Since my native language happens to be the same as Cara Mia's, and even though it has probably been done countless times, I thought I'd explain the lyrics a bit more in depth than usual, also giving a few interpretations.
In an interview, Ellen McLain declared she made up the lyrics on the spot, in her somewhat shaky Italian — a knowledge naturally coming from her career as an opera singer. Well, she did a simple but excellent job. Let’s go explore it together.
Cara bel, cara mia bella
Dear (female adj.) beautiful (female adj., here probably used as a noun), my dear beautiful (same use as before).
Bel is an actually incorrect form for "beautiful", as the elision of the last part (bel-lo, male, or bel-la, female — my language has no neuter gender, and that’s a real nuisance…) is only used for the male gender, sometimes, when the noun starts with a consonant. When the noun is female and it starts with a vocal, we have apocope.
Ex. Un bel gioco (male, “a good game”), una bell’amica (female, “a good friend”).
Up to here, the meaning is all perfectly clear; I can add that these adjectives are being used in a very affectionate way, but with no particular connotations in regards of the relationship between the singer and Chell.
My child (female noun)
This is, as you all know, one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the supporters of the “Caroline is Chell’s mother” theory. Yet, there is some thought to put in the use of this noun and what it can mean.
In its basic use, bambina is the generic female word for child. With the possessive adjective my (mio/a), it becomes a form typically used by parents to address their children. Its use in daily life, however, is almost nil: it’s way common to use words as “honey” or “sweetheart” when talking to both your son or daughter.
It is interesting to notice that, unlike English, the position of the adjective can change (bambina mia or mia bambina).
The first use, way more common, has a strong vocative vibe, and it’s more commonly used by any adult to address children when teaching something in general. It is used in exclamations, at the end of the sentence, when the person speaking wants to give an admonition and pose as the “wisest” of the two. Funnily enough, the latter is the meaning cara mia (or caro mio, male) has 90% of the time in daily use — it is a noun that usually expresses irritation, a bit ironically, towards the other person. (Eh no, cara mia! Stop right there! can give you the feeling.) The second use, the one in the song, is extremely rare in common language and it conveys the idea of closeness and affection — as in you really, really care about your child.
However, the point here is that this word can be used in several other ways. Bambina is very commonly used as a loving name for any girl or woman; it expresses affection and closeness, friendliness and intimacy, and it can fit perfectly fine a younger girl or friend, and also a lover. On another relevant note, when it comes to these miscellaneous meanings, the word was largely spread in the archaic language of Italian opera, in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In conclusion, I hardly think mia bambina is used in Cara Mia in the strict sense of parenthood. That’s just my two cents — but I am inclined to believe it’s a more generic use, accompanied by a noticeable hint of quasi-motherly affection which implies protectiveness and care. Ironical, huh?
Ciel is the elision for cielo (male noun for sky). Oh cielo is an exclamation still widely in use today and it equals “oh God” or “good heavens”. You all probably noticed the word game on ciel/Chell; the es are differently pronounced, but it’s still close enough to confound the two words. The most beautiful pun.
Ch’ella stima, ch’ella stima/ oh, cara mia, addio
Whom she esteems - oh, my dear, goodbye
I have seen a lot of different versions for the first line — someone even thought it said qué làstima, Spanish for “what a pity”, except the accent is different.
I really believe this is the correct version, because of how fitting it sounds for our story. Although che can work both as subject and object pronoun (who and whom), "whom she esteems" is the one correct version, and the subject is ella, an unnamed she.
We can effortlessly identify her as GLaDOS — as far as we know, she is the only feminine entity active in the Portal games who has the chance to see Chell in action, as well as esteem her for some reason. Hinting at someone else we don’t know of would be pretty contradictory in this dense and emotional endgame.
In our interpretation, it is important to notice ella is a third person pronoun. The natural consequence, at least following the logic of the language, is that the singer and the person who esteems Chell are not the same person.
And here is where I ask myself the question — what do we know about Caroline’s independence in her existence as GLaDOS? Is it possible that she is the singer, or, in alternative, the person who holds Chell in such high esteem?
In any way, we now have several options.
1. The entity behind this lovely serenade is Caroline, or, possibly, the more emotional and human part of GLaDOS, and she perceives herself as a separate identity from GLaDOS.
2. The entity behind Cara Mia is GLaDOS herself, who both refuses and accepts the Caroline-like side in her, and nonetheless refers as the entity esteeming Chell as other than herself (that is Caroline, or her emotions.)
3. The entity behind Cara Mia is the turret opera group, and they sing this to Chell as a goodbye on their own. This I find it less likely, but it’s not an option to be ignored.
My interpretation of choice is either of the first two. I happened to have to explain this in fanfiction a while ago, and to fill the prompt I described GLaDOS’ struggle to hastily come to an agreement with the turrets. My favourite idea, although personal and debatable, is that it was our AI to prepare a moving goodbye for her dearest and most hated test subject.
Perché non passi lontana/ sì, lontana da Scïenza?
Why don’t you walk away/ yes, far (female adjective, referring to you = Chell) from Science? (female noun)
This is going to be the last part of my post, as the rest of the lyrics are mere repetitions.
These lines have a couple of mistakes: the verb passare doesn’t mean to go or walk away, but it actually means to pass; and thinking of Chell’s situation, the literal translation — “to pass away from Science” — ends up in a phrasal verb that makes it sound pretty grim.
I’ll also note that the modern pronunciation of scienza is [‘ʃɛntsa], and that Scïenza is an archaic form, dating back to the 14th century.
In any case, the meaning is obvious — the singer is warmly inviting Chell to walk away from her terrible past in Aperture, and stay lontana (far) from it. This invite clearly forms a subtle parallel, and also creates a contrast, with the sardonic (if heartfelt) goodbye GLaDOS gives in Want You Gone; and it may just be me, but comparing the two pieces makes the Caroline/GLaDOS dichotomy more evident, while making the whole thing ten times sweeter and sadder.
I hope you found my analysis interesting. As a final bonus, I give you a version of Cara Mia sung by me, with the rigorously correct accent — if you listen to it, you’ll notice Ellen already has a really great accent herself.
Until next time!