| Arts & Culture
Language How to Say I Love You in Italian
With friends and family, one says “ti voglio bene”—literally “I want good for you.” And I believe love is not only something you feel, but something you do.
When I first met my Italian partner, we conversed in English. I didn’t yet speak Italian, though I’d been exposed to the language since childhood. My dad had spoken it on the phone to friends in Rome, where he’d lived for the better part of a decade, and I’d sung scores of Italian arias during my vocal training in my teens and twenties. In Italian opera, there were hundreds of ways to declare one’s love: crowns of roses, tears shed on silver rings.
I was a lyric soprano. I was Susanna, Zerlina, Micaëla. Singing these ingenues deadened me with dysphoria, but so long as I was closeted or onstage—two modes more similar than different—I accepted that my throat was made to convey other people’s loves, not my own.
Meeting my partner, though, changed everything.
As our relationship turned serious, I love you was one of the first phrases I asked him how to say. I wanted to be able to conjure the associations he had with the word, with the phrase—to tug on those shoots whose roots went deeper than English. I listened to him speak Italian for months, straining to catch what I could from the Spanish I’d grown up with in New York and the Latin I’d taught myself in high school.
I’d always been a language geek. I stammered my early way through Italian hoping to find equivalents for the elegant Arabic bihabbak/ik بحبّك, I love you , or ta’burni تقبرني / ta’brini تقبريني, may you bury me —to love someone so much you’d rather die than mourn them.
In Italian, I love you translates to ti amo , at least in a romantic sense, and this is what my partner taught me. Once I began spending longer periods in Italy, meeting friends and family, I learned the linguistic distinctions between romantic and platonic love. With friends and family, one says ti voglio bene , literally I want good for you . In practice, though, it was more often expressed in subtext than spoken outright. My partner’s family showed their love through brasato, polenta, games of scopa, and family legends recounted on summer evenings; how could ti voglio bene convey all that? Love spoken can feel so direct it’s almost suspect. The words fall so short, it’s embarrassing.
“To love well,” bell hooks wrote, “is the task in all meaningful relationships, not just romantic bonds.” I’ve practiced a nonhierarchical approach to my relationships—both romantic and platonic—for years. I want to know love beyond the lens of scarcity, as something that flows between people regardless of form, even in the context of monogamy. Love as something you do , rather than something you feel.
In many cultures, including my partner’s and—as an Arab—my own, we might understand spoken declarations of love, no matter how poetic, as only pale approximations of the habitual act of loving. To love someone means to be in the practice of loving them: to feed, protect, and support them; to share (and shed) blood and tears beside them: all this renders words superfluous.
Massive Attack sang, “ Love, love is a verb; love is a doing word .” Or, if you prefer Francesco de Gregori: “ Bellamore, Bellamore, non mi lasciare / tu che non credi ai miracoli, ma li sai fare .” Beautiful Love, Beautiful Love, don’t leave me / you who don’t believe in miracles, but know how to make them.
As an immigrant in Italy—particularly during the early part of the pandemic, when I couldn’t leave the country for a year and a half—I’ve navigated my relationships with my partner’s family and friends without English. In the beginning, I was beleaguered by a wrong-footed feeling, a constant state of emotional and mental exhaustion. Being a non-native speaker of the dominant language(s) where you live means not having access to the full breadth and depth of your knowledge, history, and personality.
Being not only immigrant but also trans, queer, Muslim, and Arab compounded my untranslatability. I tried to take in stride my clumsy Italian humor, the clunky approximations of my emotions. Some of my partner’s friends spoke English, but many didn’t, and I didn’t want to do that thing Americans had often done to my own friends and family: A monolingual English speaker enters a room, and everyone bends like so many moons to cater to their linguistic needs. English as center of gravity.
Speaking Italian at home every day, I made progress. I began to form my own friendships. I got involved with local queer initiatives, befriended Italians of color, met other first-generation immigrants. Yet some part of me remained unsayable in Italian, just as it did in English and Arabic. Growing up biracial in diaspora, I was used to feeling untranslatable. Now, uprooted, I wondered how I’d ever be able to fully communicate my love and care, especially with a voice I couldn’t fully inhabit.
This sense of voicelessness and untranslatability was one of the things that made me realize I wanted to try testosterone. After puberty, I’d dissociated for nearly twenty years. All the Italian I knew from operatic arias and sacred music I’d learned in an exhausted fog of gender anguish. I’d practiced hundreds of ways to convince an audience that I loved, but I’d never been able to say it with my whole flesh.
I feared that when I told my partner ti amo , all he could hear were the ingenues. Susanna in the garden singing to Figaro, disguised as another woman.
