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Into Brazilian Portuguese: Culture and the Translation of The Glass Menagerie

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Marco Tulio de Urzeda Freitas photoDilys Karen Rees photoThe present article aims at discussing the cultural aspects involved in the translation of the play "The Glass Menagerie," by Tennessee Williams, into Brazilian Portuguese. Anchored by the definitions of culture (Albó, 2005), interculturality (Walsh, 2001), and translation (Arrojo, 1992), we intend to demonstrate how the concepts of "the fourth wall" and "cultural domains" influence the way translators convey the meanings from one language to another. In addition, we plan to illustrate such perceptions by presenting the manner in which the actresses who performed Amanda and Laura Wingfield in the American and Brazilian adaptations of the play depict the characters. Assuming that a text is incomplete and as such likely to be (re)constructed when translated to other languages with other cultural domains, we could perceive that the act of translating, with regards to "The Glass Menagerie," demands a kind of deconstruction of the "original" text in order to achieve the meanings of another culture.

Kew words: culture, interculturality, translation, deconstruction theory.

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society.

(Edward Sapir)


Literature is defined as the acquaintance with letters and can be understood as the result of reflective labor together with the art of making use of the author’s cultural background, namely, his/her habits, beliefs, language, and lifestyle. The works of literature, therefore, are products of specific cultural groups. For this reason, one can always read a book belonging to a certain micro-culture and then contrast it to how this same product can be transported to other micro-cultures. Hence, the main purpose of this article is to discuss how a Brazilian adaptation of the play "The Glass Menagerie," by Tennessee Williams, can be undertaken. What are the cultural difficulties that can be found in the original text when attempting to translate into Brazilian Portuguese1? How can these difficulties be culturally explained? These are some of the questions which will guide our discussion throughout the text. Nevertheless, before trying to answer them, we will present some definitions of "culture," "interculturality," and "translation" in order to support our subsequent viewpoints.

Translation and its Relation to Culture and Interculturality

As translators, we are faced with an alien culture that requires that its message be conveyed in anything but an alien way.
According to Dereti (1980), "culture" is everything that human beings have created, discovered, constructed, transformed, and developed in the course of time. In this way, culture could be defined as "an amount of knowledge, beliefs, artistic and moral principles, laws, habits, as well as the abilities acquired by humans as members of a social order" (Demo, 1987, p. 61).2 Along with Banks and McGee-Banks (1989), "culture" does not refer only to its artifacts, tools, or other cultural elements, but to how the members of a determined group interpret, use, and perceive them. Sequentially, Albó (2005) defines "culture" as a concept related to "identity," asserting that people tend to recognize themselves as parts of a group due to the common characteristics they share with its other members and also to the differences they cultivate in relation to others. Gomes (2008) presents an anthropologic concept of "culture": it is the way people act in society, which gives a sense of a coherent system of thinking, doing, and a positioning before the absolute which is reproductive. As a final example, Laraia (2008) states that every "cultural system" is subject to change and as a consequence affirms that in the same way it is crucial to comprehend the differences among people from different cultures, "it is necessary to understand the differences which happen within a distinct system" (Laraia, 2008, p. 101).

Regarding these considerations about "culture," we can think of the following questions: Is dialog between different cultures possible? Can two different groups dialogue with each other and also contribute to each other’s improvement? This, as some researchers have argued, refers to the process of "interculturality." For instance, according to Albó (2005) interculturality occurs among social groups and people from different cultures. The author presents the difference between "positive" and "negative" intercultural contact. The first one occurs when there is a kind of destruction of what is culturally divergent, that is, when interaction causes reduction or assimilation of cultural values. Conversely, the second type of intercultural contact happens when it triggers respect toward the different, promoting its improvement through a mutual learning process. But, does interculturality involve only respect toward the different? With reference to the context of education, Walsh (2001, p. 10-11) states that "interculturality" is a process of negotiating and translating "where social, economic, and political inequalities, as well as relations and conflicts related to social power are recognized and confronted." Kramsch (1993, p. 13), on the other hand, focuses specifically on the interaction between reader and text positing "a sphere of interculturality" which exploits the particular voices of the texts and the particular responses of the readers of the text. In this perspective, it could be asserted that interculturality presupposes much more than respect, since it defends, for the most part, the recognition of the other.

