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

A while ago I discussed how crucial it is for clients and translators to be clear about the specifications of each project from the outset. Two of the ten items listed as relevant in that article have to do with dialects: source language and regional variation, and target language and regional variationThis matter is so important that it deserves a post—or several—of its own.

Dialects are one of the elements taken into consideration when you do what’s commonly known as “localization.” This term derives from “locale,” which refers to a given geographical, political, or cultural region while also considering this region’s language and local variant.

Some scholars and professionals defend that localization is much more than “mere” translation, because it involves the adaptation of the whole message to fit a particular culture. The article “What Is Localization?” concludes that “localization is like translation but with a cultural twist and a rewrite attribute.” Nevertheless, others argue that the very notion of translation intrinsically encompasses localization: all translations necessarily involve cultural considerations and adaptations. Well, there’s certainly a lot to discuss on this topic—much more than what I have in mind for this particular post. I just wanted to introduce the issue by tackling these concepts and showing how language variants, culture, and translation/localization are interconnected.

It’s only natural that non-native speakers of a language find the divergences between two or more variants of the same language imperceptible. However, as the previous paragraph suggests, differences between countries go beyond linguistic nuances and involve cultural matters. A good, commonly known example is how sensitive language variation is for French-Canadians and for the French of France. Most people also seem to be aware of how different the language spoken in the US is from that spoken in the UK. In addition, there are many other cases of regional language variation, such as Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese, the wide array of Spanish variants, various dialects of Farsi/Persian (also known as “Dari” in Afghanistan and Tajikistan), among others I won’t even begin to detail.

The case of Spanish certainly deserves more attention than I can give it right now. But just to mention in passing, the Spanish-speaking countries have reached an implicit agreement on what’s called “international Spanish” or “neutral Spanish,” which works fine under certain circumstances. I intend to address this quite unique scenario in more depth at another time.

Problems with the translation itself

Although language variants are often mutually intelligible to some extent, sometimes the nature of the differences and their high frequency result in uncomfortable bumps in the texts: distractions and obstacles that prevent immediate understanding. For instance, a text that is simple, informal, and direct in one country might sound too formal, harsh, and wordy in another. A translation that doesn’t sound as fluent or natural as the original might fail to appeal to that particular readership. Therefore, a number of aspects of this very text will need to be adapted in order to reach the target readers appropriately and generate the desired results.

Your image and the readers’ attitude

If you are unaware of the importance of regional variants, you might hire translators from different backgrounds as if they were interchangeable. However, mismatching the target variant and audience might undermine the reception of your text and the communication as a whole.

Not taking regional linguistic differences into account might suggest disrespect on the part of the translation buyer or his/her lack of familiarity with the target culture. This often affects the way the audience responds to the text. Readers who are relegated to the position of what’s often called “chance receivers” might not interact with the text in the same way as the primary addressees.

Therefore, being aware of regional linguistic variation is the first step toward producing a translation that speaks properly to its intended readers. By appropriately translating and localizing your texts, you present your brand as culturally aware and earn the respect of your target audience by showing that your business is committed to their particular needs and interests.

Language professionals: a central piece

A serious professional should be ready to deal with language variation issues. It’s the translators’ job to raise the awareness of those involved with translation—from staff in translation agencies to members of professional associations, and translation buyers. For instance, if clients don’t specify upfront the variant they need (which happens more often than we’d imagine), translators are expected to clarify this point before going ahead with the project. I believe most colleagues would agree that it’s unethical of a professional to simply assume his/her variant is the one requested and start the translation without first checking with the client.

If you have two professionals working on the same project, for example, one in charge of the translation and one taking care of editing, avoid hiring people from different backgrounds. Save time and money by respecting regional differences and working with teams of translators and revisers who are prepared to meet the specific needs of the audience you have in mind.