Professionalità in International and Comparative Research: An Untranslatable Concept? | January 2019 | Translation Journal

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Professionalità in International and Comparative Research: An Untranslatable Concept?


One of the purposes of the texts produced by the European Commission in different languages is to facilitate comparison between country-specific institutions and understanding of practices in place at the national level. Besides informing about the rights and the obligations that these documents might contain and expressing Member States’ equality within the European Union, multilingual texts make it possible “to reach out to all European citizens who must have the opportunity to inform themselves in their own language about the European political processes” (Volman 2012, 40) so they can “participate effectively and equally in the democratic life of the Union” (Volman 2012, 40). For this reason, the drafting of EU documents must be clear, simple and precise, so as to leave “no uncertainty in the mind of the reader” (European Commission 2015, 10). Arguably, the quest for clarity is inherent to the translation process, to such an extent that clarity is one of the criteria employed when making terminological decisions. EU translators are asked to select the words employed in the target text carefully to prevent any ambiguity between the different versions of the same text. EU official texts must be impeccable from the point of view of accuracy and clarity (Tosi 2003). This is far from simple, as translators have to deal with many versions of the same text. Being the result of negotiations on various political levels, documents are frequently reviewed; “some elements are deleted, others are added, concepts are redefined and terminology is changed” (Stefaniak 2017, 119). For this reason, both translators and lawyer-linguists are called on to strike a balance between ensuring linguistic equivalence by using methods of literal translation and safeguarding readability by taking some liberty to divert from the syntax and the wording of the original draft text (Baaji 2016). Especially at the time of dealing with legal terminology, they are aware that “certain expressions which are quite common in the language in which the text is drafted may not necessarily have an equivalent in other Union languages” (European Commission 2015, 18). Yet the converse is also true. Depending on context, some terms in the source text might have more than one equivalent in the target text. This makes the task of translators even more difficult, as choosing one word in lieu of another might change the perception of target-text readers and alter meaning, therefore hampering appreciation of the concepts expressed in the source text. Based on the foregoing considerations, the present paper sets out to examine the Italian notion of professionalità and the ways it has been translated into English in EU official documents. By means of a contrastive analysis that will be carried out on a set of selected documents written in Italian and then translated into English, the aim of this research is to cast light on challenges resulting from rendering this terminology in the target text. Arguments will be put forward buttressing the views that the translation of professionalità into English is particularly tricky. As the examples provided will attempt to demonstrate, choosing one word or the other in the target text might affect English-language readers’ comprehension and give rise to interpretative differences when comparing the original and the translated versions of the same documents. This paper also seeks to offer a fresh perspective on translation challenges pertaining to labour law and industrial relations – of which professionalità is a clear example – two domains that have been somehow neglected in TS literature (Manzella 2017). An analysis of the previous literature on this topic will be supplied (Section II), followed by a definition of the notion scrutinised and an outline on methodology (Section III). After discussing the findings obtained through the analysis of the texts selected (Section IV), some concluding remarks are given synthetizing the outcomes and serving as a basis for future research (Section V).

