By Steven Engler
A translator’s job is an extremely difficult one. The words of one language seldom match up exactly with those of another. Some words are simply missing in other languages: for example, saudade” is unique to Portuguese; “homesickness” is unique to English; they overlap a bit but ultimately mean very different things. Shifting contexts and multiple levels of meaning create difficult choices. Slang and jargon confuse matters. Cultural politics on both sides of the linguistic boundary complicate the translator’s activity. On top of all this, the work of the translator is undervalued. It is a creative art of retelling, of evoking echoes of similarity, of making nuanced judgments about how different audiences will react. Yet most people seem to treat translation as a machine-like substitution. (Try back translating from English to Portuguese to English using software to see the mess that machine translation produces.) To make things worse, translators are never given enough time to do the job as well as they are capable. I worked as a professional translator, briefly, and the money seemed fine… until I started the long, slow task of rough translation, revising, researching technical terms, re-revising, striving to convey the subtle tone of certain passages, etc., etc., etc. It’s a tough way to make your living.
That said, and with all due respect, I love collecting the mistakes made by the people who provide the Portuguese subtitles for English films and TV programs. (I collect them because the errors amuse me, not because I think I could do any better. If translators were paid what they deserve and were given the time they need to do the job right, Brazilian subtitles would be much more accurate and evocative, but much less amusing…) The results can be hilarious. Often, the cross-cultural attempt to capture the essence of a phrase succeeds only in diluting its meaning to homeopathic levels.
I divide the translation errors that I have collected into ten categories, presented in the following format: A → B [C], i.e., “what was said in the original English soundtrack” → ” what the Portuguese subtitle means in English [the Portuguese subtitle]”
So, to give an example from Category 1, the line spoken in English was “coal mine,” but the subtitle read “mina de ouro,” which means “gold mine.” This is represented as follows: “coal mine” → “gold mine [mina de ouro].”
Category 1 – Slips of the Ear
The first type of mistake is the common one of simply not recognizing a word, then substituting a different, yet similar sounding, one.
- “Come on, then” → “Come on, men [homens]”
- “Signs of flight” → “Signs of a fight [sinais de briga].”
- “I pried open the lock” → “I tried to open the lock [tentei abrir a fechadura].”
Pick of the crop: “Ploy number one” → “First boy [primeiro rapaz]”
Category 2 – Giving the Ear the Slip
The second type of mistake makes it even clearer that the people who do this work are native Portuguese, not English, speakers. This second type of error is similar to the first – a matter of hearing things a little wrong – but it is combined, it seems, with a failure to recognize an idiomatic or colloquial expression. (Native English speakers would make fewer mistakes of recognition, but they would also be less effective at capturing the right Portuguese idioms and expressions.)
- “It’s surreal” → “It’s for real [ pra valer].”
- “Into the bushes” → “Into an ambush [ambuscada].”
Pick of the crop: At the end of A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise’s character says, of the two airmen who were prepared to testify that they had absolutely no recollection of anything, “Kind of adds something to it.” This was translated as, “They were good looking guys [bonites].” The translator obviously missed “adds something” and went with the similar sounding “handsome”.
Category 3 – Can’t see the forest for the knees
Sometimes the translators appear unfamiliar with a word or idiomatic expression. They go with an overly literal, or just plain wrong, meaning. This type of mistake can produce especially funny results.
- “I was grandstanding.” → “I was watching from the stands / I was a spectator [era espectador].”
- “the control the white House affords”, translated as referring to political “finances”
- “You’re playing possum.” → “You’re dead [voc est morta].”
- “It was pretty much a blank.” → “It was quite inoffensive [foi muito inofensiva].”
- “homemaker” → “household manager/governess [governanta].”
- “I’d like to take that in” → “I’d like to know what it is [gostaria de saber o que ].”
- “A lot of good that did me!” → “That did me quite a bit of good! [Isso me fez bastante bem].” It would be possible to pronounce this with irony, but as a subtitle, the written translation totally fails to capture the essentially ironic nature of the English phrase.
Pick of the crop: In Born Yesterday, Judy Holliday’s character, the former chorus girl Emma “Billie” Dawn, explains to a Congressman’s wife why she has never been to Washington, D.C.: “I never went on the road.” This was translated as, “I never went out in the street [nunca sa para a rua].”
Category 4 – I’ll Take Door Number Two
Sometimes, the translator goes with the wrong meaning of two available. This indicates either ignorance of the ambiguity or a failure to pay attention to the context of the dialogue.
- “It’s the principle → “It’s the principal [ o diretor].”
Category 5 – The Quantum Leap
There is something mysterious about the way that the quantum, the smallest possible unit of energy, came to stand for something huge. (A quantum leap is, literally, the smallest possible step that one could take, but the common meaning, as people use the phrase, is nearly the opposite of this.) Sometimes subtitles also, for some mysterious reason, flip things around, getting the meaning almost totally backwards.
- “At noon.” → “At night [ noite].”
- “your two countries” → “our two countries [nossos dois pases].”
- “just after he came through” → “before he arrived [antes que ele chegou].”
Category 6 – What the…?!
Sometimes, it is just impossible to imagine how the translator came up with the subtitle.
- “more satisfied” → “more animated [mais animado].”
- “lacks subtlety” → “lacks sentimentalism [falta sentimentalismo].”
Pick of the crop: Here is a classic mistranslation from an episode of Boston Legal. In reference to the Neilson ratings of Denny Crane’s appearance on the Larry King show, the phrase “He got a seven share” was translated as, “He is a partner in this firm [ele um sócio nesta firma].”
Category 7 – Missing the call
Sometimes translators just make a bad decision.
- “The ships are breaking up.” → “The ships are leaving [estão partindo].” Well, sure, one meaning of partir is “to fragment,” but the most common meaning is “to leave”, “to depart.”
Category 8 – Yeah, sure, whatever.
Some errors in translation don’t matter much yet are still mysterious.
- “great uncle” → “great grandfather [bisav].”
Category 9 – Beyond wit’s end
Sometimes, the translator appears to just throw up their hands in confusion, dismay, or surrender. If you can’t translate it, fake it…
Pick of the crop: In Stargate SG-1 the main characters manage to negotiate their way out of an impossibly dangerous situation. To express his surprise, the dry-witted Co. Jack O’Neill (as played by Richard Dean Anderson, sans Swiss army knife) says, “Well, spank me rosy!” Faced with this challenge, at once both idiomatic and idiosyncratic, the translator bailed: “Let’s get out of here! [vamos sair daqui!].”
Category 10 – Never mind
Sometimes, what seems at first to be an error in translation turns out to be a sign of my own ignorance of Portuguese. Confusion is in the ear of the listener…
In Stargate SG-1, O’Neill says, with his usual wryly sarcastic delivery, “We’re going to get creamed.” I thought I had a classic (Category 5) for my collection when I read the subtitle: “We’ll start off well [Vamos entrar bem].” It turns out that this latter expression is often used ironically in Portuguese. Live and learn!
You can contact Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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