Italian expression of the day: ‘Vale la pena’

It's well worth making the effort to learn this simple phrase.

Italian expression of the day vale la pena
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

pena by itself in Italian isn’t exactly a good thing: it generally means penalty, sentence, punishment, pain, or grief.

Se la polizia ti prende rischi una lunga pena detentiva.
You risk a lengthy prison sentence if the police catch you.

Sentivo la sua pena.
I felt her grief.

But when used in the expression vale la pena (VAH-leh la PEH-a), the word takes on a positive connotation: it means something’s worth the trouble, or effort.

If you want to talk about something in particular being worth the effort, you need to follow the phrase up with the infinitive of a verb (unlike in English, where we often use the -ing form, or gerund).

Vale la pena leggere Dante.
Reading Dante is worth the effort.

Vale La Pena Susana Alexarder GIF - Vale La Pena Susana Alexarder Ventaneando GIFs

According to the Treccani dictionary, it’s more correct to use the preposition di directly after the phrase and before the infinitive than it is to use nothing at all – though Treccani does acknowledge that “the form without the preposition also has a certain diffusion in its use”.

“Ma queste offerte son cose di tanto poco momento, che non vale la pena di parlarne”
“But these offers are things of so little moment, it’s not worth talking about them”:

this line from the poet Leopardi’s published letters is provided by the dictionary’s writers as an example of the correct formulation.

In reality, though, you’re much more likely to hear the version that dispenses with di used in modern spoken Italian.

Vale la pena visitare la Cappella Sistina e la Basilica di San Pietro.
It’s worth visiting the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Vale la pena spendere un po’ di più per mangiare bene.
It’s worth spending a bit more to eat well.

Questa macchina è così vecchia che non vale la pena ripararla, sarebbe più economico comprarne una nuova.
This car’s so old it’s not worth fixing it, it would be cheaper to buy a new one.

Trash Italiano Vieni Da Me GIF - Trash Italiano Vieni Da Me Alda Deusanio GIFs

What if you want to use vale la pena at the end of a sentence, to say that something you’ve already discussed is worth the effort?

In this case we use the preposition ne (which can mean a range of things but here means ‘it’), directly before the phrase, to say ‘it’s worth the effort’.

Quella torta richiede quattro ore di preparazione, ma credimi, ne vale la pena.
That cake takes four hours to cook, but believe me, it’s worth the effort.

Ditemi che ne valeva la pena.
Tell me it was worth it.

Se convinciamo una sola persona, ne sarà valsa la pena.
If we convince just one person, it will have been worth it.

Canadian Thumbs Up GIF by CBC

We hope you agree this is one little phrase it’s worth adding to your repertoire.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Italian expression of the day: ‘Si tratta di’

What's this phrase all about?

Italian expression of the day: 'Si tratta di'

Today’s expression is one you’ll hear a lot in spoken Italian.

It’s also a tricky one for anglophones to wrap our heads around, because although it appears simple – ‘si tratta di’ basically means something along the lines of ‘it concerns/discusses/deals with/is about’ – it actually doesn’t translate very cleanly into English most of the time.

Let’s start with the use that’s easiest for us to grasp: asking and answering what something’s about/what it concerns.

– Pronto, sono l’ispettore Jackson, posso parlare con la signora Hoffman?
– Sì, sono io – posso chiedere di cosa si tratta?

– Hello, this is Inspector Jackson speaking, can I speak with Mrs. Hoffman?
– Yes, this is she – may I ask what this is concerning?

Boris Gabrieli GIF - Boris Gabrieli Padre Gabrieli GIFs

We can also use the phrase to say that something is ‘a matter of’ or ‘a question of’:

Se si tratta di qualche ora, rimarremo qui ad aspettarla.
If it’s a question of hours, we’ll stay here and wait for her.

Ora si tratta solo di scoprire dove ha lasciato le chiavi.
Now it’s a just a matter of figuring out where she left the keys.

And si tratta di can also be as a translation for ‘when it comes to’.

Adoro mangiare bene, ma quando si tratta di cucinare sono una frana.
I love eating well, but when it comes to cooking I suck.

Same GIF - Cooking GIFs

Where things start to get a bit more complicated is that you’ll often see the phrase used where the English translation doesn’t require anything.

For example, you might hear the following exchange at work:

– Michela non viene al lavoro oggi perché la sua bambina è malata.
– Spero che non si tratti di nulla di grave.

– Michela’s not coming into work today because her little girl’s sick.
– I hope it’s nothing serious.

You could say ‘I hope it doesn’t consist of anything serious’, which would get you closer to a direct translation – but in English this would sound oddly formal and overblown (in the above example we use tratti rather than tratta because spero che requires the subjunctive).

What if you want to say that a certain thing – a song, a book, a film, a speech – discusses or ‘deals with’ certain themes or issues?

Kelly Office GIF - Kelly Office Birthday GIFs

Firstly, note that impersonal si there. It’s standing in for a subject, which means we can’t have both the subject and the si in the same sentence together – one of them has to go.

You can say, for example, ‘Il suo terzo libro tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘her third book deals with ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom.’

Or you can say, ‘Nel suo terzo libro, si tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘In her third book, she discusses ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom” (a more literal translation would be ‘in her third book, ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom are discussed’, which sounds a bit awkward in English).

You could ask:

Di cosa tratta il libro?
What does the book discuss?


Di cosa si tratta nel libro?
What’s discussed in the book?

Adam Scott Whats It All About GIF - Adam Scott Whats It All About Fill Me In GIFs

What you can’t do is say, ‘Il libro si tratta di…’ or ask ‘Di cosa si tratta il libro?’. Neither of these constructions work because you can’t have both the impersonal si and the subject (in this case, il libro) together.

What if you want to say, for example, ‘the book/film is about…’?

The easiest way to do that is either to just say ‘il film parla di…‘ – ‘the film talks about…’ ; or ‘il film racconta la storia di…’ – ‘the film tells the story of…’:

Il film parla di un robot che vuole distruggere la razza umana.
The film’s about a robot who wants to destroy the human race.

arnold schwarzenegger terminator GIF

Il libro racconta la storia di un ragazzo che scopre di essere un mago.
The book tells the story of a boy who discovers he’s a wizard.

Hopefully now you have a better idea of what this phrase is all about!

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.