Hence, to point out the cultural difficulties in translating the play "The Glass Menagerie" into Brazilian Portuguese, it becomes important to contemplate some theories about "translation." How does culture influence the way people translate? Before discussing these questions, it is necessary to revisit some traditional approaches to translation studies—that is, the "literal" (word-for-word) and the "free" (sense-for-sense) translation processes—, as well as to problematize the postmodern concept of translation, namely, the one anchored by what has been called "deconstruction theory." As Munday (2001) says, "literal translation" refers to the act of translating a certain text into the target language exactly as it is expressed in the original version; in this case, the translator looks for words which correspond to the ones used by the author. On the other hand, "free translation" happens when the translator is not fixated on the words and structures of the first version, but rather he/she changes some constructions in the text, even though he/she is always attempting to preserve the "original" meaning. Unlike these approaches, the postmodern concept of translation is related to the principles of "deconstruction theory," which can be found in the work of Derrida (2008). This theoretical base stands against the "logocentric thought," which refers to the idea of a world shaped by unique and unchangeable meanings. With reference to language, the deconstructivist philosophy attempts to demonstrate that any text is a disconnected whole, containing many contradictory meanings, and always offering more than a single interpretation. From this perspective, Arrojo (1992, p. 103-104) states that any translation reflects, besides the subject-translator, the historical moment and the cultural community that produced it. Thus, translators are recognized as authors, to be precise, as "meaning producers," since they are expected to dialogue with two different cultures in order to convey a certain message.

The Fourth Wall as Intercultural Space

The play "The Glass Menagerie" presents an American family from the South of the United States, which is frustrated in its attempt to accomplish the American dream of happiness, peace, and wealth at the time of The Great Depression. The story takes place around the characters Amanda, her children Tom and Laura, and Tim. If we consider that translation is always the product of a cultural exchange, we can conceive that there are aspects of the play which are harder to translate than others, such as the characters’ accent and linguistic varieties, the mannerisms linked to certain micro-cultural groups and, in addition, the socio-historical moment wherein the story takes place. The translator must not only consider these aspects but also the fact that a play is not intended as a text to be read, but to be performed.

Using the trope of the fourth wall, a common theatrical concept referring to the separation between the stage and the audience, it is possible to visualize it in the process of translation as the locus of interculturality defined as cultural exchange (See Rees, 2003 regarding the fourth wall as the locus of interculturality). These aspects can be some of the most difficult for the translator to render in such a way that there is a response on the part of the viewer, which unites the components of the play and the spectators in "a sphere of interculturality." It is necessary to remember that this sphere involves the recognition of differences and the confrontation of inequalities. Thus the translator must deal with the cultural components of the text/play in such a way as to allow the directors and actors of the play to create a work, which involves the viewer and allows him/her to respond in a culturally productive manner. As such, we will be focusing our brief discussion on three possible difficulties of translation that are culturally related and can affect the cultural interchange along the fourth wall.

The Great Depression

Focusing on the feelings of loss, which dominated America from 1929 to 1939, how could a Brazilian translator portray such a fact so the spectators could recognize themselves in the story? The decade of the 1930s in Brazil was a time of sweeping change. The economic slump, which begun by the market crash in 1929, decreased the world wide demand for coffee and, coupled with an overproduction of the product, caused a sharp drop in the price of the coffee bean. In the wake of the economic crisis, the Old Republic with its oligarchies was overthrown and Getúlio Vargas, a nationalist-populist, came to power (Hobsbawm, 1996, p. 106). The decade of the 1930s is part of the Vargas Era that lasted for twenty years and included the period of increased industrialization of the country.

Tom as narrator states,

I turn back time, I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy (sc. 1, p. 13).

