In Italian, the word “in” can mean to, at or in. eg “sono in ufficio” (I’m at the office), “lavoro in giardino” (I’m working in the garden) and “vado in Italia” (I’m going to Italy). The author even likens them to chameleons, changing their meaning according to their surroundings. Broadly speaking, their function is to indicate place, eg “sotto” (under, or beneath) and “su” (over, or above), but they also link nouns with adjectives, verbs or other nouns, and they can sometimes give rise to a disconcerting ambiguity.
For those of us who quite enjoy memorising information by rote, almost any other aspect of grammar can be learned by grasping a few rules. Committing verb tables to memory, whether in the past, present, future, conditional tenses etc., can be rewarding, and assimilating them will rapidly expand your versatility when using a language. Similarly, adverbs and adjectives, together with their agreements, follow a few manageable rules. But the logical approach of attempting to decode and utilise a pattern of behaviour will get you nowhere when it comes to these.
I refer, of course, to prepositions, and if anything is going to steer a translator towards a grammatical blunder, it’s these. We can be so focussed on unravelling the meaning of the constituent phrases of a lengthy sentence, we can often miss these tiny pitfalls, with potentially disastrous consequences and even possible mistranslation of the point the writer intended to make.
Thus “una bottiglia da vino rosso” might be hastily read as “a bottle of red wine”, which would have been “una bottiglia di vino rosso”, with the former structure meaning “a red wine bottle”, ie a bottle used to carry red wine. In fact, the word da in Italian, has multiple meanings: it can indicate function “una camera da letto” (bedroom); the word 'from' - “siamo da Londra” (we’re from London); or 'since' - “sono qui da ieri” (I have been here since yesterday); unexpectedly 'to' - “vado dal [= da+il] macellaio” (I’m going to the butcher), and many others, too numerous to list here. A similar array of possible meanings could be assigned to other prepositions, such as di or a. In Italian, there is the added complication that, as in the last example, the preposition often becomes preposition plus article. This clips and tidies up the phrase somewhat, since “in la cucina” (in the kitchen) becomes “nella cucina”, thus avoiding a clumsy consonant clutter.
Then there is the problem of which preposition is the correct one to follow a verb. Eg “ha deciso di proseguire” (he decided to proceed) but “comincio a lavorare” (I start working). These, I’m afraid, you just have to memorise separately. There does not appear to be any logical reason for the choice of one over another.
These problems are not limited to Italian.
…in Spanish, it can sometimes be difficult to know the difference between "por" and "para". Both can mean "for", but also sometimes "by", "through", "to", etc.
"Te di dinero por tu colección"
"Te di dinero para tu colección"
Both can be translated as: "I gave you money for your collection". But they actually have very different meanings.
"Por" is used when discussing exchanges - so the first phrase means "I gave you money in exchange for your collection".
"Para" is used to denote destination. So, the second phrase means "I gave you money for/to add to your collection".
Let’s now look at some examples in French sentences.
There is the possibility of an ambiguous use of “pour”:
"Pour elle, il faudrait partir en voiture". This could mean (for her sake, we should go by car), but could equally be interpreted as (in her opinion, we should go by car).
In the following example, “by” could be translated by two different French prepositions, giving rise to two meanings:
Au programme, le concerto pour piano de Tchaikovsky (...written by Tchaikovsky)
Au programme, le concerto pour piano par Alfred Brendel (...played by Brendel)
Now look at this source of confusion when translating “for”:
Il est là depuis une semaine (he arrived a week ago)
Il est là pour une semaine (he will leave in a week)
When translating “with”:
J'ai passé mes vacances chez des amis (I spent my holidays at my friends’ house)
J'ai passé mes vacances avec des amis (I spent my holidays with friends)
And when translating “in”:
Il a fait le travail en deux heures (he did the job in two hours)
Il fera le travail dans deux heures (he will complete the job within two hours)
All this confirms the importance of checking a completed document or story as a whole. Reading it back, ensuring that it makes sense, is essential to avoid misleading readers. Ideally, this would be done by someone else with an outside perspective, but if contracts and non-disclosure agreements will not permit this, then “sleeping” on the problem and returning to it with a fresh view the following day can often provide new insight into intended meaning. This, of course, is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of same-day work. Writing and translation is precarious and delicate work. Rushing is risky. Such a pity that the pressures to work in haste at all costs can result in a potential loss of quality.