Theoretical Framework


Multilingual texts issued by the European Commission have been researched at length by translation studies scholars (Šarčević 2000, 2001, 2015; Sfetcu 2015; Ulrych 2014), although from different perspectives. Some TS scholars (Gotti & Šarčević 2006; Olsen, Lorz and Stein 2009) have focused on terminology issues and equivalence in texts drafted in different languages. As recalled by Robertson (2016), from the point of view of discussing EU legislative translation, the challenges to be addressed concern “all the standard issues and problems that routinely face the translator in terms of linguistic knowledge of source and target language, pitfalls of grammar and syntax, false friends and problems of terminology and turn of phrase” (Robertson 2016, 233). In a similar vein, and referring to translation at the European Union, Teich, Degand and Bateman maintain that “the question of equivalence of texts is, if anything, even more crucial, since it cannot be assumed as a ‘by-product’ of translation” (Teich, Degand & Bateman 1996, 332). Some others (House 2016; Koskinen 2000) have considered the way the translation of EU documentation into different languages shape ideologies and ideas. In other words, translators work in socio-political contexts, producing target texts for specific purposes. This social conditioning is reflected in the linguistic structure of the target text. Consequently, “translations (as target texts) reveal the impact of discursive, social and ideological conventions, norms and constraints” (Baumgarten & Gagnon 2016, 193). Another aspect that has been looked at by scholars of translation studies examining multilingual documents issued by the European Union is the relationship between translation and legal certainty (Blanke & Mangiameli 2013; Paunio 2013). In this sense, research has been undertaken to examine the way drafters of multilingual EU texts attempt to guarantee the uniform interpretation of EU law while respecting linguistic and cultural diversity and the right of EU citizens to legal certainty (Šarčević 2015). Indeed, multilingual production of legislative texts constitutes an integral part of the legislative process and EU law requires that a unitary meaning must be achieved. This is necessary “for legal certainty and consistency so that citizens are governed by the same law, being treated equally irrespective of their linguistic diversity” (Cao 2007, 74).

A substantial amount of Translation Studies research has also been conducted on the challenges stemming from translating official texts from Italian into English and vice versa (Ruggeri 2014), at times focusing on the refinement of the contrastive knowledge of two languages that come into contact in the translation process (Laviosa 2002), at times concentrating on the use of English words in target texts (Gaudio 2012). Evidently, the problems arising from the fact that a term in the source text can have more than one meanings in the target text is known by the European Union. On this point, the 2013 Joint Practical Guide of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission for persons involved in the drafting of European Union legislation suggests that a definition is provided in those cases where “a term has several meanings but must be understood in only one of them or, for the purposes of the act, the meaning is to be limited or extended with respect to the normal meaning given to that term” (European Commission 2015, 41). Attention has been paid to translation and terminology issues in comparative labour law and industrial relations, which are the domains to which the terminology examined in this paper pertains (Bromwich and Manzella 2017; Manzella 2015, 2017). Yet limited research has been conducted on the concept of professionalità and its English translation in official EU texts and on possible implications in terms of appreciation of equivalence with the source text. In reference to the concept at hand, the difficulties resulting from the translation of professionalità have been pointed out primarily by research in other disciplines. Looking at industrial relations discourse, Weiss (1983) has posited that this concept has been the subject of a lively debate for some time, as it defines the way to categorise work and workers. Discussing its translation in different languages, he brooks no argument, maintaining that professionalità “has no English equivalent” (Weiss 1983, 379). More recently, Causarano makes the same point, arguing that in English il termine non è acquisito (Causarano 2018, 162. Our translation: “the term is not employed in English”) because there is un parziale e limitato uso di questo concetto (Causarano 2018, 162. Our translation “a partial and limited use of this concept”). The analysis that follows will tell whether one should back or challenge the foregoing arguments.


Definitions and Methodology

Prior to looking at the ways professionalità has been translated into English in EU documents, it seems sensible to provide a definition of the term examined in this paper, in order to establish whether EU translators have somehow deviated from the source-text meaning. One definition that seems to serve the purpose of the present analysis, as it clearly denotes the underlying features of the concept at hand, is the one provided by the glossary of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (EUROFOUND). One might argue that the definition supplied is dated, as it goes back to 2003. Yet in the author’s view it is relevant just the same, as it nicely delineates the two dimensions making up the concept. According to EUROFOUND, professionalità is a “term used to indicate both the professional standing of an individual with respect to work performed and the qualitative content or ‘value’ of the job done. In this second meaning, ‘professional competence and status’ is also used as the term of comparison between different jobs, grades and categories in judgements on job equivalence” (EUROFOUND 2003). Looking at this definition, one might note that the notion of professionalità features two main, and intertwined, components. On the one hand, it is taken to refer to the quality of work carried out, while on the other hand it is concerned with worker status in relation to the activity performed. At this stage, it is important to stress the two-fold meaning highlighted here, as this will be the starting point to appreciate the effectiveness of the terminology employed in English is official documents.

