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"Di che cosa si tratta?" (What's it about?)

Avere a che fare con, which we discussed in a recent lesson, is rather similar in meaning to another turn of phrase: trattarsi di (to be about, to be a matter of, to be a case of), which is used in the impersonal third person singular. Being impersonal, it’s also a little bit more formal.

Let’s back up and look at other forms of this verb.

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In its normal form, trattare (to treat) is transitive (meaning it takes an object).

Mi tratta male.
He treats me badly.

Followed by the preposition di (about, with, of, from), trattare di (to be about, to deal with, to talk about) is intransitive.

Il libro tratta di come costruire una casa.
The book deals with how to build a house.

If you substitute the verb parlare (to talk, to speak), it’s easier to grasp:

Il libro parla di come costruire una casa.
The book talks about how to build a house.

But, as mentioned at the beginning of this lesson, there’s also a way of using the verb with no grammatical subject, that is, the impersonal form: trattarsi di (it concerns, it’s a matter of, it’s about). It’s important to remember that with the impersonal, the actual subject is absent, although it gets translated with “it.” (Think of when we say "It's raining.")

Commissioner Manara is questioning a suspect for the first time.

  

Senta, signor Manuli, qui non si tratta soltanto di inquinamento. -Si tratta di omicidio!

Listen Mister Manuli, it's not just a matter of pollution here. -It's a matter of murder!

Captions 22-23, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP6 - Reazione a Catena

 Play Caption

 

Trattarsi di is commonly used to answer the question, “What’s it about?” or sometimes, “What is it?” In fact trattarsi di is often used in the question itself:

Di che cosa si tratta?
What does it concern? 
What does it deal with? (note the similarity with avere a che fare)
What’s it about?
What is it?

Si tratta di una conferenza sul razzismo.
What it is, is a conference about racism.
It consists in a conference about racism.

When the subject is a generic “it,” we can use trattarsi di.

A good translation is tough to come up with, however, because in English we’d just say:

It’s a conference on racism.

It’s handy to be able to use trattarsi di in a question. When you get a phone call from someone you don’t know, or when strangers come to your house, your first question might be:

Di che cosa si tratta?
What’s this about?

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Further learning:
This link takes you to a Yabla search of tratta. There’s one instance in which non si tratta della forma impersonale (it’s not about the impersonal form). Can you find it?

Expressions

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