘so-so’ in English, which means ‘not good, not bad’ – but is the sort of phrase you might euphemistically use to indicate that you’re not feeling well, or didn’t like something very much.

Com’era il film? 

Così così… ho visto di meglio.

How was the film? 

So-so, I’ve seen better.

(Here, you could also use the word insomma instead of così così)

Le case sono mantenuti solo così così.

The houses aren’t very well maintained.

These are just a few of the many possible uses of così, but we’re sure you can see why this is a word every Italian learner should be familiar with. 

È così utile sapere! (It’s so useful to know)

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

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