In terms of methodology, an investigation has been carried out on 200 documents containing the word professionalità, which were originally issued in Italian by the European Union and then translated into English. Based on Cao’s classification of legal translations (Cao 2007), the documents considered in this paper can be defined as legal translations for general, legal or judicial purposes. They include recommendations, opinions, press releases, and debates that were drafted in Italian and subsequently translated into English. While “such translations are primarily for information purposes, and are mostly descriptive” (Cao 2007, 11), accuracy bears relevance all the same, as shifting away from the intended meaning may lead target-text readers to misunderstand the concept at hand, hindering comparison between cross-national practices. The analysis of the EU documents presented in this paper and their translation was conducted by means of the EUR-lex tool, which enables the visualisation of up to three parallel texts simultaneously. For the purpose of this paper, the expression ‘parallel texts’ refers to “texts in one language and their translation into other languages” (Caseli, Da Paz Silva & Volpe Nunes 2004, 184). The texts were selected considering the following criteria:

- the occurrence in the text of the Italian expressions under examination;

- the fact that the Italian text was the original in each case (the Italian version of the document examined bears the wording lingua facente fede, which in English is translated as ‘original language)

- the availability of the English translations of the texts selected.

In the section that follows, an analysis will be conducted on the terminology employed in English to convey the meaning of professionalità, in order to evaluate to what extent the language used does justice to the term in the Italian context.

Analysis and Discussion


Table 1 provides the English terminology employed in the documents scrutinised to translate the word professionalità, ordered by frequency:

Table 1. Words used to translate professionalità into English (by occurrence)

English Terminology










Source: Author’s Own Elaboration from EUR-Lex, 2018.


The analysis carried on the dataset collected has revealed that four words have been used for the English translation of the concept at issue. ‘Skills’ is by far the most widespread term employed in the documents surveyed, followed by ‘professionalism’ and ‘professionality’, which are considered as having a different meaning, though this is not always the case. Finally, in a fair amount of documentation, EU translators have made use of the word ‘expertise’.

Bearing in mind the definition of professionalità provided above, let us now have a look at these rendering, contrasting them with the meaning of the concept in the source text. For the sake of comparison, definitions are provided for each of the terms employed in the documents translated into English, which are taken from the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (Table 2). This will help us to understand whether or not, and to what degree, the English translations deviates from the source-text meaning.  

Table 2. Definitions of the words used in English-language EU Documents to translate ‘professionalità’

English Terminology



‘The ability to do something well; expertise’

Professionalism/ Professionality

‘The competence or skill expected of a professional’


‘Expert skill or knowledge in a particular field’

Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2018 (Online Version).

According to OED, the word ‘Skills’ means ‘the ability to do something well, expertise’ (emphasis added). ‘Professionalism’ refers to ‘the competence or skill expected of a professional’ (emphasis added), with the word ‘Professionality’ which has the same meaning, seeing that the OED considers the latter as a synonym of the former. ‘Expertise’ is defined as ‘Expert skill or knowledge in a particular field’ (emphasis added). Looking at the definitions above, one might argue that some degree of divergence exists between the meaning conveyed by the words employed in the target text and the one expressed by professionalità in the source text. The problematic nature of these translations is apparent if one considers the two dimensions making up the concept being translated. As seen, the peculiarity of professionalità is that it refers to both ‘worker status’ and the quality of work performed. It pertains to Italy’s industrial relations discourse and is a textbook example of a context-bound concept, as it is specific to a given discourse and is produced only in one specific situation (Harris & Butterworth 2002). Consequently, context-bound words, which are also known as context-specific or context-dependent words, “cannot be isolated from their context without their meaning becoming elusive” (Rogers 1999, 104).