A question of translating interculturally arises when we focus on the word "quaint." It is defined as "attractively unfamiliar or old fashioned" or "daintily odd" in the Oxford Dictionary (1998, p. 667). This word seems to create a description for the decade that is very difficult to translate. It is necessary to capture the sense of oddness and unfamiliarity, yet still to have a sense of attractiveness. This keyword, in our opinion, is essential in instigating an intercultural dialogue along the fourth wall with regards to this period of time, that is, the 1930s. If the word is translated into Portuguese merely as "singular" or "estranho," a single unchanging meaning is created, which does not dialogue with the viewer. The period is then defined as being simply "singular" or "strange." If, on the other hand, a phrase is used such as "aquele tempo delicadamente estranho" (that delicately strange period) or "aquele período de delicada estranheza" (that period of delicate strangeness), a dialogue ensues between the Brazilian viewers collective memory of the 1930s in their locality, the 1930s of The Great Depression in the United States, and the particular fictive rendition of that decade that the playwright is creating. The translator in his choices can create more or fewer opportunities for dialogue with those who watch the play and respond to it.

Blue Roses

Jim, the Gentlemen Caller, is the one who used to call Laura by the nickname of "Blue Roses." Laura explains:

I was out of school a little with pleurosis. When I came back you asked me what was the matter. I said I had pleurosis—you thought I said Blue Roses. That’s what you always called me after that (sc. 7, p. 73).

In English, the rhyme created between the illness, pleurosis, and the nickname "Blue Roses" explains Jim’s use of this name for Laura. Naturally, it is also symbolical of Laura’s singularity and delicateness. In Portuguese, the illness "pleuresia" (pleurosis) does not rhyme with "Rosas Azuis" (Blue Roses), disconnecting the explanatory link that exists between the sickness and the nickname. To aid us in our discussion, we will resort to Spradley’s (1980, p. 88) definition of a cultural domain as "...a category of cultural meaning that includes other smaller categories." Accordingly, it is possible to state that the cultural domain surrounding "Blue Roses" in Portuguese is similar to that in English, that is, in both cultural groups, "Blue Roses" are rare and delicate. How then can a translator create a situation in which the nickname "Rosas Azuis" makes sense and continue to be used as a symbol of Laura in a Portuguese language play? For instance, let us consider the following excerpt:

Laura: Eu fiquei ausente da escola por um período. Quando eu voltei, você perguntou por que as minhas bochechas estavam azuis e eu disse que devia ser por causa da pleurisia. E você disse que, em homenagem a ela, iria me chamar de "Rosas Azuis" e nunca mais me chamou pelo nome.3

As we can see, the Brazilian adaptation, "O Zoológico de Vidro," with the translation by Marcos Daud (2009), suggested another way to explain the presence of the nickname "Blue Roses" in the story. To be precise, instead of referring to the nickname as an association with the disease pleurosis, in Portuguese "Rosas Azuis" was explained as being a description of Laura’s bluish coloured cheeks, a consequence of being ill with pleurosis. Thus, the symbolic motif was kept, but through a creative adaptive means, which becomes possible thanks to the use of a deconstructed translation (Arrojo, 1992).

Culturally Situated Vocabulary and Amanda

Amanda is presented in the play as being from the South of the United States and remembering a time in the past at Blue Mountain when she was young and beautiful and had gentlemen callers. She says,

One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain—your mother received—seventeen!—gentlemen callers! (sc. 1, p. 16).

Her mannerisms, her way of speaking, and the vocabulary she uses are situated in a specific cultural region of the United States and also in a specific cultural period. All of these are components in building up the characterization of Amanda. Thus, a translator has to find a means of translating that is able to produce the cultural dialogue.

