If you ask Google to translate “awkward” into Italian, you get several results. Scomodo, which means uncomfortable, inconvenient. Goffo, clumsy. Imbarazzante, embarrassing. As a native Italian speaker, I can say that none of these adjectives accurately translate into “awkward” the way my generation of English speakers uses it. After moving to the States, I learned that “awkward” is an adjective that describes the feeling of discomfort one experiences in a social setting. Small talk on the train at 7:23 a.m. is awkward. A moment of silence during a conversation is awkward. Declining an invitation can get awkward.
When I was attending high school in Boston, “awkward” was the third most-used word among my classmates, after “cool beans” and “SATs.” It was so confusing to me, a foreign student from under the Alps, to grasp why a bunch of 17-year-olds would be so concerned with awkwardness. Now that I live in New York and I’m supposedly entering adulthood, the word is not as popular among my peers. But “awkward-phobia,” the fear of having those feelings, still dominates the minds of many around me. And it’s still so damn hard for me to understand why.
You see, we have plenty of problems in Italy. Thirty percent of our youth is jobless; thousands of Italians flee the country every year to find work elsewhere; we’re currently ruled by an interim government that is taking ages to approve important reforms, such as electoral laws and anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBT citizens. Our economic growth is slow and the birth rate is negative. But one problem we don’t have is… awkwardness.
Jane Tylus, a professor of Italian at New York University, confirmed that there is no direct Italian translation of the word “awkward” intended as discomfort in a social setting. “The word ‘awkward’ comes from an Old Norse word and then a Middle English word which means ‘going in the wrong direction,’” said Tylus. “Feeling awkward means going downstream when everyone is going upstream, and being very self-conscious about it. How do you get that sense of individual turnaround in Italian, I don’t know.” This untranslatability might be more than just a linguistic issue. In fact, it might signify a social and cultural difference between Italians and Americans. Maybe in Italy we don’t have a word for it, because we don’t feel it! Maybe we’re simply not afraid to say things the way we mean them, to have moments of silence during our conversations, to feel goofy or be straightforward.
Read the full article published by La Voce di New York here.