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Italian expression of the day: ‘Si tratta di’

What's this phrase all about?

Italian expression of the day si tratta di.
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

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?

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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For members


Italian word of the day: ‘Morboso’

Don't get overly attached to this Italian word.

Italian word of the day: ‘Morboso’

Most Italian adjectives have more than one single possible meaning and some of them can be used in completely different contexts and situations. 

Morboso (pronunciation available here) happens to fall under that category. 

As you might have already guessed, today’s adjective comes from the word ‘morbo’, which is generally used to indicate any type of contagious disease that is highly infectious and potentially lethal (cholera, plague, etc.).

So, in its primary meaning, morboso describes anything related to or caused by a contagious disease. As such, it’s generally rendered into English as ‘contagious’ or ‘infectious’.

Questi sono chiaramente i sintomi di una malattia morbosa.

These are clearly the symptoms of an infectious disease. 

But morboso is barely ever used in this way outside of the medical field and, even in that case, some native speakers might perceive the word as being too formal or somewhat archaic.

The adjective is far more popular in ordinary conversations when given its secondary and, if you will, less literal meaning. 

Italians also use morboso to refer to any emotion, feeling or behaviour that is considered excessive, especially in a way that might be seen as unhealthy or even pathological.

For instance: 

Marco ha sviluppato una ossessione morbosa nei confronti di lei.

Marco has developed an unhealthy obsession with her.

In this case, the Italian adjective might be translated into English as ‘unhealthy’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘disproportionate’ or, at times, even ‘morbid’.

But while the English ‘morbid’ only refers to an unnatural, excessive interest in disturbing or unpleasant things, especially death, the Italian ‘morboso’ has a much wider scope as it potentially refers to any over-the-top feeling or behaviour, even a positive one.

Ha un affetto morboso per la madre.

He has an unreasonable affection for his mother.

Finally – and this is perhaps the most common use of the adjective nowadays – morboso is also used to indicate people, and especially romantic partners, who are unbearably clingy.

So a ‘persona morbosa’ is a person who, for whatever reason, tends to be overly attached to someone else, depending on them emotionally or in some other way.

When intended in the above sense, the adjective may also be used jokingly:

Vedi che sei morboso?

Ma come morboso? Cosa stai dicendo?

Can you not see you’re being clingy?

Clingy how? What on earth are you talking about?

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