Amanda is always referring back to her girlhood in the town of Blue Mountain when she was young and happy. These references to a specific time and place represent "the good old days." Referring once again to Spradley’s (1980, p. 88) definition of a cultural domain as "...a category of cultural meaning that includes other smaller categories," we can see that the name in itself renders a picture of a place that is rural and bucolic. It is not rural and dirt poor, for example, nor does it have any other negative characteristics of a rural setting. The cultural domain of "Blue Mountain" is positive. Consequently, the translator would have to find a means of keeping the same positive category without falling into negative renderings of the proper name. The sense of place would have to be the same from one language to another. In Brazilian Portuguese, "Montanha Azul," which is a literal translation of "Blue Mountain," brings with it no positive or negative cultural categories whereas a name such as Várzea Azul (Blue Meadow) brings with it the bucolic sense tied with a rural setting. In this way, Amanda’s sense of place could be preserved though with a different geographic place name.

In Scene 6 (p. 55), Amanda rhapsodizes about the summer in which she gathered and collected jonquils and had seventeen gentlemen callers. They are the flowers of her youth and represent beauty, charm, and happiness. Since she picked these flowers in the countryside, the cultural domain of the jonquil would include the fact that they can be found wild, appear in the spring, and can be a lively yellow color. The exact translation for this flower in Brazilian Portuguese is "narciso," but it does not bring to mind the categories of the cultural domain related to jonquils. "Narcisos" are flowers that you buy at a flower shop and are quite expensive and thus they have a totally different cultural connotation from the jonquil. Therefore, the translator would have the task of using a flower name that has similar cultural categories as the jonquils, perhaps "flores do campo" (flowers of the field, ie, wild flowers) would be an appropriate term. "Flores do campo" are beautiful, wild and can be picked.

Another example of the particular cultural domain in which Amanda is situated appears in scene six, when she is speaking about Tom to Jim. She states, "I don’t know why my son is so stand-offish—that’s not southern behavior." This line represents the difficulty of how to translate "southern behavior." In this context, the idea of hospitality connected traditionally to the American South is being referred to. If throughout the play the reference to the American South has been kept, then it would be appropriate to keep a geographic reference to the south with an addendum of that meaning hospitality: "Não sei porque meu filho é tão distante—não é o nosso jeito lá no Sul, sempre recebemos bem."4 There would have to be some explanation in reference to the cultural categories of being from the South, one of which is being hospitable.

Finally there is the question of the Dandelion wine that is taken to Laura in scene seven as a comfort drink (p. 70). This type of beverage is very much linked to a specific place and is quite possibly not understood by those who have no idea of this type of wine being homemade and used to comfort someone in distress. In the particular geographic location where we live, comfort beverages are water mixed with sugar or chamomile tea. Thus, in a translation into Brazilian Portuguese, and thinking about many of the regions in this country, an appropriate translation for a drink that is comforting and produced in the home, would be "água com açucar" or "chá de camomila."

An Exemplification from Two Versions of the Play

In order to exemplify the possible difficulties of translation explained previously, we can take as reference two versions of "The Glass Menagerie." In the first one, produced by Anthony Harvey in 1973, we can see that Amanda and Laura are interpreted by Katherine Hepburn and Joanna Miles, respectively. In accordance with the cultural background suggested by the play, they seem to be very near to the characterization offered in the original text in terms of reproducing the accent, the linguistic idiosyncrasies, and mannerisms of the play’s characters. For instance, when we read the scenes in which Amanda is present, we get the impression that she is always talking too much, in a childlike, youthful way so as to escape from her difficult present reality. In the American adaptation for TV, we have the confirmation of this idea, as we see Katharine Hepburn reproducing the gestures described in the notes of the original play. In relation to Laura, the same thing occurs, for Joanna Miles builds up her performance conveying the kindness, sensitivity, and strangeness which combine with the metaphorical image of the "Blue Roses" used to refer to Laura. As a result, the Laura from the TV is very similar to the one from the play.

