Portuguese language: Brazilian or European? - José Henrique Lamensdorf - translation - tradução

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Brazilian vs. European (aka Continental or Iberian) Portuguese
explained for non-Portuguese speakers


- by José Henrique Lamensdorf    




All too often, all too many outsourcers post translation jobs into Portuguese on Proz and other translation e-venues without mentioning the desired variant. For reasons I'll explain later, I can only offer service into the Brazilian one. So I explain this on my bid, provide links to some clarifying pages on the web like this one, and most often never hear from them again. Quite likely, this rather ethical stance of mine gives them the impression that I'm a troublemaker, a stickler for detail, or just a nuisance standing between them and a job completed.

However that's not true. While Portuguese is legally one and the same language, according to both Brazilian and Portuguese Constitutions, a professional (i.e. paid) translation into the 'wrong' variant is definitely unacceptable, if not by the end client, by the targeted public. My intent here is to demonstrate this in a practical way to people who don't understand Portuguese. I won't delve into the reasons for such a difference, as many better qualified scholars have done so, and some of their works may be found on the web.

I see six major differences between the Portuguese language as it is used respectively in Brazil and Portugal. For the sake of completeness, the language used in the other former Portuguese colonies is very close to the one used in Portugal.


1. Pronunciation, or accent. This is pretty obvious, and naturally expected. The most striking difference is that the Portuguese tend to shorten the enunciation of the vowels to a bare minimum, while Brazilians tend to lengthen them. This is enough to make the two variants sound completely different from each other. Believe me, verbal communication can become quite difficult between these variants, if the people involved are not used to it. Though in a quite different way, in English, an Aussie vs. Texan dialogue might get just as difficult.


2. Vocabulary. This is also fairly expected. Depending on the nature and the subject of the text, it may go unnoticed... or not! Similar differences exist, e.g. in US vs. UK English, however these are considerably less numerous than between BR and PT Portuguese. Nevertheless, it must be borne in mind that one single word from the 'other' variant in a translation is already a sufficient giveaway.

The vocabulary difference gets worse as the text becomes technical. I'll mention only three examples in IT to illustrate my point:

ENGLISH

in BRAZIL

in PORTUGAL

screen

tela

ecrã

file

arquivo

ficheiro

mouse

mouse

rato


3. Spelling. Though a long-standing joint attempt by all governments of Portuguese-speaking countries to unify spelling in Portuguese finally came through, the only tangible result is that now one same spellchecker will supposedly serve both variants.


4. Phrase construction. The way to assemble phrases is usually different in each variant, though this is the one difference that can be mitigated. It is possible indeed to construct phrases in a way to iron out most of these specific differences. However it is much easier to inadvertently emphasize them.


5. Grammar. The use of pronouns and verbs is quite different. Though each variant's grammar rules don't consider 'wrong' the other's way of doing it, actual practice renders a rather 'strange' text.


6. Logic. This is the most deadly and least-documented difference, being the basic reason that led me to write this whole article. Maybe it's difficult to research its origins historically, but it's all-pervasive. My way of putting it is that in Brazil we say that "for a good understander, half a word is enough", while in Portugal "words are taken at face value".

While the English language has a commonly used expression "to take for granted", "to put for granted" should meet some puzzlement at least. But that's exactly what Brazilians do while communicating: we put things for granted. On the other hand, the Portuguese hear/read exactly what is said/written; no more, no less.

I don't expect the reader to have envisioned the problem yet, so I'll illustrate with examples. My favorite one is a scene at a hotel front desk. I admit I invented it from countless samples I had. (Of course, differences in vocabulary were lost in translation here.)


IN LISBON:

Brazilian Tourist (BT): Does that bus outside go to the airport?
Hotel Clerk (HC): No, sir.
BT: So could you please tell me how I can get to the airport?
HC: You should take that bus outside, sir.
BT: But you just said it doesn't go to the airport!
HC: That is correct, sir. It goes somewhere else. However on its way there it stops by the airport.

IN RIO DE JANEIRO:

Portuguese Tourist: Does that bus outside go to the airport?
Hotel Clerk: Yes, sir. It should leave in about 10 minutes.

