he PM was a bit green. And when the client asked for a few changes, he asked me, with pointed irony "There must be an agreed translation for a simple word like contact. Don't you think so?"
Oh, well, when you translate a list of unconnected sentences, without any context whatsoever, which someone else is to feed into some existing translation, done by someone you never heard of, there is no telling whether a particular instance of contact should be treated as a noun (contato) or as a verb. In addition, if it is to be treated as a verb, we still must decide between infinitive (contatar) and imperative (contate). I know it could not be a present indicative, because there was no pronoun. But if it is an imperative, it can be singular and plural (contate/contatem). And, if it is an infinitive and the translation into Portuguese, there is a good chance we should use an inflected infinitive (infinitivo flexionado, which, in the case of regular verbs, is identical to the future subjunctive) - for Portuguese infinitives can change for person too, which is more than they can do in many other famous and excellent languages. That gives you quite a fistful of possibilities and does not take into account the fact that all those words may be spelt with ct, too: contacto, contactar, contacte,... an option preferred by many even in Brazil.
the language in Brazil is changing so fast that grammar books cannot keep the pace and what they recommend is not what sounds acceptable to many.
I explained this to the PM (not that he understood one tenth what I said) and added that things are not so straightforward as he would like them to be. For instance, any self-respecting English-Portuguese dictionary would give him at least a dozen different translations for you, which is an even "simpler" word, a statement that may have driven him to desist from the career as a PM to become an MFV (mobile food vendor). PMing is not for the weak-hearted. I might have added that more often than not, none of the 15+ translations found in dictionaries will be of any use to the translator. Translation begins after the dictionary ends, and you seems to be good proof of that.
A question of style
The first question regarding the translation of you is how to style the people you are addressing. In Brazil, tu is regional, vós has all but disappeared and the only practical use of Senhoria is to refer to soccer referees. So the practical choice is between você and o senhor. Você is considered informal, o senhor is considered formal. The difference is often compared to the du/Sie, or tu/vous distinctions found in German and French, but in fact we use você for a lot of people who would be addressed as vous/Sie.
Not many years ago, senhor was considered the better alternative: o senhor may be a bit stiff for certain occasions, but você might be considered a bit too intimate by certain persons. However senhor is now often avoided as sexist, because it refers only to males. The female form is senhora. When addressing the general public, we can go it o(a) senhor(a), but it is very awkward and has the additional disadvantage of placing the women as a parenthetical appendix to men.
We have accounts with three banks and all of them dump truckloads of junk mail on us where we are always addressed as você - although, when we go to the bank, our account manager may address each of us as o senhor or a senhora as applicable, among other things because she could easily be our daughter. Você is also a wonderful solution when the name of the addressee does not tell us whether we are dealing with someone in the macho or distaff side of this world.
So, that matter is settled. Você it will be - unless we have some very good reason to use o senhor. Meaning it is not settled at all, but unsettled matters are an integral part of the translation game: nothing is ever settled. That, at least, is settled.
A question of number
Then we have the question of number. You is both singular and plural. One can say you all or you guys, but that is very colloquial and not often found in texts to be translated. In most of the stuff we translate, you has to do for both singular and plural.
The frequent use of you all, you guys and you people and similar forms in the spoken language may be good indication that native speakers of English now may be regretting the day when they dumped thou on the grounds that one second-person pronoun would be quite enough. But, of course, correct as this observation may be, it does not lighten the burden of the translators, who must still find for themselves how many yous the writer had in mind.
We do not want to go into the matter of hermeneutics now and expound rules concerning the logical number of you, but we must remember that Portuguese has a plural for both você and o senhor and both can and should be used as required.
We can now proceed with the business at hand.
The demands of English grammar and current stylistic fashion
English grammar is adverse to ellipsis of the subject, or, in less unctuous terms, most English sentences require a clear and visible subject. Vejo uma vela ao longe, is I see a sail yonder, but the Portuguese needs no pronoun and in fact omitting the pronoun is considered a contribution to style, whereas the English would look odd without the "I". Portuguese cannot simply drop the pronoun in all cases, but when writing we tend to prefer sentences where the pronoun can be done without.
In addition we have the fact that many of the documents translated nowadays avoid impersonal sentences and insist "second-person" wording. However a text with too many yous in Portuguese will give readers/listeners the idea that we are referring to them in very pointed way and may be considered a bit rude.
Mix all of this together and you will see that translating all the yous in a text will usually make it quite unpalatable in Portuguese and, if you turn all of the above inside out, you may derive a few suggestions on how to deal with the problem.
- Do not translate all of them, but...
All yous are candidates for Translation Procedure # 0, that is, nontranslation. When in doubt, do not translate. In fact, we recommend searching the whole text for você and vocês and considering deletion of each instance.
However, there is no doubt that a few of the yous should be preserved in translation. In some cases for no clear reason at all. One of the frequent explanations is "because it is demanded by Portuguese rhythm", which does not explain much, in the absence of any good definition of what Portuguese rhythm may be or may require. In any case, a you-less text would look strange. However, there is no rule as to which of the yous should be kept and different people would keep different instances: it is a matter of taste. Not really a problem, unless you are dealing with editors who strike off half of your pronouns only to add them back somewhere else for no purpose other than convincing a naïve PM that the agency would be dead without their precious help.
- Do not translate the second consecutive you
When you appears as the subject of two consecutive sentences, drop the second instance:
You don't have to return the book today; you can return it tomorrow.
Você não precisa devolver o livro hoje. Pode devolver amanhã.
