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Fare Pena Posted by on Apr 18, 2018 in Vocabulary

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Yep, after two weeks of following Le Avventure Di Uno Scarpone I feel it’s time to move on to new, hitherto unexplored territories. Hence today I’ll be beginning a ten week mini-series based on the life of a sock.

Only joking! 😉

If it were true, then at this point you’d be perfectly justified in saying: “ma questo Geoff mi fa veramente pena!” Which leads on nicely to the real topic of today’s article: the word pena and its associated idiomatic expressions.

The Italian word pena comes from the Latin poena, meaning punishment, chastisement, or suffering. The same etymological roots have given rise to the English words pain, penalty, penal and so on.
In Italian, pena is frequently used when referring to criminal justice:
è stato condannato alla pena dell’ergastolo = he has been condemned to life in prison/given a life sentence
il pubblico ministero ha proposto il massimo della pena = the public prosecutor has suggested the maximum sentence

Now hopefully, dear readers, you’ll never end up in an Italian court of justice …. ma non si sa mai! (but you never know!)

What you will encounter very frequently though are the following everyday expressions:

1. Fare pena = to feel sorry (for someone/thing).

It’s important to understand that idiomatic expressions cannot be translated literally without recourse to an equivalent expression in the target language. But let’s break it down a moment: mi fa pena could be interpreted as he/she /it makes me suffer, hence I feel pain for him/her/it, hence I feel sorry for him/her/it (plural mi fanno pena = I feel sorry for them). Simply put, it’s an expression of empathy.

Here are a few examples that demonstrate how you can use this expression:
Olivia ha perso suo babbo, mi fa proprio pena = Olivia’s father has died, I feel really sorry for her
ma non ti fanno pena quei poveri gatti randagi? = but don’t you feel sorry for those poor stray cats?
gli faceva così tanta pena che ha dato la propria giacca al povero rifugiato = he felt so sorry for the poor refugee that he gave him his own coat
Maria dice che le faccio pena = Maria says that she feels sorry for me

2. Valere la pena = to be worth it

Whereas in English we say it’s worth/not worth the effort (simplified to it’s worth/not worth it) in Italian we say it’s worth/not worth the pain/suffering.

Let’s look at some examples:
secondo te, vale la pena di comprare una macchina che va a GPL? = in your opinion, is it worth buying a car that runs on LPG? (gas propano liquido = liquid propane gas)
non vale la pena di fare tutto quel lavoro per cinque euro soltanto! = it’s not worth the effort of doing all that work for just five euros!
You’ll also commonly hear this expression used without the di: vale la pena visitare Modena? = is it worth visiting Modena?

Vale veramente la pena visitare la Lunigiana d’inverno, è bellissima! Photo by Geoff.

Now for the tricky bit!

Things get more complicated when we add ne into the equation:
Oriana: “Si è rotta la frizione e devo farla riparare, ma la macchina è vecchia … non so se ne vale la pena” = “The clutch has gone and I’ve got to get it repaired, but the car’s old … I don’t know if it’s worth it”

Ne is one of those slightly elusive little words that acts as a stand in for a whole load of other words. So in this case, instead of saying non so se vale la pena farla riparareOriana simply says non so se ne vale la pena and the ne stands in for farla riparare.

Here’s another example:
Oriana: “Secondo te, vale la pena comprare una macchina che va a GPL?” Geoff: “Sì, ne vale veramente la pena” = Oriana: “In your opinion, is it worth buying a car that runs on LPG?” Geoff: “Yes, it’s definitely worth it”

Finally, using the past tense:

Anthony: “Sono dovuto andare fino ad Aulla per trovare il pezzo di ricambio!” Geoff: “Allora, ne è valsa la pena?” = Anthony: “I had to go all the way to Aulla to find the spare part!” Geoff: “So, was it worth it?”

Okay, don’t panic … let’s analyse that reply shall we? Valsa is the past participle of the verb valere, hence è valsa la pena? means ‘was it worth it?’ and è valsa la pena (without the question mark) means ‘it was worth it’.

Here’s another example:
Anthony: “Com’è andata la riunione con il sindaco, avete risolto qualcosa?” Geoff: “Non ne è valsa la pena, era come parlare al muro!” = “How did the meeting with the mayor go, did you resolve anything?” Geoff: “It wasn’t worth it, it was like talking to a brick wall!”

I’d like to thank reader Mike Nicolucci for giving me the idea for this article. Grazie Mike!
As usual, if you have any question don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

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Comments:

  1. Jill Payne:

    I do not understand in point one which is the subject and which is the verb. At first I thought fare pena was reflexive but then when it became mi fanno pena when the person felt sorry for “them”. Is there a logical explanation or is this just something I need to know?

    • Geoff:

      @Jill Payne Ciao Jill, I suggest that you re-read the following section of my blog:

      “It’s important to understand that idiomatic expressions cannot be translated literally without recourse to an equivalent expression in the target language. But let’s break it down a moment: mi fa pena could be interpreted as he/she /it makes me suffer, hence I feel pain for him/her/it, hence I feel sorry for him/her/it (plural mi fanno pena = I feel sorry for them). Simply put, it’s an expression of empathy.”

      The key is: mi fa pena could be interpreted as he/she /it makes me suffer”. If you are clear about that, then logically, mi fanno pena can be interpreted as ‘they make me suffer’.

