Lost in Translation
Italian automotive terms that sound exciting, but aren't
Among English-speaking peoples, the perception exists that many Romance languages are more evocative, colorful, and, well, romantic than their own, what with its Germanic roots surviving well past 1066. French is the usual example, but, for automotive enthusiasts, it is Italian that particularly stirs the imagination, probably due in part to the fact that, stereotypically at least, Italian cars seem to be built with the enthusiast in mind. But it is worth noting that, however exotic it may sound to our ears, Italian, like all languages, exists to convey information, a portion of which will be rather commonplace in nature. In fact, some Italian automotive terms, when translated to English, are more pedestrian than automotive. Here are a few examples.
"Maserati Quattroporte VI (2013) at Geneva Motor Show 2013" by Norbert Aepli, Switzerland on Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 3.0.
Quatro = four
Porte = doors
Only in Italian can such an utterly prosaic name sound interesting.
"Lancia Stratos HF Stradale - 1975" by jambox998 on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0"
Though it doesn’t happen often anymore, it was once common for cars designed purely for racing to be available as road cars for homologation purposes. In the case of Italian cars, you could tell they were road cars because they were often labelled Stradale, which is Italian for road.
"2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio" by Automotive Rhythms on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
This word has graced high-performance Alfa Romeos for years, and, given Alfa’s reputation, it surely refers to something fascinatingly mechanical- or performance-oriented, right? Nope. It literally means four leaves, and refers to four-leaf clovers painted on vintage racing Alfas for good luck.
"FERRARI 250 TESTA ROSSA 59-60 0774TR" by Eddy Clio on Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0.
Though it is one of the most storied names in automotive history, Testa Rossa simply means red head. And the name doesn’t refer to the stereotypical temperament of those with red hair, but rather to the fact that the cylinder heads (and later just the valve covers) were painted red.
"Fiat Campagnola in which John Paul II was the target of an assassination attempt on 13 May 1981" by Ferran Porta on Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0.
Four-wheel-drive vehicles tend to have names that evoke an image of toughness (Wrangler, Bronco, Trooper) or cross-country ability (Land Rover, Land Cruiser, Geländewagen). You’d think that the Fiat Campagnola’s name would be equally impressive, but it isn’t: it is the feminine form of Campagnolo, which means countryman, or, idiomatically, yokel.
"_MG_1053.jpg" by Jon Large on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
It looks impressive on the back of a Lamborghini or Ferrari, but all this signifies is that there are four valves per cylinder.
"Fiat Barchetta" by raffaele segi on Flickr. CC BY 2.0.
The name for this body style is synonymous with sports cars and thus sounds racy and exciting, but it actually means little boat.
"1967 Alfa Romeo Giulia Super 1" by Jack Snell on Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0.
It may derive from a style of closed horse-drawn carriage, and it may only refer to a sedan/saloon, but Berlina sounds much more interesting. Sort of like Quattroporte. Also note Berlinetta, which refers to a coupé, and means, in essence, little sedan.
"A Fiat 1100 D station wagon" by Pujanak on Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.
In the U.S., its name refers to its role of shuttling travelers from train stations to hotels, and in the U.K., its name refers to use by the landed gentry, so surely the Italians would have an imaginative or aspirational name for the station wagon/estate. Instead, the term Familiare references that this body style is especially useful for families. Some Fiats instead carried the moniker Giardiniera or Giardinetta, or gardener, most notably the 500 which was perhaps a bit too small for families. And some coachbuilt Alfa Romeo wagons were called Promiscua, which means precisely what it appears in English, and is possibly the most unusual means of conveying the idea of a multipurpose vehicle.
"Enzo Ferrari at the wheel of a racing car" on Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Enzo’s surname is ultimately rooted from the Latin ferrum, which means iron, and was applied to people who worked with iron, i.e. blacksmiths. Thus, this name, perhaps the most famous name in automotive history, a name that conjures images of exciting, exotic automobiles, is roughly equivalent to the English surname Smith. Except Smith doesn’t sound quite right in front of 365 GTB/4 Daytona, but Ferrari does. Perhaps there is something about the Italian language after all.