Growing up biracial in diaspora, I was used to feeling untranslatable. Now, uprooted, I wondered how I’d ever be able to fully communicate my love and care, especially with a voice I couldn’t fully inhabit.
Before the pandemic, my partner and I watched Ermanno Olmi’s 1978 film L’Albero degli zoccoli —translated as The Tree of Wooden Clogs —a historical snapshot of the lives of the people who worked the land outside Bergamo in the late nineteenth century. The entire movie is spoken not in Italian, but in the Bergamasco dialect. Over the years, I’ve begun learning this dialect too, to speak with my partner’s family. This, for me, is part of learning to say te öle bé , the Bergamasco version of ti voglio bene , with my actions as well as my words.
Watching the film, I was struck by a scene where a young man and woman, clearly interested in each other, walk to church one evening through a field. They’ve never spoken before this point; they walk separated by some distance, but alone. With my partner translating (a challenge, since Bergamasco is rarely written and unstandardized), they begin to speak.
Lui: Ölèse saí se pödie salüdà, me farès piasér de fa almeno la buona sìra.
Him: I would like to know if I can greet you, it would please me to tell you good evening.
Lei: Se l’è adoma per chèl ghè mia dét negot de mal.
Her: If it’s just that, there’s nothing wrong. [Literally: There is nothing wrong inside it.]
Lui: E vù ma disìt negot?
Him: And you? You tell me nothing?
Lei: Eh, ga dighe pò mé buona sìra.
Her: Well, I also tell you good evening.
She walks away, leaving him flushed and grinning. An older man piling hay nearby spies this exchange, giving the conversation an illicit thrill. In so many cultures—yes, even in the United States—for a man and a woman to speak a little too much can already be a line crossed in the eyes of nosy neighbors. In Bergamasco, one even says i parla insèma— in English, they talk together— to mean two people are dating.
Nosy neighbors and heteronormativity aside, sometimes it is the act of exchange, of risking being seen in each other’s company, that communicates a deeper affection. To be in solidarity, to risk one’s body and one’s reputation, is a form of intimacy beyond the verb amare , one that requires no florid songs . For a person who walks through the world in a near-constant state of displacement—displacement from the (cis)gender binary, from language, from cisheteropatriarchal regimes of (re)productivity, from the countries of my ancestors—I do not take such intimacies for granted.
There is a romantic in me, perhaps a younger me, to whom I’d like to say that everyone I ever considered family—blood or chosen—stood beside me when I became visible as a queer, trans, gender-nonconforming person. I wish I could say that certain people from my past stuck around to hear me say I loved them with the honey of my new baritone. The truth is that there are many people I once loved with whom I no longer speak.
The irony is that those who stayed told me they loved me without words. They did so over and over again, whether by emptying my surgical drains, by housing me, or by advocating for me to healthcare professionals and town clerks and border agents. Often they loved me in silence: walking with my partner and his family around their small Italian town, defying the glares of passersby with our laughter; evenings on my friends’ couches with a bowl of garlic rice and a good cry; the same fifty bucks passed back and forth in the absence of structural change; public bathrooms they accompany me into so I will never again be cornered and threatened in a stall.
Those who stayed told me they loved me without words.
These gestures may not seem romantic. But on the first night I spent in Italy, I changed into boy clothes in the bathroom of a Milan airport. My partner brought me to Bergamo’s città alta, carrying a sack with a bottle of red wine and two stemmed glasses. It was the coldest week of winter, the giorni della merla—the days of the blackbird. My cat had just died, and I did not speak Italian. After midnight, we seemed to be alone in the city with the sculptured dead. I thought it was romantic because we danced in the piazza of the church where they filmed that scene in Call Me by Your Name (before I’d even seen it!), and I let myself hope that fear and grief might have an end .
I didn’t know it, but the real romance would come later: returning to that piazza over the years as I met my partner’s friends and family, as my second book came out, as we chilled a bottle of prosecco in the fountain on our anniversary, as the world ground to a halt and I feared I’d never see my loved ones again. It would be in that same piazza, years after, that I would blink and realize testosterone was lifting the fog of my dissociation, and I would feel electrically alive, and I would squeeze my partner’s hand and say nothing at all, because it was enough to stand in that piazza together and cry.
To say I want good for you , ti voglio bene , te öle bé , is to say: I care for you . Your well-being is my well-being. We are connected because your happiness is also my happiness, your safety my safety, your joy my joy. It embodies love as a communal practice, something you demonstrate, something you risk. My blood and chosen family say it to each other often, but we also know that love is first and foremost a practice of care. I give form to that care not only through the voice I’ve reclaimed, now, but side by side in how we show up for each other, in any language.