« Back to all posts

One Language, Many Contexts: Translating Portuguese – Part 1

One Language, Many Contexts: Translating Portuguese

Just last year, something big happened to the Portuguese language. Although it’s a global language, spoken in 9 countries on four continents, Portuguese is now officially standardized.

Sort of.

How do you standardize a global language? And as a translator, how do you balance a standardized language with the diverse cultural contexts it’s spoken in?

CPLC Background

In 1989, the International Institute for the Portuguese Language was created out of a desire to bring together – culturally, politically and economically – countries whose official language is Portuguese. This organization later helped solidify the Community for Portuguese Language Countries (the CPLC).

In 1996, seven countries signed an agreement to officially create the CPLC: Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, and São Tomé and Príncipe. East Timor joined when it gained independence in 2002, and Equatorial Guinea followed in 2014.

The main goals of the CPLC are the social, political and economic cooperation among Portuguese speaking countries. Most actions/goals are achieved in partnership with international organizations, non-governmental organizations and private institutions.

Why Standardize the Spelling?

The CPLC made several attempts at creating and enforcing a unified spelling agreement that would be valid in all countries, but it took almost two decades for this to come to fruition. The agreement was signed in 1990 by the then member countries (7). At the time, each country defined its own timeline for enforcing the agreement, but agreed that the CPLC should become official in each of the signatory countries by 2016.

The main goal of this agreement was to facilitate the cultural and scientific exchange between the signatory countries, and to expand the dissemination of the language and literature. The agreement affects only written language, not syntax or idioms. It does not eliminate all the spelling differences between each variation, but is considered a step in the direction of unifying the language among the member countries. For example, in Brazil and Portugal, the changes would only affect 0.8% and 1.3% of the words, respectively.

What this means for translation

The agreement is intended to bring the countries closer together, even though it will not affect the pronunciation and individual accents of each variation. Furthermore, each country still has its own individuality when it comes to idiomatic expressions and vocabulary in general. These variations can be quite distinct, especially when considering different cultural contexts. Portuguese as spoken in Brazil or an African country will be quite different from what is spoken in Portugal.

Translators working in Portuguese-speaking countries still find that localization and culturally-specific phrases don’t translate. So although spelling has been standardized, it’s still important for translators to know how language is used in each specific locale they’re hoping to translate into, and cater their translations to each specific target audience. This is just as important for informal texts (like marketing or movies) as for technical content (such as medical literature and technical manuals).

Examples in the movies:

When comparing how Portuguese is spoken between Brazil and Portugal, we notice that some of the expressions used in one country don’t translate or have a different meaning in the other. For example, the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding has two very different translations in those countries. In Brazil, it is closer to the original title (Casamento Grego, which literally means “Greek Wedding”). In Portugal, they were a bit more creative with the title: Viram-se Gregos para Casar, which includes an idiomatic expression. In Portugal, the expression “ver-se grego”  (“to see oneself as Greek”), means having to overcome obstacles in order to achieve a goal. So it is really a very clever title.

my big fat greek wedding - portuguese

Another example is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  In Portugal, it is translated as O Rei dos Gazeteiros (“The king of the dropouts”), and in Brazil, it is Curtindo a vida adoidado (“Enjoying life like crazy”). The word “gazeteiro” doesn’t exist in the Brazilian vocabulary, so this wouldn’t make much sense there.

Ferris Bueller - Portuguese

Still want to know more? Check out part 2, “Brazil vs. Portugal: Best Practices When Translating“.

Update 5/04/2017: It has come to our attention that the word “gazeteiro” does actually exist in Brazilian Portuguese. It’s most common meaning is ‘newspaper salesman’ or ‘journalist’. But it can also mean ‘student who likes to cut class’. The word is not commonly used and a bit old fashioned.  

Plan your translation project