Translation into English
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Seven survival tools for translating Brazilian Portuguese into English
Some people handle gobbledygook in translation
by the hallowed GIGO (gobbledygook in, gobbledygook
out) method. I don't. I like my translations
to be crystal-clear. The guys who read the
stuff I translate are businesspeople and they
do not have the time or the inclination to
pore and ponder over a text, looking up words
in an unabridged dictionary; they want to
understand what they have to read the first
time they skim through it. If they don't,
they say "damn the translator,"
not "damn the author".
The guys who read the stuff I
translate are businesspeople and
they do not have the time or the
inclination to pore and ponder
over a text, looking up words
in an unabridged dictionary.
All this business of "crystal-clear
translation for gobbledygook original"
may be a little bit contrary to good translation
theory, but I am not talking about good
translation theory here, I am talking about
earning a living. Readers of business translations
expect to understand what they read without
difficulty, and I have a family to feed.
Therefore I keep it simple. Perfect reasoning.
So although my recipe for translation
theory may vary from time to time, it always
includes a good shot of Strunk & White's
for the kick. (There is a bibliography of
sorts at the end of this article.) How much
S&W's I use depends on many factors.
Some clients like it more than others but
at least one guy complained that I write
funny (he was Brazilian, however).
Following my basic recipe, I have developed
a set of survival tools, some of which are
shown below. I conducted a couple of seminars
where participants were shown how to use
some of them. I even intend to cram all
of them into a small book. But today I must
be contented to squeeze a few of them into
1. My favorite dictionaries
Businesspeople do not like words they don't
know. They find reading a text that requires
frequent trips to the dictionary an irritating
task. Some translators seem to ignore that
and use words that are seldom found in the
target language. Take homologar?
for instance. The Portuguese-English dictionary
will tell you it is homologate, and
a large dictionary will dictionary will
tell you homologate really corresponds
to homologar. However, homologar
is a common word in Brazil whereas homologate
is not nearly as frequent in English.
For instance, the average Brazilian peão
freely discusses a homologação
da rescisão- whereas an American
hardhat probably would flinch at homologation
of the termination.
That is why I prefer smaller monolingual
dictionaries to homologate, er, confirm
my translation choices. Black's Law Dictionary
has all the legal terms you can think of,
including many a majority of American lawyers
and most executives do not know. Gifis'
is a lot shorter and, therefore a lot better
if you are working into English. Translators
who dare use a word that is in Black's but
not in Gifi's run the risk of not being
The same goes for non-technical dictionaries.
Don't go about using a word just because
you found it in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED is an excellent dictionary that
contains all the words nobody knows. If
you translate into English, get a few of
those splendid dictionaries they make for
foreigners, such as the Longman Dictionary
of English Language and Culture and try
to limit your vocabulary to its selection.
Of course, for the source language,
the more and bigger dictionaries you have,
2. The nervous tic
I translate meaning, not nervous
tics. One of my clients begins every second
paragraph with por oportuno, informamos
também que... I refuse to begin
every second paragraph with because it
is opportune we also inform that. I
asked the client why he wrote that way.
He said vício, an addiction. Then
I suggested he should go over his writings,
after they were ready, and amputate those
useless proboscises. He thought the idea
great, but never got around to implementing
it. So I do it on the translation. By the
way, my charges are based on the word count
of original text.
3. The elevated synonym, the unctuous adjective,
the local reference and the geography of
Many Brazilian writers think calling a rose
a rose is beneath their station.
So they call it anything but a rose.
Well, not roses, really, but take the Constitution,
for instance. I have a book where it is
variously called a lei maior, a lei magna,
nossa lei fundamental and even a
lex legum. Now the Constitução,
by any other name, should be
the Constituition and nothing else.
I also refuse to translate o pretório
excelso as anything other than the
Brazilian Supreme Court.
