Featured Blog – December 2012

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Brazil and Portugal, two countries separated by a common language

by Fabio M. Said

As a Portuguese translator working in Germany, when talking to a prospect about a translation project, I always check if the prospect needs the translation done in a Portuguese dialect that I am able to translate into. I was born in Brazil, I spent the first 30 years of my life in Brazil, and I was educated in Brazil. I have had only limited exposure to European Portuguese (mostly talking casually and briefly to people from Portugal and reading some texts written in European Portuguese) and no exposure at all to other Portuguese dialects spoken in Africa. So I would hardly accept any job offer to translate into a dialect other than Brazilian Portuguese, nor would it be ethical on my part to accept such an offer. And that is what I try to explain to prospects.

Buyers of translation who contact me rarely know that Brazilian Portuguese differs substantially from European Portuguese. Major differences include not only everyday colloquial language (words, style, spelling, even grammar), but also specialized vocabulary. They are still the same language (“Brazilian” is not a language), but with highly specialized dialects. After all, Brazil and Portugal have developed differently in the past two hundred years, and, of course, their separate historical paths have impacted on their local dialects and on the mutual understandability between speakers of each variant. To quote from Bernard Shaw, they are like “two countries separated by a common language.”

It is precisely those differences that make it extremely important for a translation buyer to know which language dialect their text should be translated into. A text written in Brazilian Portuguese will most likely not be understood correctly by an average native speaker of European Portuguese, and vice-versa. Yes, the overall message would, perhaps, be understood, but not the nuances, details and between-the-lines information. It could come across as funny, awkward or even plain wrong. This is an even more important point to consider if communicating effectively is really a top priority. Those who just “want that translation done” may very well hire a Brazilian to translate a text and give the translation to readers in Portugal, or, worse still, commission a native speaker of European Portuguese to proofread a translation into Brazilian Portuguese. Some people have even asked me to translate texts into a fairy-tale entity called “neutral” Portuguese that could be used in Brazil, Portugal or Africa, and I politely turn down the offers, explaining that there is no such thing as “neutral,” or globally “standard,” Portuguese. But those who demand the highest quality in translation and who know that communicating effectively—i.e. targeting the message to the specific audience one wants to reach—is key to the success of a product or service would never want to do such things. And they usually have no problem accepting that a native speaker of Brazilian Portuguese should translate into Brazilian Portuguese and a native speaker of European Portuguese should translate into European Portuguese.

But what about the Portuguese language spelling reform that has been in force in Brazil since January 2009 and in Portugal since mid-2011? The reason behind the spelling reform was to make Portuguese a uniform language globally, thereby making it easier to perform internet searches and understand Portuguese documents on the Web, no matter which Portuguese dialect these were written in. But this is utopia. The spelling reform only changes about 0.5% of Brazilian Portuguese words and about 1.5% of European Portuguese words. Besides, the reform only applies to the spelling, and not to other language elements like syntax, regionally/culturally specific vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. So this reform will not unify the two variants into one “standard” language—at least not in the current scenario.

And, most important of all, the new spelling reform will not change the fact that translation buyers need a native speaker of Brazilian Portuguese for a translation that will be used in Brazil and a native speaker of European Portuguese for a translation that will be used in Portugal. But this, of course, only applies to translation buyers who really want high-quality translation and effective communication, which—I am sure—you do.

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