      It’s just a matter of perspective, and it’s similar to the problem that English speakers have with the concept of mi piace (it pleases me) rather than ‘I like it’, or mi manca (it is missing/lacking to me) rather than ‘I miss it’.

      Simple answer:
      If you want to say ‘I feel sorry for him/her/it’ then use mi fa pena
      If you want to say ‘I feel sorry for them’ then use mi fanno pena

      Alla prossima!

  2. Ciaran Folan:

    Ciao Geoff! Thanks for a most interesting article here. Two small queries.
    “ne è valsa la pena?” as you say contains the past participle ‘valsa’, and since it is a Perfect tense of an intransitive verb, the past participle changes ending as required. And in this case ‘valsa’ tells us that the ‘it’ to which we are referring is feminine. But in this case we don’t know why it’s feminine. So could it just be ne è valso la pena?
    Second point. Should it not be ‘fare la pena’ instead of ‘fare pena’? I’ve summarised for myself the cases in which the definite article is omitted in Italian, (because it is included much more often than omitted), and I can’t see why it would be omitted here. ‘fare pena’ looks wrong to my inexperienced eye.

    • Geoff:

      @Ciaran Folan Ciao Ciaran!

      Okay, let’s address those two queries.

      1. Why valsa la pena and not valso la pena?
      Simple, valsa refers to la pena (the pain) and not the ‘it’. So it’s always feminine: valsa.

      2. Should it not be ‘fare la pena’ instead of ‘fare pena’?
      In a nutshell … no!
      Why? Well, it’s an idiom, and idioms don’t follow rules.
      This type of construction is very common in Italian.
      Here are a few more examples from everyday speech:
      fa freddo” = it’s cold
      fa caldo” = it’s hot
      fa male” = it hurts
      ti fa bene” = it’s good for you
      fai fatica?” = are you struggling?

      … the list goes on and on …

      Hope that helps 🙂

  3. Ciaran Folan:

    oh, I should have clarified that the ‘valsa’ I was referring to was in your first example Geoff. In the second, it is clear why we use the feminine ‘valsa’.

  4. John:

    Hi,
    I don’t understand why I have to ‘click’ to a page half full of ads or promos for other subjects to read a complete version of your blog.

    Tell me why?

    • Geoff:

      @John Ciao John, I don’t know what you mean by “a page half full of adds”. The only ads that I see when I click ‘read more’ are those down the right hand side which are all to do with Transparent Language products.
      We write for Transparent, and people can receive our articles free of charge. Transparent then try to make you aware of other ways in which they can help you with your language learning.
      Our free articles are a means of generating business for Transparent Language, which seems perfectly fair to me.
      If, on the other hand, you’re seeing other ads … then I’m afraid I can’t help you because they don’t appear in my browser.
      Perhaps you need to get yourself an add-blocker?

      A presto, Geoff 🙂

  5. Mike Nicolucci:

    Hi Geoff, Great post/lesson! It exceeded my expectations 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

  6. Jenny:

    I think ‘fare pena’ works a bit like ‘piacere’; you have to make a rather odd English translation to see how the verb needs to be congugated. So ‘la cantata mi piace’ could be translated as ‘the song pleases me’ and ‘the songs please me’ has to become ‘le cantate mi piaciono’ (hope I’ve got that right!). Likewise, ‘quello povero gatto mi fa pena’ means ‘that poor cat causes me pain’, and ‘quei poveri gatti mi fanno pena’ means ‘those poor cats cause me pain’. Of course ’cause pain’ as used here really means ‘distress or upset’ or even ‘inconvenience’ rather than ‘hurt’.

    • Geoff:

      @Jenny Brava Jenny, l’hai centrato! You’ve hit the nail on the head!

      A couple of small corrections if I may:

      ‘la canzone mi piace’
      ‘le canzoni mi piacciono’
      quel povero gatto mi fa pena’

      Thanks for your comment, a presto, Geoff 🙂

  7. Antonio:

    Dire “fa pena” di qualcosa spesso significa solo che è di bassa qualità, è simile a “fa schifo”. Se dico “il tempo fa pena oggi” non significa che “i feel sorry” per il tempo, ma solo che c’è brutto tempo.

  8. AF:

    “But let’s break it down a moment: mi fa pena could be interpreted as he/she /it makes me suffer, hence I feel pain for him/her/it, hence I feel sorry for him/her/it (plural mi fanno pena = I feel sorry for them). Simply put, it’s an expression of empathy.”
    As I read this I was thinking that it should be much like the English equivalent- “I feel bad for…”, which is based on the exact same logic of empathy, do you agree?

    • AF:

      @AF Just to add a few examples:
      He missed his bus, I feel bad for him.
      I feel bad for all the poor people in Africa.
      Etc….
      Basically, it can replace “I feel sorry” and it carries the meaning of me feeling the pain for someone else’s suffering

    • Geoff:

      @AF Ciao AF, yes, ‘I feel bad for …’ is another possible synonym. Take your pick! 🙂

  9. Robin:

    Excellent post. Grazie

  10. Christine Percival:

    Sei molto divertente! Love your humor, stories, ideas, grammar …ugh…..images,
    You’re the best ! You too, Serena!!


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