In fact, both instances could be dropped, but dropping the second is certainly more necessary. Incidentally, notice that we do not have to translate the it in the second sentence. Pode devolve-lo amanhã is correct, but a bit too affected in the context. Many translations from English into Portuguese are longer than the original because people insist on translating every translatable word, including stuff that English requires and Portuguese can do very well without.
- Better translate literally
However, in other cases, translation is almost mandatory: for example, where the pronoun is used emphatically, something that the original often indicates with italics:
You have to wash the dishes, not me.
Você tem que lavar a louça, não eu.
- Translate literally, with a bit of added emphasis
Emphasis in Portuguese, however, would be better expressed by splitting the original sentence into two:
É você quem tem que lavar a louça, não eu.
As a side comment, we might point out that in both cases the first-person object pronoun of the original (me) must be translated as a subject pronoun in Portuguese (eu), a procedure that renders the translated sentence a bit less ambiguous, we believe.
An alternative would be:
É a você que compete lavar a louça, não eu.
The construction is absolutely correct, but a bit too formal for dish-washing. Could fit in a legal environment, though:
You must buy ...
Compete a você comprar
...but it is not very likely that a lawyer would use você without being forced to. The average lawyer would probably say
Notice that the comprar became adquirir, to go with the higher level of formality of the sentence. Lhe is rather formal in Brazilian Portuguese and should not associate itself with simple words.
- Use an Impersonal Construction with se
Because you often means you and everybody else as well, it may be translated by se in an impersonal sentence.
You should not use grease to...
Não se deve usar graxa...
The problem here is the endless discussion about whether the se should come before or after the verb and whether the verb should be singular or plural. There are rules about those things, but they are often unclear and misunderstood and, besides, we are not sure all grammarians agree on this - and many other things, for that matter. So that you and the client may end up brandishing grammar books with opposite opinions and this is not good for either of you. In addition, the language in Brazil is changing so fast that grammar books cannot keep the pace and what they recommend is not what sounds acceptable to many. This is especially true in connection with the use of se. A bit of care is thus required.
- Translate it by the First-person Plural Pronoun
Also because you often means you and everybody else as well, believe it or not, one of the best translations for you is nós, which in theory means we. The point is that you is often used just as a rhetorical tool to draw the reader near the writer, whereas Portuguese goes one step further in the same direction, by creating a unity between both:
You can achieve a similar effect ...
Nós podemos também obter um efeito similar ...
Since subject pronouns can usually be omitted, this can be further reduced to
Podemos também obter um efeito similar ...
- Translate by a Gente
We are now entering the realm of very informal language. A gente is really part of the spoken language and, when used in writing, it is either in a very informal and personal note, such as an e-mail to a close friend or in a text that purports to reflect spoken language, such as an add or dialog in a novel. But it is so prevalent in Brazil that it deserves a bit of attention here.
A gente is a very interesting quasi-pronoun which really deserves more attention than it can receive here. For instance, it can be used as a "pronoun of modesty": A gente já é tradutor há mais de 30 anos, meaning I have been a translator for more than 30 years. But what interests us here is the use of a gente as a translation for you and we must adhere to the subject. So,
You can achieve a similar effect ...
can be translated as
A gente também pode conseguir um efeito parecido ...
A gente takes a third-person singular verb, although its meaning is first person plural. Also notice that similar became parecido and obter was replaced with conseguir, which are more informal choices. A gente também poderia obter um efeito similar is perfectly correct from a grammatical point of view, but would be like wearing a top hat with sneakers.
- Use an Imperative
Often the indicative with you is used to disguise an order, principally when must is used as an auxiliary and
You must oil this machine once a week.
may be translated as
Lubrifique esta máquina uma vez por semana.
The imperative may be mitigated by the addition of a por favor in these cases.
Por favor, lubrifique esta máquina uma vez por semana.
Both are literal translations of
(Please) lubricate this machine once a week.
and should be set aside to translate this pattern, but the fact is that they can be very handy in difficult situations.
- Drop the Pronoun, Move the Meaning of the Auxiliary Verb to an Adjective
This seems a very complicated operation, but it is very simple in practice, as the example will show.
You must oil this machine once a week
É necessário lubrificar esta máquina uma vez por semana
Notice this is more precise than translating must as deve, because deve also means should.
You should oil this machine once a week
É recomendável lubrificar esta máquina pelo menos uma vez por semana
Because there are more adjectives than modal auxiliaries, this construction affords a better chance of fine-tuning the sentence to suit our needs.
- Use the Passive Voice
This is exactly what the writer of the original was warned against by messrs Strunk & White, but it is OK in Portuguese, even in informal contexts:
You must oil this machine once a week
Esta máquina precisa ser lubrificada uma vez por semana
or, more informally
Esta máquina tem que ser lubrificada uma vez por semana
This is not recommended, however if the you is used emphatically. One can say
Esta máquina tem que ser lubrificada por você uma vez por semana
... but the sentence is too convoluted. Here, the possible options include:
É você quem tem que lubrificar
Curiously, we can translate the emphasized you by replacing it with an impersonal sentence:
É sua obrigação lubrificar
... where the subject pronoun is actually replaced by a possessive.
- Replace You+Verb with a Past Participle
This is often a good suggestion when the you is the subject of a subordinate that functions as an adjective:
Enter the percentage you want ...
Digite a porcentagem desejada ...
This approach has the additional advantage of eliminating one que from the literal digite a porcentagem que você desejar. You will perhaps agree with us that Portuguese translations from English often have too many ques and des and eliminating a few of them usually helps improving style. In fact we have a little something to say about that point, but it will have to wait for some other edition of the Translation Journal.