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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 expression of the day: ‘Con le mani nel sacco’

Make sure you don't get caught out by this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: ‘Con le mani nel sacco’

Whether at school, at work or in some other everyday setting, we’ve all had to deal with people who don’t seem to know how to keep their hands off other peoples’ belongings.

From the cheeky coworker who’s been pilfering your sandwiches to those with more sinister motives, perhaps some of us have even put an early end to someone’s budding criminal career by catching them in the act.

In the English-speaking world, expressions suited to such situations abound, from ‘catching someone red-handed’ to ‘having someone dead to rights’.

But have you ever wondered what Italians say when they catch someone in flagrante?

The most popular Italian expression for the aforementioned circumstance is ‘cogliere con le mani nel sacco’. A literal translation of this idiom would be ‘catching [someone] with their hands in the bag’, which, as you might have guessed, stems from thieves’ unshakeable propensity to sneak their paws inside various receptacles.

In American English, you might say someone was ‘caught with their hand in the cookie jar’.

It’s a little different from the British English expression ‘being caught with your hand in the till’, which is specifically used to talk about the theft of money from an employer – whether or not it’s been taken from an actual cash register.

Note that native Italian speakers use the expression ‘cogliere con le mani nel sacco’ for all types of criminals, not just thieves.

Here are some examples:

Q – Hai sentito della tentata rapina in Via Verdi ieri notte?
A – Si. A quanto pare, la polizia ha colto i ladri con le mani nel sacco!
Q – Have you heard about the attempted burglary on Via Verdi last night?
A – Yeah. It seems the police caught the thieves in the act!

Q – Per quale motivo è in galera?
A – Bracconaggio. Le guardie forestali lo hanno colto con le mani nel sacco lo scorso ottobre.
Q – What’s he in jail for?
A – Poaching. Park rangers caught him red-handed last October.

As you can see, the verb ‘cogliere’ (‘to catch’ in English) must be declined in accordance with its subject (i.e. the person doing the catching). This is followed immediately by the object: the person (or people) being caught. This construction is followed by the phrase ‘con le mani nel sacco’.

While the expression is generally used in serious contexts and conversations, it may also be employed in a light-hearted way, as in:

Q – Ma tu non eri a dieta? Perche’ stai mangiando dei biscotti?

A – Diamine. Mi hai colto con le mani nel sacco.

Q – Weren’t you supposed to be on a diet? Why are you having cookies?
A – Damn. You caught me red-handed.

Bear in mind that alternative versions of the idiom exist.

For instance, in some areas locals may use the verbs ‘prendere’ or ‘beccare’ instead of the more common ‘cogliere’. But the overall meaning of the expression doesn’t change.

Regardless of the verb you end up using, next time you sneak up on someone who’s not exactly abiding by the law of the land, tell them that you’ve caught them ‘con le mani nel sacco’.

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

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