The love of elevated language also forces
other authors to add an unctuous adjective
to almost every noun. A lawyer will refer
to the guy who works for the other guys
as meu erudito colega or o ilustre
jurista. My erudite colleague or the
illustrious jurist inside a business
letter sounds too unctuous or ironical in
English (three spoonfuls of Eugene Nida)
and I usually resolve that into my colleague,
counsel for X, or something of that
sort. The Dickensian close sem mais para
o momento, apresentamos os protestos de
nossa elevada estima becomes yours
One of my favorites among constructions
of that type is o legislador pátrio,
which I do not dare translate literally,
and is usually best translated as the
Brazilian Congress. Certain writers
seem to be ashamed of the word brasileiro
and replace it with pátrio
whenever they can.
This leads us to the third type in this
group: the local reference. O Tesouro
Nacional may be better translated by
the Brazilian Treasury, a moeda nacional
by Brazilian currency. A língua
patria by the Portuguese language.
O vernáculo is also the Portuguese
languageanother case of the elevated
The last type in this group is the local
geographical reference that needs some expliciting
(a pound of Peter Newmark). When a newspaper
in São Paulo refers to a baixada,
it means a baixada santista, which
is better translated as the coastal area
around the city of Santos. O cerrado may
by the scrublands of Central Brazil,
where the capital, Brasilia, is located,
but also a derogatory reference to the
Federal Government, the irony of which
may have to be compensated somewhere else.
4. The sesquipedal sentence
Portuguese apparently can handle long sentences
better than English can, for a number of
alleged reasons I will spare you. Yes, I
know William Faulkner wrote sentences longer
than the average roundworm and some American
lawyers suffer from periodophobia (British
lawyers can be stoppophobic). But being
neither Faulkner nor lawyer, I prefer not
to burden my reader with those kilometer-long
Brazilian sentences (Brazilians don't write
mile-long sentences; we have gone metric
ages ago). So, I start looking for a good
splicing place whenever the sentence runs
to more than 25 words.
Natural splicing places are conjunctions
and relative pronouns, of course. My favorite
is sendo que. Have you noticed how
we can write an extraordinarily long sentence,
tack a sendo que on at the end for
a breather and then go on for another hundred
words or so without stop? I have been told
sendo que is being that, but
old Mr. Nida says it is not. So I translate
sendo que as a period.
5. The absolute clause
Even colloquial Portuguese will be sprinkled
with initial absolute constructions, which
are possible in English, but not nearly
as common. Thus it is often better to develop
them into clauses with finite verbs. For
instance an initial informado por um
acessor de que... may be after an
advisor informed him that...Or indagado
se pretendia continuar may very well
be when asked whether he intended to
6. The case of the missing noun
Many Brazilian gobbledygookers are in the
habit of dropping the noun out of noun-adjective
phrases. For instance, petição
inicial becomes a inicial. If
you don't know that, your are lost, because
you are bound to translate it as the
initial? whereas it should be the
7. Abstractions, positive and negative
The latest fashion in Brazilian gobbledygook
is the negative abstraction. Abstractions
have always plagued gobbledygook, both in
English and Portuguese, it is true, but
somehow I feel English texts use fewer abstracts
than their Brazilian counterparts. Probably
the effect of Strunk & White and their
followers north of the Rio Grande. Quantity
is of no importance however. What matters
is that sometimes a Portuguese abstraction
does not translate well into English.
Have a look at this: Excesso de pluviosidade
está causando um retardo na construção
de estradas, which I found in a newspaper.
Two abstractions: pluviosidade and
retardo. Excess pluviosity is causing
a delay in road construction in English
is preposterous, but even Brazilian
radio reporters have taken to talking like
that and the average traffic report in São
Paulo radio stations sounds like a translation
from a German treatise on higher metaphysics.
Using Vinay & Darbelnet's transposition
tool, you can change the first abstract
into a concrete noun and the second into
a verb: excess [or "too much"]
rainfall is delaying road construction.