In the case under investigation here, the context where professionalità has originated has provided this terminology with a two-fold meaning, which relates to both the worker and work. It is precisely the fact that professionalità is concerned with ‘both sides’ (work and worker) that seems to be missing in the English translations supplied.

On close inspection, the English renderings convey only one of the two, and intertwined, meanings expressed by professionalità. Referring to ‘ability’, ‘competence’, ‘skill’, and ‘knowledge’, the words employed in English emphasise the worker’s side, i.e. the qualities needed to perform a job, with the dimension of work, namely the quality or value of the task carried out, which is lost in translation.

Consequently, employing a one-word equivalent in English to translate the Italian professionalità might prove misleading as the term in question has a wider meaning than that expressed by the English terminology examined in the present dataset. It is in such cases that periphrasis come into picture, as “experience shows that periphrasis is a very useful approach to idiomatic and functional re-expression” (Bastin 2000, 232). In this sense, the definition of professionalità provided by EUROFOUND also contains a circumlocution that describes the term ‘professional competence and status’ (EUROFOUND 2003). Although less literal, and a bit of a mouthful, this wording should be valued positively, as it is an attempt to transpose into English the twofold meaning of the source-text notion.  



This paper has considered the translation challenges emanating from transposing industrial relations concepts from Italian into English. In order to do so, the notion of professionalità has been examined, along with its English translation. Specifically, an investigation has been carried out on a dataset containing EU documents and consisting of 200 documents originally drafted in Italian by the EU and then translated into English. The EUR-lex online system has been utilised in order to compare and contrast the Italian and English version of each document, to see how the notion at hand – which is specific to Italy’s industrial relations discourse – has been rendered in English.

The research has revealed some interesting findings. To start with, different terminology has been adopted by EU translators in an attempt to render professionalità in English. However, the translation outcome can be questioned as the English words fail to convey the full meaning of the concept under scrutiny. As has been specified in the previous section, the terms used in the English version of the documents examined – namely skills, professionalism, professionality and, to a little extent, expertise – are not suitable translations in that they only express one of the dimensions making up professionalità in the Italian context. In particular, the terminology used in the English text places focuses on worker status, in other words it refers to workers and their being professional. This way, no reference is made to work, i.e. the quality of work performed by workers, which professionalità also expresses in its original context. Work and worker status are thus two sides of the same coin, so failing to express this two-fold meaning might lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretation on behalf of those who are not familiar with Italy’s system of industrial relations. For this reason, this paper supports the argument made by some scholars of industrial relations (i.e. Causarano and Weiss, who have been already referred to in this paper) who had argued that there is no word in English that can properly convey the meaning of the Italian professionalità. Yet a periphrasis might be possible, and should be used to make clear that professionalità features two dimensions, as previously explained. By way of example, EUROFOUND’s ‘professional competence and status’, if less literal, represents a valuable effort to describe these two dimensions (work and worker) to English speakers. Another point that can be made from the analysis carried out is that in translation, ‘frequency’ does not necessarily rhyme with ‘correctness’. This means that the fact the extensive use of a word to translate another one into the target language does not amount to say that the latter is the most appropriate rendering. ‘Skills’ which in the dataset scrutinised is the most widespread term to render professionalità, does not do justice to the Italian terminology, as we have seen only tells us half the story. How one word is used more extensively than others to render foreign concepts in EU documentation might represent a topic for future research.  

Finally, and more generally, two further points have been brought to the fore in the present paper, which are frequently disregarded in comparative industrial relations. The first one is concerned with the challenges emanating from expressing context-bound notions when engaging in comparative analysis. As these notions pertain to specific social and legal contexts, an explanation is always needed for the sake of comparison, facilitating the understanding of those with little knowledge of both the systems and the languages being compared. The translation issues resulting from contrasting industrial relations notions cross-nationally is yet another problem. Acknowledging that some practices are simply impossible to translate into another language, thus avoiding misleading renderings, might represent a good starting point. In these cases, a periphrasis will certainly do to explain concepts that do not exist in the target system or feature specific IR contexts. 


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