I am familiar with the phrase "translator, traitor" and have no issue with its meaning in English. But what is the pun referred to on this Wikipedia page:

"Similarly, consider the Italian adage "traduttore, traditore": a literal translation is "translator, traitor". The pun is lost, though the meaning persists. (A similar solution can be given, however, in Hungarian, by saying a fordítás: ferdítés, which roughly translates as "translation is distortion".)"


  • 2
    As a linguist and translator, I love this great saying, although I see no double meaning either. Simply a very clever juxtaposition of words. Mar 25, 2018 at 12:34

2 Answers 2


The so-called pun lies simply in the fact that traduttore and traditore are very similar words, differing just for a vowel (u/i) and a double letter that becomes simple (tt/t). That is, there is no double meaning, but just two very similar words, each used in its normal meaning.

This saying is similar to other ones that use assonance, rhyme etc., especially to express the alleged faults of certain categories, like Chi disse donna disse danno (literally, “Who said woman said damage”, but with the strong wordplay donna/danno) or Fratelli coltelli (lit., “Brothers knives”).

More in general, several Italian proverbs and idioms get some of their effectiveness from such metrical or wordplay features.


You have mentioned that you have no issues with its meaning in English; however, at risk of insulting your intelligence, I shall venture explaining the meaning first, as follows.

  1. There is absolutely no way that one can accurately -one hundred per cent correct- translate a text from one language to another. The reason is simple: the "meaning" that the author intends to convey to the reader is extracted not only from what is directly inferred from the literal meaning of each word/phrase/sentence in the text, but also from the sound/prose/history/cultural background/etc that is almost always associated with those words. As an example, in English language, you might refer to the best performer in a pack of high-ranking chess players as "the top dog"; such as we see in this sentence:

    In the field of high-level competitive chess, Magnus Carlsen is the top dog.

    Now, If you ever make the terrible mistake of calling an Arab a "top dog", you might receive a punch in the face! (Dogs are considered "untouchable" in Arab culture. Quite a lot of curses in Arabic language have the word "dog" in them in various forms, such as "Y'abn-El'kalb" = "O Son of a Dog"!). In addition, certain texts contain so many references to historical/religious/cultural backgrounds that no meaningful translation of them is even possible unless the translator uses footnotes for almost every paragraph or even line. Dante Alighieri's INFERNO is the best example.

  2. As such, there is no way that a translation -ANY translation, though to varying degrees- may be an exact, identical replica of the original text unless the translator sacrifices at least one of the two aspects (sometimes both): the structure or/and the meaning. For example, Fitzgerald's translations of Khayyam's poems are only loosely related to the actual, original contexts of the quatrains of the poet as Fitzgerald has chosen to convey the "mood" and "message" of the poems -in quatrain format which is yet another restraint on the translation- sacrificing the exact details of the actual context and form. I can attest to this fact as I am a Persian, well-versed in both poetry and translation!

  3. Thus, sacrificing one or another aspect of the original text, the translator is indeed a "traitor": treason to the author, or, treason to the reader (the reader in the new language, of course)! Hence, "Translator is Traitor"!
  4. To that, you must add the specific Italian pun based on the subtle changes in the alphabet letters, leading to a very short phrase -lengthwise, of course- that is "Traduttore Traditore!" with a very deep and vast meaning and interpretation. This has already been addressed by another contributor, above.


Dr. B. Shahi

  • 1
    Welcome to Italian.SE!
    – Charo
    Aug 19, 2018 at 6:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.