The downside of fluency

Image source

…is that is messes with your translation work.

I’ve just come up for air after finishing a mega-project of about 60 pages in 4 days (which may be a new personal record). On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I did the “raw” translation, and today was dedicated to the revision – or “de-Brazilianifying” the English, as I like to call it – fixing sentence structures and turns of phrase that are more typical of Portuguese than of English.

The problem is that when you’re fluent in a foreign language, you associate its words with the objects or concepts behind them, not with the equivalent words in your native language.

So when you hear or say gato, you’re not thinking “cat,” you’re thinking this:

Unfortunately, it makes working in translation harder. I occasionally get stuck because I can “see” the meanings of words like dotação, edital, and fiscalizar in my mind’s eye, but can’t think of the equivalent English words.

As you might have guessed from the examples, this translation was a business/legal document. It was tough, but not nearly as bad as translating song lyrics, where you have to:

1) Understand the thought or feeling behind the words;

2) Capture the same idea in another language;

3) Make it poetic and pretty.

Translation Challenge: How would you communicate this Brazilian saying in a single line in English? “Farinha pouco, meu pirão primeiro”?

  • Dave

    “Flour little, my first fish sauce.” Yeah, I say that all the time!

    • Shayna

      That’s what it SAYS… but what does it MEAN? Any ideas?
      (I’ll post the answer after a few more people have commented!)

  • Google translates it as “Flour little, my first fish sauce ” – but somehow I don’t think that’s right!

    • Shayna

      This is a classic case illustrating why Google Translate will never put translators out of a job! 😉 You need a human to understand the cultural nuances and the meaning “between the lines.”

  • Damn good question! And very good points. I felt this way with my last translation. I felt like I had to struggle to not be too literal with translations nor too fluent. Hard balance.

    • Shayna

      Exactly! Another question is how much “editing” to do of the text – I mean, what do you do when it’s badly written in Portuguese? Translate it into equally badly written English? I try to hit the middle ground – making the text clearer, yet not scrapping it and restating it the way I would’ve said it.

  • I find it interesting that everything I know about chickens I know in Portuguese and really can’t speak about them in English. I learned it all here, from my hubby! It would take some effort to learn.

  • I edited foreign students papers in grad school- and sometimes I was too heavy handed, and had to go back and lighten it up! It is hard, though, as a language lover, to not make it ‘better.’

  • Does it mean ‘if there’s not enough to go around, I’m taking care of myself first’?

    • Good points about translation – the few times I’ve done translations, I take forever to get it done and get frustrated, for exactly those reasons. But for fun, I tried my hand at your translation challenge, before reading the comments….

      Is the expression common in the Northeast? I’ve never heard it here in São Paulo, so I guessed at the meaning from the words (and then discussed it for twenty minutes with my Paulista husband…and then made him google it, since he couldn’t come up with examples!) What we found included opinion pieces commenting 1) the PMDB’s attitude about “cargos” in the federal government and 2) high fees charged by a singer for a charity concert. Both about a me-first attitude, especially when something is scare. So I second Markuza’s translation above! (And suggest “cargos” for your list of words that are common and easy to use in Portuguese, but require thinking to translate…)

      • Shayna

        “Me-first attitude when something is scarce” – you nailed it! I’m impressed by your research and deduction skills! 🙂

        I agree with your nomination of “cargos.” My students also sometimes make a funny mistake regarding the word “papel” (which can also mean role, as in a company) – they’ll say, “My paper in the company is to work with customers, etc etc” and I have to explain the two different translations of “papel” :-p

    • Hey, my long-winded comment that I spend twenty minutes writing disappeared when I hit send…! So I will be brief this time.

      Summing up: after much internet research and discussion (seriously!), I second Markuza’s translation….

    • Shayna

      Ding ding ding! Markuza wins the translation challenge prize!

      “Farinha” is indeed flour, and “pirão” is a type of fish sauce made with flour.

      So basically, this saying means that if there’s not enough “flour” to create enough pirão for everyone, I want to be first to the table – serve my own food first, and who cares about the others.

      Since this phrase was in the context of a song lyric, though, I had to make it short and snappy. I finally settled on, “Lookin’ out for number one.”

      • Wow, I never would have come up with that….brilliant! As you say, understanding the meaning is one thing, but translating well is quite another.

  • “Flour little, my first fish sauce.”

    Hey, I once used that to propose. She was my first fish sauce, but in the end her answer was no, and hence I was left flourless 🙁

    Seriously though I have never heard that before so I’ll just second what Markuza suggested as it seems to make sense if the translation below is correct.

    “If there is a small amount of flour then I’ll first worry about getting my fish sauce.”

    Btw do you use the language forums found at Proz when you translate?

    • Shayna

      Awwww, your first fish sauce broke your heart 🙁

      I was actually unaware of the forums at Proz (I’d thought it was a job postings board only) but I’ll check ’em out!

  • Dad hasw called me many things (Lor, cutie pie, sweetie) – I’ll know he’s going native when he starts calling me his little fish sauce (actually, that’s kind of cute).

    • Shayna

      Christian calls me his little guava!