Taboo: Translating Into Your Second Language

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Rafa Lombardino*

It is clear for everyone to see: translators translate from a foreign language into their native language. However, there’s always an exception for every rule. I was born in Brazil and grew up and went to school there for the first 22 years of my life. Then I moved away. I could already bring English and Spanish to the table, since I had been working as a translator for at least five years by then, although I was only translating into my mother tongue at the time.

The change of address also triggered a change in demand. There are few people worldwide who make a decision to learn Portuguese, and those who do so usually have a pretty good reason: personal (most likely a Brazilian spouse) or professional (working for a company that has commercial ties with Brazil). And, among these very few individuals, the amount of English speakers who end up going into translation is even smaller. That is why, unfortunately, we see a lack of foreigners translating from Portuguese to English.

As a Brazilian who immigrated to California, I started to receive requests for translations from Portuguese into English. At first, these were personal or business documents. There were many diplomas and school transcripts from Brazilians who wished to continue their studies in the United States. There were many agreements, contracts, business communications, and brochures from Brazilian companies who wished to do business with American companies.

In both cases, these translations can be done fairly easily, especially with the help of the Internet―when I started translating back in 1997, Google still didn’t exist and it would only take flight in Brazil during the turn of the century. Nowadays, it’s easy to research the curriculum of several universities to learn more about the classes they offer and, consequently, be in a better position to compare the subjects studied by a Brazilian and those taken by foreign students in the same area of interest. And, when it comes to corporate communications, many translations from Portuguese to English can be done (almost) with your eyes closed, considering the amount of English jargon and style that is either kept or adapted into Portuguese in this segment.

But, what about book translations? In 2010, I started to diversify my portfolio because literary translation is what had first attracted me to this industry. That was when I created a project dedicated to translating Brazilian short stories into English. And what a pleasure it was―and still is! What a great way to exercise my creativity, after it had been pushed to the far corners of my mind!

And, what about the challenge? The challenge was even bigger! What can you do when you come across a diversity of voices, styles, and slangs that exist in a country with continental dimensions, such as Brazil? The way I found was to research equivalent expressions exhaustively, always trying to get as close as possible to what had been said by the author. That certain Brazilian flavor may get lost sometimes, but the feelings and emotions experienced by readers is somehow conveyed in English.

In addition to these short stories, I also translated several books by Brazilian authors who wished to have their work available in English. These translations, while equally rewarding, are way more intense. Short stories are ready in a short amount of time; books take months until they’re finally ready to go. And, when you’re translating into your second language―no matter how fluent you are in that foreign tongue―you are always prone to having more questions than you’d have in your mother tongue, that language that provides you that “gut feeling” deep down that tells you, “This is right! But that’s not cool. This reads very naturally! Now, this looks like Translationese.”

Prepositions… These are the true villains when you translate into English. These short, little words can be a huge pain in the neck! In, on, at, out, off, up, away. Use the wrong preposition, and you’ll change the entire meaning of a sentence. Instead of putting out the fire of desire, you actually put off your reader. And, if you no longer have the reader’s attention, you’re doing a disservice to authors, who hunched over their manuscript for months or years, trying to find just the right word. Well, that is true of any language, though.

And what happens when you hit a roadblock? That’s when you have to be resourceful and grab a “native” to help you in your translation cause. I turn to my husband and ask, “How would you say XYZ in English?” I send out a text to a friend, writing a sentence and leaving _____ in the middle of it, so that she can fill in the blank with a verb or preposition she would use if she were writing it in English, her native language. I sometimes play charades when I have friends over, just to clear up some term that may have been pending.

We try things out, make things up and learn something new. And this kind of learning doesn’t always come on demand. Sometimes you’re watching a movie, a TV show, or listening to the radio in the car and then it clicks. It’s a constant exercise in capturing an instant in that language to preserve it in your mind, just in case you might need it later.

Book translations are made of sensations: imagination, colors, flavors, and smells. When you catch one of these sensations just like that, while it’s hanging up in the air, you must cherish it and incorporate it, so that one day―whether it’s a distant or near future―you can make it fit like a glove in one of your translations to trigger that same sensation you’ve experienced in the language you started learning from the time you heard the first sound from the outside world. After all, in order to translate into your second language, you must live in it with both feet on the ground, but with your heart back in your homeland, always.


NOTE: This article was written originally in Portuguese for Brazilian blog Ponte de Letras.


rafa orangeRAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of “Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age,” which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, a collective blog about translation and literature, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS), a project to promote Brazilian literature worldwide.*

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