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.