Latin America & Caribbean

Translation challenges: From gang slang to poetic rabbits

Paulo Coelho signing novels at an event in 2007 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Paulo Coelho's novel The Alchemist has been translated into 67 languages

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho's novel The Alchemist has spent almost seven years on the New York Times bestseller list.

The novel about a Spanish shepherd's voyage to Egypt gained immediate popularity in the author's native Brazil.

But Coelho himself has credited the translation into English in 1994 for his novel's international success.

"In the publishing world outside of the United States, nobody reads Spanish, much less Portuguese," he told the New York Times in a 1999 interview.

"Translation into English made it possible for other editors to read me."

Now The Alchemist is available in 67 languages.

'No equivalent'

But translating Brazilian Portuguese for an English-speaking audience is no easy task.

From words that have no equivalent to cultural references and concepts, translators must find a balance between being faithful to the original work while giving the reader the most accurate understanding of Brazilianisms.

"It's important not to treat the reader like an idiot," says Zoe Perry, translator of Coelho's latest novel, Adultery.

Speaking at the International Literary Festival in Paraty, she said: "I only put in footnotes things that are very culturally specific, that only those who grew up in Brazil would know.

"If it's something you can easily put into Google and find, it's better to leave it."

References to Brazil's military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 and its sizeable population of Japanese immigrants are among those sometimes left unexplained.

Gang slang

Yet although today's readers can easily cross-reference queries online within seconds, Brazilian literature sometimes deals with issues so specific that even native readers may not recognise them.

Image copyright Rex Features

Paulo Lins's novel City of God, which was turned into a box office hit movie of the same name in 2002, was about drug gang culture within Rio's favelas, a concept that is itself often misunderstood.

The novel is full of street slang, including the creative gang nicknames such as Seu Jorge's character Mane Galinha (Mane being short for Manuel and Galinha literally meaning "chicken", as well as being used as a term for someone who has many partners).

Alison Entrekin, who translated City of God into English, in the end settled on Knockout.

"Sometimes, the translator has to choose something when it is simply impossible to find an equivalent word," she told the festival.

Image copyright Sesc
Image caption Alison Entrekin was speaking at the International Literary Festival in Paraty

Ms Entrekin said that sometimes it was not just foreign readers who would be unacquainted with certain terms but native speakers, too, especially if the words used were particular to a certain group.

"If the book is cultured, it's easier but with lower registers, it's more of a problem, and it was like this translating City of God," she said.

Other things are specific to a certain region.

She said she once translated a book that made reference to an "azulejado", an outdoor barbecue area decorated with blue tiling.

"It's an immediate image that Brazilians would know," she said, but one which could test translators.

Fuzzy

Ms Entrekin said one of her most recent translation challenges was a children's book about a poet bunny rabbit called Fuzz McFlops.

The book is partly about the rabbit's frustrated attempts at poetry and partly about different forms of communication, including letters, addresses and the Brazilian equivalent of a postcode.

"Despite being for children, it was very complicated," Ms Entrekin recalled.

"It was full of puns. I had to reinvent everything.

"If there's a joke that works in one language but not in another, you have to tell another joke."

In the end, the part of the book dealing with the different forms of communication took her five times longer to translate than another book of the same size.

Share of the credit

Ms Perry said working together with other translators sometimes helped, especially when the authors were not available to help with queries or questions.

Image copyright Sesc
Image caption Zoe Perry says it is important translators get recognition for their work

"I didn't have contact with the author of the first book I translated and I felt the absence," she said.

"And with Paulo Coelho's book, I also had no contact with him. I imagine he has a lot of translators."

But, as Coelho's career has shown, translators are essential to promoting Brazilian literature around the world and, depending on their individual agreements, they receive a percentage of the royalties from book sales as well as a fixed fee for the translation.

"In the case of Paulo Coelho, I insist on royalties," joked Ms Perry.

"But there are others for which I'll never receive royalties."

Royalties or not, what is important to her is that the editor values the translator's work: "The fact that you contribute to the success of the book."

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