Funny that this translates literally
into perfectly good Portuguese: excesso
de chuva (or "chuva demais") está
retardando a construção de
A existência de extintores em restaurantes
é uma obigatoriedade. I did find
this in my morning paper. I had an extra
cup of coffee to help gulp it down. How
can I say obrigatoriedade in English?
Obligation? So, existence of fire
extinguishers in restaurants is an obligation?
Or all restaurants are required to
keep fire extinguishers?
The following beauty is cribbed from Equivalences,
an excellent book if you know French:
a audiência tem três características:
oralidade, publicidade e contraditório.
Try translating the three abstractions.
Better translate it as the hearing has
three characteristics: it must be oral,
it must be public and both sides must be
However, the negative abstraction is even
worse: a falta de uma lei específica
resulta na inexigibilidade do imposto.
What is inexigibilidade in English?
Non-claimability? Is this a "virtual
word", one of those words that is not
necessarily in any dictionary but can be
coined by anyone with sufficient chutzpah?
Should we render it as the lack of a
specific law results in the non-claimability
of the tax? May be, but how about the
tax may not be claimed unless a specific
law is enacted? This, of course, requires
quite a few spoonfuls of Vinay & Darbelnet
transposition and modulation, but reads
a lot better.
Envoi and Bibliography of Sorts
Envoi (not envoy, which is something else)
is not in dictionaries for foreigners
and is a word I would hardly use in translation,
but this is an original text and translators
are supposed to have a large vocabulary
I could go on and on developing this article,
but I had to stop somewhere and I decided
to stop where I did. I will probably return
to the subject in future articles, if this
raises as much interest as I think the issue
There is a lot of talk about whether we
should translate from our native
language into a foreign language.
There is even a very interesting and realistic
article on that subject, called Direction
of Translation by Allison B. Lonsdale
in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation.
But I don't translate into English because
of what professor Lonsdale says. I translate
into English because when I began nobody
told me I should notand when they
did it was too late to stop. In fact, I
think it is excellent training: one learns
to translate into Portuguese by translating
into English and vice versa. Thank God I
am not a university professor.
I seldom wax theoretical and thus am not
adept at preparing bibliographies, but the
data below will certainly help you find
the books, if your really wanto to.
S&W's obviously refers to the classic
Elemens of Style (Macmillan) by William
Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. There are several
other books on good English writing and
one of my favorites is Style, by
J. Williams (Scott, Foresman and Company).
These two should be required reading wherever
advanced English is taught. They are not.
I own J. P. Vinay and J. Darbelnet's classic,
Stylistique comparée du français
et de l'anglais, in the first French
edition, by Didier, but I saw an English
translation recently. I have not had a chance
to examine it, though. Worth reading even
if you do not translate French. Equivalences,
a fascinating book by Eric Astington,
(Cambridge) amplifies and extends V&D's
work in many ways. Unfortunately, it only
compares French and English. A nice, short,
introduction to translation techniques is
Procedimentos Técnicos de Tradução,
by Heloisa Gonçalves Barbosa
(Pontes). If you have not been introduced
to translation theory before, this may be
the book to begin withif you can find
Peter Newmark's Approaches to Translation
(Pergamon) is one of my favorites, one
of those marvelous books by someone who
knows not all translation studies should
by restricted to literary translation.
Black's Law Dictionary (West) is, as
far as I know, the largest English law dictionary.
Barron's publishes a shorter dictionary
by Steven Gifis, my favorite
for into-English work.
Longman, Cambridge and Collins Cobuild publish
superb dictionaries for foreigners. Even
if you are a native speaker of English,
you should have a look at them. The basic
idea behind them is not all the words
there are, but all the words people
use. Wonderful to help you avoid those
texts that are perfectly correct but do
not read well because the vocabulary is
so highfalutin'. The best words are those
found in at least two of them.
I have never been able to lay my hands on
any original work by Eugene Nida. However
his theories are well known and references
are often found in other people's work,
for instance, in Peter Newmark.
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