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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 this article.


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 understood.

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, the better.


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 places unknown


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 sincerely.

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 language—another case of the elevated synonym.

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 go on.


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 complaint.


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 estradas.

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 heard.

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 anyway.

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 deserves.

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 not—and 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 with—if you can find it.

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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