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Consider the following example from https://context.reverso.net/translation/italian-english/assaltato. True, the examples on this web site are not always correct, but this one seems ok, as far as the Italian goes. My problem is with the English translation. The Italian version, slightly edited:

'Le truppe speciali avrebbero assaltato l'edificio.'

It seems to me this condizionale passato in English would be: 'Special troops would have assaulted the building.' But the web site, and Google Translate, render it as:

'Special troops would storm (assault) the building.'

Which, it seems to me, should be condizionale presente: 'Le truppe speciali assalterebbero l'edificio.'

So I ask Google Translate for this, and it returns exactly the same English translation as it does for the condizionale passato! 'Special troops would assault the building.'

What is the correct Italian for these two very different statements:

'Special troops would assault the building.' 'Special troops would have assaulted the building.'

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    I believe that there could be three problems here: first of all, the machine translation isn't always reliable for complex sentence structures that rely on slightly different usage of verbs; then, in this specific case, the problem raises from the usage of the modal verb that can be used to indicate willingness or for condition clauses depending on the context, which brings to the third issue: without context, it's difficult to understand the exact meaning and, then, properly translate the phrase. Dec 23, 2021 at 20:05
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    Consider that changing the verb to a simpler and common one properly translates with condizionale presente in Google, which is also probably based on statistic usage and probably some Machine Learning related stuff. In any case, the question probably cannot have a definitive answer (especially without the context), as the conditional sentences in English don't always have an exact match in other languages, Italian included. Dec 23, 2021 at 20:10
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    As others say, that Italian (part of a) sentence can mean at least three different things: an action purportedly performed by the troops, an action they would have performed if something else had happened, an action they were about to perform.
    – DaG
    Dec 23, 2021 at 21:25
  • The main flaw in this question is in assuming that there is “the correct Italian” for some English phrase. The whole field of translation teaches that such a hope is meaningless. Cicero and Saint Jerome were already aware of this and told so in their writings.
    – DaG
    Dec 26, 2021 at 13:39
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    @Ben: “for the purpose at hand”. Finally! You have understood it. It's a good first step.
    – DaG
    Dec 27, 2021 at 22:15

2 Answers 2

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Without context it's difficult to say, but this “condizionale passato” is typical journalistic style for expressing doubts about some piece of news: some source claims that the troops assaulted the building, but there is no strong evidence they actually did.

In English “allegedly” might be used or “some reported that the troops assaulted the building”.

Another case can be when one reports something that was planned: “the troops would assault the building”.

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One of the main problems of translation (especially when considering Machine Translation) is that short sentences have no context, and context is mandatory for proper comprehension. This is an important aspect when dealing with translation; for instance, international dubbing of audio/video content usually has two steps that happen prior practical dubbing with voice actors: translation and "adaptation" (localization); the original script is translated, then adapted in order to ensure that people speaking the "target" language are able to understand what's being told, considering social and cultural references. Adaptation may even change the original meaning in ways that can significantly alter the phrases.

The following phrase probably has a wider extent of translation:

Le truppe speciali avrebbero assaltato l'edificio

This phrase can have at least two meanings in Italian:

  • The troops might have assaulted the building [if something else didn't happen];
  • The troops have allegedly assaulted the building [but there's no proof of that];

The condizionale presente makes it a bit narrower:

"Le truppe speciali assalterebbero l'edificio"

In most cases this will probably mean that the troops are willing to assault the building, as long as they can. Or, at least, that we can assume that they will ("Le truppe assalterebbero [at a certain time]"): we cannot be sure, but we are confident that they will.


Dealing with the opposite translation makes things even more difficult, as the meaning of the modal verb can change depending on the context, since it can be used to show "basic" willingness, to form condition clauses or even for courtesy; consider a simple sentence like "I would leave" which might mean "I would leave [if I can]" (I might not be able to leave) or "I would leave [if you please]" (I'm just being kind, but I'll certainly leave even if you don't want to).
Consider the basic phrase:

Special troops would assault the building

I can see at least three possible meanings (and this doesn't even deal with the Italian translation), and that's because we're lacking context:

  • Troops are probably going to assault ("Le truppe attaccherebbero l'edificio", sooner or later);
  • Troops are willing to assault ("Le truppe vorrebbero attaccare l'edificio");
  • Troops might be put in the position to assault [if something makes them] ("Le truppe potrebbero dover attaccare l'edificio", even if that's not a proper translation);

Consider that if you change the "assault" verb to a more common one, the result of machine translation is more direct, using the "condizionale presente". That depends on various aspects, including modern technologies dealing with Machine Learning, statistics and user input (Google Translate usually shows when a translation is provided by user intervention).
Depending on the verb, you can have different results:

  • "fire up" results in "darebbero fuoco";
  • "blow up" gives "avrebbero fatto esplodere" (instead of "esploderebbero");

And what about ambiguous verbs, like "fly"? Should the troops try to make the building fly, or are they just willing to escape it?

The only certainty we have is the uncertainty of the verb ;-)

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