A quick experiment with dialects

Here’s some background for those who haven’t read or listened to the two previous posts: I started tackling the relevance of dialects in my field, and then Fabio M. Said kindly contributed with his views on the differences among the Portuguese language variants. I believe discussing the results of an experiment I did in this area is a good continuation to this sequence of articles.

Before moving on to the experiment itself, let me share a few considerations I found in an interesting essay by Michelle de Abreu Aio, who discusses literary translation between European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese. The author observes that the regional differences might indeed lead readers to a total lack of understanding or even the false belief of having understood the text. She claims that translators must go beyond mere adaptation in order to reach the foreign audience with the same linguistic intensity as achieved in the original community.

The experiment

As a graduate student in Translation Studies, I carried out an experiment to check the reception of a short text by a sample of five Brazilians living in Toronto in 2010. They were exposed to two versions of the same text without knowing details on what differences there were or even what the whole experiment was about. One of the texts was in Brazilian Portuguese, and the other was written in the European variant. My intent was to gain an insight into the participants’ opinions and feelings about both versions.

I asked the interviewees to imagine they were in a doctor’s waiting room in Toronto, where they found two informative booklets (of which my texts were a short excerpt). The content focused on how to deal with gambling problems in the family.

Questions and answers

(1) They were first asked to choose their favorite version and explain the reason for their choice. This should come as no surprise to translators: the participants’ favorite text was the one written in Brazilian Portuguese. However, I was actually more interested in the subsequent part of the interview: listening to their reasons and explanations.

Brazilians explaining why they prefer the text in Brazilian Portuguese:
• “Because I come from Brazil. If I had gambling problems in the family, my understanding of the situation and the search for solutions would be easier if I read a text written in my native language.”
• “It’s written in Brazilian Portuguese, which makes my reading and understanding easier.”
• “Both texts convey the same message, but this text sounds more familiar.”
• “I think it’s more personal. It sounds as if it’s talking to me […]. If I had a gambling problem in the family, this one would have more influence on me.”

(2) I also asked them to list aspects they liked about their preferred text (without ever bringing up the question of regional variants).

Brazilians listing what they like about the text in Brazilian Portuguese:
• “It’s more direct, especially in terms of sentence structure.”
• “It’s easier to read.”
• “Some words sound more familiar.”
• “It sounds more colloquial, more informal, due to the expressions used. The expressions in the other text sound strange.”
• “The ideas are more clearly expressed.”
• “The comprehension is immediate. The reading is more fluent, without any barriers to comprehension.”
• “It sounds as if it’s trying to be helpful without giving me a lecture.”

(3) Lastly, I inquired what they disliked about the other text—again, leaving out any mention of countries or variants.

Brazilians listing what they dislike about the text in European Portuguese:
• “It’s not impossible to read European Portuguese, but when I compare, my understanding of this text is not as immediate. My reading is less fluent.”
• “I probably took a bit longer to read it, as compared to the other text.”
• “It sounds a bit funny. Some expressions are not used in Brazil and could lead to misunderstandings.”
• “The grammar sounds strange.”
• “The spelling and expressions sound strange.”
• “It’s less clear.”
• “The language is more formal. It tries to teach me some strategies, but in sentences that I wouldn’t be able to use.”
• “The whole text is more distant […]. I don’t feel it’s talking to me.”

This is certainly a tiny sample within a huge market, but the consistent responses are a sign that these Brazilian readers did not identify with the text in the European variant. As you can notice, the differences pointed out by the participants go way beyond just spelling, so the new spelling reform has changed very little (refer to post for more on this issue).

Note that I’m not trying to suggest that Brazilian Portuguese is better than European Portuguese. It’s all relative. If my interview had included Portuguese folks, I’m sure I’d have heard similar comments, except they’d be referring to the text in their native variant as their favorite and listing positive qualities about it. By the same token, they’d have their own list of “complaints” about Brazilian Portuguese.

The bottom line: the variants are just different; and readers from different backgrounds react differently to them. Therefore, each readership deserves to be treated as a group by itself, with its own needs and expectations.

Now, it’s really up to you… Would you rather hear from your target audience that your text is fluent, clear, familiar, and easy to read? Or that it sounds funny, strange, unclear, and not very fluent? It all comes down to your own goals, who you want to reach, and how effectively you want to reach them.

Brazil and Portugal, two countries separated by a common language

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.

Dialects: a culturally-sensitive issue