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By McElroy Translation,
Austin, Texas 78701 USA


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For the next few months, McElroy will be running a series of articles that highlight some of the characteristics of top languages used in doing business globally. This month, we look at Portuguese, in an interview conducted with McElroy translator Clarissa Surek-Clark.

Portuguese  language regions image

What are some pitfalls to avoid, specific to this language, a client should be aware of when translating into this language?

Portuguese is a Romance language which ranks as the 7th language in the world in number of native speakers (with more than 200 million speakers the world over). Its regional varieties (or dialects) can be broadly classified as Continental, spoken in Portugal and bordering European countries; Brazilian, spoken by more than 180 million speakers in the largest country in South America; and African, spoken - often non-natively - in Cape Verde, Mozambique, Angola and, Guiné-Bissau, which more closely resembles Continental Portuguese in its grammar and pronunciation. Macau in China also has Portuguese as one of its official languages.

A client should be aware of regional differences among Portuguese speakers and hire translators who specialize in the particular market the product/document is going to reach. Between the larger division among Continental/African Portuguese on one side, and Brazilian Portuguese on the other, there are numerous grammatical and lexical differences, often more pronounced than the differences found between American and British English.

As a Romance language, Portuguese is closely related to Spanish. In the United States, Spanish-speaking translators sometimes claim to translate or interpret into Portuguese. When hiring a Portuguese translator, a client should request specific information about the Portuguese-language education or life experience of the translator being hired.

Another important pitfall to consider is the style/register used by translators when working on written documents. Although not in a diglossic situation, Portuguese shows vast differences between its written form and spoken variety, so a document that is meant to be in a written format should not closely resemble a spoken script.

What are characteristics of this language that are unique or different from English and/or other languages?

As a Romance language, Portuguese identifies its nouns with gender (a for feminine, o for masculine), and adjectives that refer to such nouns agree with their gender.

Another characteristic that is typical to Portuguese is verb conjugation. Each pronoun has its corresponding verb conjugation which changes depending on the time and mood of what is being said.

Continental/African Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese vary in the way that personal pronouns are used. In the former regional varieties, personal pronouns are more often hidden behind their respective verb conjugation. In Brazilian Portuguese, however, pronouns are plentiful and permeate even the written form of the language.

Portuguese speakers like to be animated when communicating, often speaking loudly, joking around and appearing to English speakers to be friendly and easy-going.

How do these characteristics make it important to use properly qualified, professional translators?

The societies in which Portuguese is spoken are predominantly modern with well-established political, economical and market systems. There is a high level of literacy in these countries and translation plays an important role in their publishing markets. Middle class Portuguese speakers are consumer-savvy, often well-traveled and keenly tuned into the international media through the Internet and cable TV.

Clients who are trying to market their products or services in Portuguese-speaking countries must use qualified, professional translators when creating their materials for use in such countries. Mistakes committed when communicating about their products or services may contribute to whether or not a company sinks or swims in such markets.

Do you know examples where translation or localization mistakes have occurred with this language, such as problems with text expansion, date/time formats, counting errors, character encoding, etc., or mistakes with the translation itself?

In my professional life as a translator, I have seen too many translation mistakes to fit in one page.

In more general terms, these are some of the issues to be considered. The expansion factor in Portuguese (vis-a-vis English) is between 15-20%. Dates are represented in day/month/year format; in Continental/African Portuguese, months of the year and days of the week are capitalized, whereas they are not in Brazilian Portuguese. Time is represented using a military 24-hour format and not with am/pm. Often badly drafted Portuguese translations follow an English capitalization rule which requires that the first letter of every item in a heading be capitalized; whereas in Portuguese, only the first letter of the first word should be capitalized.

Earlier on in my career I translated airline menus for flights going into Brazil, and sometimes it was difficult to find lexical equivalency for gourmet and international menus received by first class and executive class passengers. Once a stewardess decided she was going to localize my menu by simplifying it greatly – to match the register of an average Brazilian. It completely defeated the purpose of the original document and its well thought-out and researched translation.

Another instance was an editing job I received for a well-known airline whose slogan stated “Airline X will take you to far away places.” In Portuguese it said “A companhia aérea X o levará para o além,” which backtranslates as “Airline X will take you to the land of the dead.”

Relate an example or two where you found a website page or form difficult to use because it was poorly localized into your language/locale. How might a business lose money, prestige or incur legal risk due to this bad translation?

It is often difficult to translate for Portuguese-speaking communities living in the United States due to the mixed character of the language people speak (a mix of English and Portuguese). For instance, when interpreting in court, one can speak about “parole” as “ liberdade condicional,” but the Portuguese speaker often does not know this terminology in Portuguese and may often be aware of the English word in the American legal system.

In Brazil, a campaign by McDonald’s gave rise to a modification in the preposition used in a common Portuguese verb. “Ask for number 1” in English (when ordering one of the pre-set meals) became “ Peça pelo número 1” which grammatically does not require the preposition “pelo.”

Years ago an American car manufacturer decided to market the sedan “Pinto” in Brazil, which unfortunately did not work because “Pinto” is a slang word to refer to the male genitalia. More recently, Kia Motors launched a van named “Besta,” a word used to insult someone as an idiot.

In general terms, however, the main problem found when faced with badly translated websites and forms is the fact that the users of such documents are unable to make sense of the information presented to them. One of the biggest problems is that the translation is too literal and the user is only able to understand what is being conveyed with prior knowledge of English.

In specialized fields such as computers, engineering, law and technology, the two broad regional varieties of Portuguese (Continental/Africa vs. Brazilian) use very different terminology. Portugal bases its computer terminology on French while Brazil likes to use English terms for new computer technology. Native speakers from either country literally cannot understand what the other variety means when reading a computer manual or interacting with software or a webpage.

A business may be the laughing stock of an entire nation if there are serious mistakes in the translation of documents related to its products or services. Money may be lost in wrongly translated boxes and/or advertising materials.

Some Portuguese-speaking countries strongly enforce consumer rights law and as such, anything that is marketed in such countries has to follow specific legal requirements, which involve the translation of documents, formulas, packaging, etc.

Provide one example of a particular phrase or concept that only a properly qualified, professional translator would be able to correctly communicate.

This week I came across a seemingly equivalent term which has very different meanings in Portuguese and in English. The English word “transvestite" often refers to a cross-dresser, a person who likes to dress up like someone of the opposite sex. The Portuguese word “travesti” always refers to a male who dresses up like a female and aims to become one - either by surgery or by hormonal treatment.

I recently translated adoption papers in which the English words “biological parent,” “biological parents,” “biological mother” and “biological father” appeared many times. When referring to parents, one uses the plural masculine in Portuguese ‘pais’ which is the most common word to refer to “father.” Thus terms such as “biological parents” and “biological fathers” would become homonyms in Portuguese: ‘pais biológicos,’ despite their different meanings in English. The solution was to refer to “biological parents” as ‘pai e mãe biológicos’ (backtranslated as “biological father and mother”).

Another issue that often comes up in translations is the use of titles in general, and specifically those which refer to women such as Miss, Mrs or Ms. In the Portuguese-speaking world, honorifics come before the person’s first name, and it is impossible to translate a title such as Ms.

Qualified translators are the best conveyors of metaphors and colloquial expressions such as “It’s raining cats and dogs.” One can assess the quality of a translation when such expressions occur in the original text by the manner in which the translator dealt with it. When it is translated literally, it has no meaning and the impact of such expressions are lost. When it is well rendered, it is a work of art. (Incidently, in Portuguese such an idiom would be “Está chovendo canivetes” which backtranslated means “It’s” raining jackknives").

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