by Rafa Lombardino
I have to say I am really concerned about this new trend in literary translations in Brazil—hopefully it’s not a worldwide trend. We’ve all known about this horrible common practice in the translation industry, when companies hire irresponsible translation agencies that divide large documents into tiny little pieces, assign each part to a different translator, then put it all together without any reviewing process whatsoever, delivering a true Frankenstein back to the client and calling it a “translated document.” But applying this money-making client-deceiving model to literary translation while thinking nobody will notice it is naïve, to say the least. C’mon people!
Technical translators usually say, “I’m not really sure why I’m translating this… Nobody is ever gonna read it!” This sounds about right, albeit untrue and irrelevant—just do your job already—when you’re dealing with lengthy corporate documents that no one cares to scrutinize, until it’s too late and you have to deal with the aftermath of a breach of contract, an environmental accident, or an employee injury.
However, books are meant to be read and enjoyed. The purpose of literature is to make us reflect on the human condition, to help us escape our reality into a world of fantasy, to learn about ourselves while reading about the lives of others and situations we’ll hardly ever have a chance to experience in our entire lives. When books are translated like that, as quickly and carelessly as possible so they can be made available to the market and publishers can cash in with the latest bestseller celebrated abroad, readers will take notice and you won’t get away with it.
Perhaps the most well-known literary translation blunder in Brazil involves George R. R. Martin‘s “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Multinational publisher Leya acquired the rights to adapt the European Portuguese version translated by Jorge Candeias for Portugal publisher Saída de Emergência. That’s a common practice in technical translations when an agency wants to pay less for a translator to adapt European Portuguese into Brazilian Portuguese, instead of paying full price for the translation from the original language.
Needless to say, results were far from desirable, but the method was repeated to get books 1-4 published in Brazil. So, when the time came to translate “A Dance With Dragons,” the 5th book in the series, Leya tried a new approach and hired translators to work directly from the English original.
Wanna know what happened? The book hit the shelves with a chapter missing! Everything was probably done in such a hurry that Chapter 26 was MIA! After the damage was done, the publisher sent out apologies, made the chapter available as a PDF online not to interrupt the reading process of current buyers and recalled all copies in order to properly correct their mistake, which may have cost them $1 million Brazilian reais.
Then, a couple of days ago, I was reading this article that highlighted a few of the 50 translation mistakes made in the Brazilian version of Nigel Cliff’s The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama. The book became “Guerra Santa” [Holy War] in Brazil, was edited by Globo Livros and translated by Renato Rezende—who seems to have quite a few important book translations under his belt. The title had already hit the shelves when the publisher decided to add a little note about some mistakes:
“No livro Guerra Santa, por erro de tradução, onde se lê Calcutá, leia-se Calicute; onde se lê Ctésifo, leia-se Ctesifonte; onde se lê duque George, leia-se duque Jorge. E, nas páginas 346 e 347, onde se lê Kilwa, leia-se Quilon.”
As you can see, there were at least four mistakes that the publishers have acknowledged. The Ilustrada section of Folha de S. Paulo, one of the largest newspapers in Brazil, went into detail about another eight or ten errors. The ones that caught my eye were the literal “learning the ropes” as “conhecendo as cordas” [meeting / getting to know the ropes] (Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. and Mrs. Rope!) and “arrested” [to seize merchandise] translated as “arrastar” [to drag] just because the two words look alike…
It’s a shame that this account of such an important story about Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India, which inspired his rival Christopher Columbus to reach the Americas, will be forever tarnished in Brazil. Most readers who try to enjoy the book will be misinformed, to say the least. Others could have fun creating a drinking game: one shot of tequila for every translation mistake you’re able to spot.
You might ask, “How can you correct this situation?” Well, it’s simple! First of all, publishers must hire translators who actually know their stuff, who have a deep understanding of the source language, good researching skills, and the decency to understand, for example, that “fluvial” is an adjective that applies to rivers (as in “river course”) and, consequently, cannot be used in a sentence about ships venturing into the Indic and Pacific Oceans!
And, when you do find those translators, make sure you give enough time for the project to be completed. I understand publishers must be constantly pressed by competitors who may have similar titles in the works, but when you rush things, that’s likely the result you’re gonna get: a pie to the face that will affect the reputation of the publishing house, the translator, the book, and the author (yes, what do Mr. Cliff and Mr. Martin think about that?) and, ultimately and above all, disrespect the reader!
There, I said it!