If an Italian says “buon lavoro!” to you, they’re not praising you for a job well done. While this phrase literally translates as “good work”, it doesn’t refer to a task completed, but to work yet to be carried out.
Buon lavoro is a parting greeting used to wish someone a good day or afternoon at work. But it means far more than a simple “Have a good day at the office”. There’s no exact English equivalent.
It’s quite similar to “buona giornata”, another parting greeting which means “have a nice day”.
But on top of that, buon lavoro acknowledges the hard work and effort to come – and the fact that this means the day may not be particularly good or enjoyable – while saying that you hope it all goes as well as possible. All of that, in just two words.
I say it to shop or restaurant staff, or to anyone who has to work on a hot summer’s day. Waiters may say it to you if they assume you’re on your way back to the office after lunch. You’d say it to Italian colleagues who have an insane workload, or to a friend studying for an exam. Your Italian supervisor might say it after dumping a pile of work on your desk.
While there are lots of similar greetings in Italian – buona serata, buona domenica, buon pranzo – wishing someone a good evening, Sunday or lunch is pretty straightforward. You’d usually expect those things to be enjoyable, after all.
Buon lavoro is different. It’s not just a parting salute, it’s recognition. It’s the acknowledgement of someone’s (future) efforts, and a wish that things go as painlessly as possible.
Buono studio is similar, though this is of course used only when the effort being made involves studying.
So how do you say “good work”, then, when you want to praise someone’s accomplishments?
There is of course bravo, and you could add ben fatto: literally “well done”, but here used as an adjective used to describe something done with skill.
– Bravo! E un lavoro ben fatto
– Well done! It’s a job well done