On the other hand, if we compare this North American version to the Brazilian adaptation of the play, O Zoológico de Vidro (2009), with the actresses Cássia Kiss and Karen Coelho playing Amanda and Laura Wingfield, respectively, we will be able to see many differences in their performances. Cássia Kiss, for instance, creates a strong, almost angry Amanda through the exaggeration of her mannerisms. The aspect of Southern Gentility is not present. On the other hand, Karen Coelho presents a Laura who seems demented, exhibiting no gentleness, no sensitivity, just fear of life. The cultural aspect of the American South is not present in this production of the play; rather there is a reliance on creating a family that is from another time and another place, but that does not emphasize the belonging to a particular cultural region.

In sum, the Wingfields as a family are shown to be problematic, as the mother is presented as an authoritarian figure who suffocates her two children with dire consequences for all of them. The Brazilian version, therefore, shows a deconstructivist approach in its translation in the attempts to reinterpret the original content of the play on another basis, that is to say, by means of other cultural representations (Arrojo, 1992).

Final Thoughts

With this essay we intended to discuss some of the difficulties in translating the play "The Glass Menagerie," by Tennessee Williams, into Brazilian Portuguese. In order to do so, we opted to divide the text into two parts. Firstly, we presented some theories about "culture," "interculturality," and "translation." Secondly, we discussed the cultural aspects involved in the adaptation of the play to Brazilian Portuguese. We pointed out briefly some of the areas in which the translation has to overcome cultural difficulties. As a result, it is possible to say that every translation tends to reinterpret the original text.

To Karamanian (2002, p. 2), as translators "we are faced with an alien culture that requires that its message be conveyed in anything but an alien way." Put differently, "we are called upon to do a cross-cultural translation whose success will depend on our understanding of the culture we are working with." Put differently, "we are called upon to do a cross-cultural translation whose success will depend on our understanding of the culture we are working with. Regarding so, it is assumed that a text is incomplete and as such likely to be (re)constructed when translated to other languages with other cultural domains. After all, since cultural meanings are created through and transformed by language, it can be asserted that the act of translating is nothing but an attempt to create and transform a text so that it can be transferred smoothly into another culture.


  1. We refer to Brazilian Portuguese specifically as distinguished from other broad varieties of Portuguese such as those used in Portugal and in Africa.
  2. All translations were done by the authors.
  3. Laura: I was absent from school for a while. When I came back, you asked me why because my cheeks were blue and I said it must be because of the pleurisy. You said that in honour of their colour you would call me "Blue Roses" and you never again called me by my name.
  4. I don’t know why my son is stand-offish, it’s not our way in the South, we always receive people well




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Arrojo, R. (Org.). O ensino da tradução e seus limites: por uma abordagem menos ilusória. In: Arrojo, R. O signo desconstruído: implicações para a tradução, a leitura e o ensino. 1st. Ed. Campinas: Pontes, 1992.

Banks, J. A.; McGee, C. A. (Eds.) Multicultural education: issues and perspectives Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1989.

Daud, M. O Zoológico de Vidro. Translation of The Glass Menagerie. Rio de Janeiro: Teatro Maison de France, 2009.

Demo, P. Sociologia: uma introdução crítica. São Paulo: Atlas, 1987.

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Derrida, J. Gramatologia. Translated by Miriam Chnaiderman and Renato Janine Ribeiro. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2008.

Gomes, M. P. Antropologia: ciência do homem: filosofia da cultura. São Paulo: Contexto, 2008.

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Karamanian, A. P. Translation and Culture. In: Translation Journal, v.6, n. 1. 2002. Available at Accessed on: Nov, 5th, 2009.

Kramsh, C. Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Laraia, R. B. Cultura: Um Conceito Antropológico. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2008.

Munday, J. Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. London: Routledge, 2001.

Oxford Dictionary. Oxford: 1998.

Rees, D. K. The Fourth Wall: Viewing an American Sitcom. Mextesol Journal, v. 27, n. 1, p. 27—34, Fall 2003.

Spradley, J.P. Participant Observation. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1980.

Walsh, C. La Educación Intercultural en la Educación. Peru: Ministerio de Educación, 2001. Mimeografado.

Williams, T. The Glass Menagerie. London: Penguin Books, 1988.

Published - June 2011


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