In my Italian language class, we were recently discussing proverbs, or expressions that don't always make sense when translated literally, but instead have a larger meaning. For example, a foreign student learning English might be mystified if someone in a conversation before an exam said, "Break a leg!" To someone unfamiliar with the language and its idioms, that would sound pretty offensive. Why, the student might wonder, would I want to break a leg? That makes no sense!
So learning proverbs in a new language can be useful to understanding what's really going on. One of my favourites in Italian (and the first I ever heard) is the proverb: "In bocca al lupo." This, of course, literally translates as "into the mouth of a wolf." And you use it to wish someone good luck. Similar to, "break a leg!" (By the way, the photo above is by Bill Thayer, and was taken in Gubbio, where St. Francis of Assisi tamed Brother Wolf.)
I don't know the origins of the expression "In bocca al lupo" -- obviously, if you're in or near a wolf's mouth, you are going to need luck! Therefore, wouldn't a better expression be something like, "May you avoid the mouth of the wolf!" But, my thoughts on this don't really matter. It is what it is.
The correct response to the wish "In bocca al lupo" is "Crepi!" This means, "may it die!" Poor wolf.
According to Wikipedia, there are variations on "In bocca al lupo." One is, "In culo alla balena!" which translates as "into the ass of a whale!" Wikipedia helpfully adds that the response to the whale comment is "speriamo che non caghi!" or "hope it doesn't defecate." This does seem rather vulgar.
Here are a few other Italian language proverbs that I've found which I thought were fun.
"A chi dai il dito si prende anche il braccio." This translates as, give them a finger and they'll take an arm. Also known as, give them an inch and they'll take a mile.
"Chi la fa l'aspetti." This literally translates as he who wrongs someone has to expect something in retaliation. Or, what goes around, comes around.
This one worries me:
"Chi mangia solo crepa solo." Or, he who eats alone dies alone.
"Il bicchiere della staffa." This literally translates as the (wine)glass of the stirrup, aka one for the road!