A hilarious quote (courtesy of Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti) from Clive James, “Primo Levi’s Last Will and Testament”:

The translator’s Italian is good enough to make sure that he usually doesn’t, when construing from that language, get things backward, but he can get them sidewise with daunting ease, and on several occasions he puts far too much trust in his ear. To render promiscuità as “promiscuity,” as he does twice, is, in the context, a howler. Levi didn’t mean that people forced to live in a ghetto were tormented by promiscuity. He meant that they were tormented by propinquity. The unintentional suggestion that they were worn out by indiscriminate lovemaking is, in the circumstances, a bad joke.

We’ve discussed translation from Italian a number of times, e.g. here; the OED’s etymology for promiscuity:

Originally < classical Latin prōmiscuus ([from miscēre to mix]) + –ity suffix. In later use probably reinforced by French promiscuité confused and indiscriminate mix (1731 with reference to people, 1832 with reference to things), promiscuous sexual behaviour (1839 or earlier) < classical Latin prōmiscuus + French –ité -ity suffix. Compare Spanish promiscuidad (a1795 or earlier), Portuguese promiscuidade (1813), Italian promiscuità (1611).


  1. I just found an even worse bit of translation in, of all places, the Reference Guide to Russian Literature, where you’d think the contributors would know Russian pretty well; Michael Pursglove, in his article on Marietta Shaginyan, renders the title of her 1938 novel Билет по истории ‘History Exam’ (about Lenin’s family) as “Ticket to History.” Yes, билет very often means ‘ticket,’ but sometimes it doesn’t. Sheesh.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    “Ticket” in the sense of Fahrkarte (nach) takes a different preposition, namely на, is it not ?

    In what way does Билет по come to mean “exam” ?

  3. “Ticket” in the sense of Fahrkarte (nach) takes a different preposition, namely на, is it not ?

    It takes в or на, depending: Билет на Vegas ‘Ticket to Vegas,’ but билет в Барселону ‘ticket to Barcelona.’

    In what way does Билет по come to mean “exam” ?

    Its basic sense is ‘something with official writing on it,’ hence ‘ticket,’ ‘banknote,’ ‘membership card,’ and (in this case) ‘paper with exam questions.’

  4. David Marjanović says

    Just today I encountered nuclei on TV rendered in German as Zellkerne even though the entire context makes clear they’re Atomkerne.

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    This is, or might be, one of Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Aubreyisms’ – Jack *probably* means ‘proximity’ in the context, but it’s possible that he does mean ‘a state of being mixed up promiscuously’.

    I can’t find the exact quote at the moment – something about seamen crammed together 🙂

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    …I had no conception of the ubiquitous sense of the holy, no notion of how another world can permeate the secular. Filth, stench, disease, “gross superstition” as our people say, extreme poverty, promiscuous universal defecation, do not affect it:

    from H.M.S Surprise, describing bombay

  7. Kate Bunting says

    I’ve read that, when the custom of ladies and gentlemen sitting alternately at the dinner table was first introduced, it was termed ‘promiscuous seating’. See
    (Scroll down to the photo of Kate Beckinsale as Emma).

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