The key here is that the Brazilian asked the 'wrong' question, if we consider the Portuguese practice. He should have asked "Will that bus outside get me to the airport?"  He would be stating his actual need in words, and not putting it for granted that if he's asking, it necessarily implies that he wants to go there.

These two different approaches resulted in thousands of Brazilian jokes about the Portuguese, all politically incorrect, which tend to depict the Portuguese as being generically 'dumb'. It took me half a century listening to such jokes in Brazil for it to dawn upon me that the Portuguese are just reasoning in a different way.

Well, what is the impact of this on translations? Variable, however most striking in technical texts.

Let's take another example, from a mechanical maintenance manual. The original text says, "Loosen the four cover screws." A Brazilian might correctly say "Solte os quatro parafusos da tampa." Quite simple, any mechanic will take the proper screwdriver and unscrew them. However "solte" also means "let go". So a Portuguese reader might get puzzled with "solte": "How am I expected to let them go, if I'm not holding them?" A Portuguese translator would use "desatarraxe" (= “unscrew”) instead, leaving no doubt about it. On the other hand, a Brazilian reader would find "desatarraxe" too sophisticated for such a simple operation. Brazilians put for granted that anyone expected to be able to do any maintenance under that cover will know the proper way to get those screws loose.

On its own, the example above might look pretty stupid, just as the aforementioned jokes really are. But multiply this by the hundreds - or thousands - of small steps described in a manual, and the whole text will be tiresome to read by speakers of the other variant. For the Portuguese, a Brazilian manual will pose a challenge in creativity: "What do they actually mean by this?" all the time. For a Brazilian, a Portuguese manual will pose a permanent question: "Why do they have to be so punctilious? Do they think I'm dumb? Or are they so dumb that they expect this to be read by their peers?" (again, the jokes!)


THE BOTTOM LINE

The bottom line is that the two major variants of the Portuguese language should be treated as separate target languages for professional translation.

Of course, if the translation is just for legal compliance with prevailing laws, e.g. to provide the required instruction manuals with a product exported to either country, one could invoke the local Constitution and say the manuals are in Portuguese, period. Nobody will be able to deny it if they are. However it is worth checking first the small type in the business agreement, to make sure that the importer was not specific about the Portuguese language variant required for acceptance. Better safe than sorry.

Likewise, both variants of Portuguese as a source language should be taken as one and the same. A Brazilian or Portuguese translator may complain, moan, charge more, whatever, because the source text is in the other variant, but they can't say they are unable to translate from it.

Conversely, if a translator says s/he is able to translate from any language into either variant of Portuguese, care should be taken. When a speaker of one variant of Portuguese lives for an extended period of time in the other variant's environment, the local language tends to seep in, and at least one of them – if not both - will gradually have its purity compromised. The few cases I saw that were able to keep both variants separate were people who lived for a considerable length of time in one variant's environment, then an another extended period of time in the other, and finally have been living for a while in an environment where Portuguese is a foreign language. As this process should take something in the range of some two or three decades, it's not so common.

Finally, for the reasons explained above regarding logic, it's not a sensible choice to have a text translated into one variant of Portuguese, and later adapted therefrom into the other. Though in some cases it may work, it's best to have two separate translations from the source text.



EPILOGUE

Almost ten years after this article was published, a new joke (?) drew my attention, as it came close to explain the core of this difference. 

It goes like this:
A woman at home tells her son, "Tony, here is some cash. Please go to the store at the corner end bring me five bread rolls. If they have eggs, bring me six."

If this took place in Brazil, the young Tony would come back home carrying five rolls and six eggs.
In Portugal, however, it would be perfectly normal for Tony to return with six bread rolls, nothing else, and then say, "They had eggs!"

Of course, the mom in Portugal would have put it differently; she'd say, "If they have eggs, bring me six of them."

Now move this into a more complex - perhaps technical or business - context, and you'll see the hazard of miscommunication between Portuguese language variants.

© 2008 José Henrique Lamensdorf - By special agreement with Proz, where this article was originally released, it may NOT be republished elsewhere.

to see the list of articles on this web site.

 
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