October 22, 2013

Idiomatically: "Prendere per il culo"

Presa per il culo or prendere per il culo - literally "Take for the ass." An Italian idiom with many different contextual meanings, including: "screw with," "take for a ride," the British phrase "take the piss," "to tease or mock," or even simply "a joke."


Originally, this article was going to be about Reservoir Dogs. I wanted to watch Reservoir Dogs in Italian and go over some interesting translation issues, as I knew there'd be plenty right out the gate: How would you translate the title, for instance? What does "Reservoir Dogs" mean? The film does not take place in or near a reservoir, and the characters aren't really metaphorical dogs, either. There's a "rat," sure, but not really any dogs. The title is sort of evocative and interesting in English but actually meaningless, so how would you translate it? (If you don't know the story behind the title, this link tells it succinctly.) Somebody in Italy decided to call it Le iene (The Hyenas) instead. Okay, sure. Now we're through the first two words of the script, and coming right up on page two is an analysis of the lyrics of an English-language song, "Like a Virgin."

Well it turns out that "Like a Virgin" is a big enough deal in Italy to keep that scene fully intact, as you can see in the video above, and maybe I'll talk about Le iene another day. Today I got sidetracked when I saw a thumbnail image of another video with Berlusconi spliced into Reservoir Dogs, and then I went down a rabbit hole.

The video, uploaded by Italian political comedian and, as of just a few weeks ago, basically Parliament minority leader Beppe Grillo, just photo or I suppose videoshops a bunch of politicians into Reservoir Dogs, suggesting they're thieves and murderers, I guess. Anyway, Berlusconi is Mr. Black, and unlike anybody else in the video, when he appears he gets his own music: Meno male che Silvio c'รจ. I thought I had heard it before but I forgot the context, so I searched and found another video:


It turns out I had heard/seen it before, in the film Videocracy - Basta apparire at the Chicago International Film Festival a few years ago. The film is mostly about the veline TV showgirl phenomenon in Italy, but you can't say "Italy" and "television" and "women" in the same sentence without Berlusconi popping in, so it wouldn't be unfair to call it an anti-Berlusconi documentary. When the film's Swedish-Italian director Erik Gandini saw the video above, he says he thought it was satire, naturally enough. You mean the bunga bunga guy made someone write a "We Are the World"-type song about him, performed by dozens of women who can't really sing but are at least good-looking?

The song title's bordering on tricky to translate, meaning literally "It's less bad that there's Silvio" but without any of the negative tone that implies, so something more like "Thank goodness for Silvio" would give the right idea. The rest of the lyrics are generic positive stuff: "Long live Italy/The Italy that has chosen/to keep believing/in this dream!/President, we're with you!/Thank goodness for Silvio!" This completely sincere personality cult stuff doesn't play too well in the west any more, especially when it's about such a (to put it mildly) controversial guy.

Well one of the most-liked comments on that video is "mamma mia, che presa per il culo!!!!". So I scanned it and read, well, you know, "mamma mia," then "what a taking for the ass!!!!" is how it first entered my mind, and I can't say that makes any sense. Then I thought maybe he was missing an indefinite article, which would make it "what an electrical outlet for the ass!!!!" which makes for a good mental image. It turns out that literal interpretation is a common meta-joke on the phrase, as can be seen if you are in a place where it's safe to look at cartoon pictures of butts and testicles being plugged into things and you Google Image Search "presa per il culo".

Google Translate has kind of a tough time with the phrase. If you type in "presa per il culo" then it spits back out "taking the piss," which I think is the first time Google Translate has given me a non-American English phrase. I've watched enough British comedy to know "taking the piss" is a slightly vulgar (and really fun) phrase for, I dunno, "yanking my chain" would be one pretty dated way of saying the same thing in America. If you ask Google Translate for alternates, it gives you "jack ass" and "taken for a ride," which do both seem to be other potential contextual meanings of "presa per il culo." But if I paste in that YouTube comment above, Google Translate returns "Mamma mia, that taking the piss!!!!" which is obviously wrong both semantically and syntactically.

I don't know if I'd recommend that you watch it for any reason, but this 8-minute video of a young, slightly lispy Italian dude with giant canine teeth was very helpful in understanding the phrase. In the course of a kinda crappy comedy video, he explains most of the many contextual meanings of "prendere per il culo," which include "to tease," "adding insult to injury," "a gag," and "to lie." This same Italian phrase can be used to describe a one-liner, a video of an old lady falling down some stairs, a hypocritical politician, a woman who's leading you on, and, of course, an electrical outlet for your ass.

If you Google "presa per il culo" (this article is basically an ad for various Google sites, I know, but I've got a post coming up on an Italian alternative search engine that's pretty fun) the first million or so results are all Facebook joke pages, all different "Like" pages named some variant on "La presa per il culo" or "LA FAMOSA PRESA PER IL CULO" or whatever. There's one for general funny pictures, one for political humor, one made up of Reddit memes, some are "That moment when..." relatable not-quite-jokes, and so on. The chain emails of the new social media decade. The next couple images I've translated below come from these pages.



I guess the trains really don't run on time! It says: "Happy New Year 2013 from Trenitalia - Please excuse the delay."

 For yet another example of this phrase in use, the Italian/English WordReference forums have a long and typically WordReference incoherent conversation about the phrase here. The original poster is asking how to translate the sentence "Hai poco da prendere per il culo, tu che sei migrato negli States...fedifrago!!!" In this context "Hai poco da prendere per il culo" means almost exactly the same thing as "you're one to tease," in which Person A is pointing out some hypocrisy in Person B's light-hearted criticism of Person A. Just it's got the word "ass" in there, so maybe don't say it in church.

The Swayan Prophecy: According to our calculations, the world will end in January.
Doing my best to translate the pun: "The Prophecy of the Ancient Swine-ans: According to our calculations, our world will end in January." Aww.


 So how would I translate that YouTube comment that got me started on this long-distance trip through low-brow Italian, in the parallel universe in which someone wanted to pay me to translate YouTube comments? Berlusconi's song could qualify in almost any of the contexts presented above: the comment could be calling Berlusconi a liar or a hypocrite, it could be sorta halfway cynically saying "what a joke," or it could just be calling Berlusconi a jackass. To convey both the vulgarity and the likely gist of the comment, my translation would be "You've gotta be shitting me."