Saturday, 13 July 2013

Localisms versus accuracy

Finding an equivalent in another language is sometimes the same as entering one of Tom Cruise’s movies from the series Mission Impossible in the body of Tom Cruise without leaving the Watchers’ World.

Finding perfect, or close-to-perfect, matches is something so difficult that we think that only those linguists who have lived in the Country of their target language could possibly be attempting to translate or interpret into it.

Ideally, linguists would know the culture of both the target and source countries.

Sometimes, however, knowing the culture of both the target and source countries is not enough, since the linguist would actually have to know the culture of the specific location that they are targeting to do a good job (see our previous article with PROz: cacetinho and pao privado, for instance).

We believe that English is English everywhere, is it not? If a people declare officially that they speak English, they must speak English, right?

The problem is actually the corruption of the language in the specific location we target.

For instance, the English of England would be at least sometimes completely different from the English of Australia.

We look in the dictionary (Longman’s) and we see that a Registry Office is a local government building in Britain where you can get married, and where births, marriages, and deaths are officially recorded (Pearson Education, 2005).

In Australia, we have the Office of Births, Deaths, and Marriages instead.

In Brazil, there are places where we can get married and record our signatures for posterior certification. These places are called cartorios and we have to pay fees to get our documents certified by them. We cannot get our documents certified in any other place.

In Portugal, all public officers and solicitors, for instance, can certify our documents, and we have to pay a fee for that ((7Graus, 2011-2013) and (Ordem dos notarios, 2007)).

Still in Portugal, if we want to get married, we can do that in a conservatoria (7Graus, 2011-2013b).

In Australia, certification of documents is free, and any judge of peace can do that for us (Attorney-General’s, 2013). Because becoming a judge of peace is not that hard (Attorney-General’s, 2013), we can find them in several places, including banks and libraries.

In England, we can get our documents certified for free, but we may also have to pay: All depends on who we go for (, 1999-2010).

We then understand that translating and interpreting, in this case, has to imply possessing detailed knowledge of the standard systems of all these so different countries, even with the pair being always the same.

We could then blame the lexicons and say that they are incomplete or not properly built.

It might be that including cartorio in the dictionary would not be much trouble, even if we had to list all the cultural equivalents, say for each and every Country that speaks English or Portuguese... .

However, when we look at expressions of the type bowel movements, we notice that only deep understanding and knowledge of both cultures could do the trick.

We can actually find bowel movements, precisely like that, in a few dictionaries. Longman, for instance, states that bowel movements is the act of getting rid of solid waste from your body.

Well, excrement is as solid as mucus at least sometimes, so that Longman’s explanation is at least incomplete. If you think that secretions are different from waste, then think of vomit, for instance, since vomit contains solid elements at least sometimes and has body waste as one of its synonyms (Collins, 2002).

For a person from another culture to understand that what we refer to is the solid waste from our intestine after reading Longman’s definition of bowel movements, they perhaps would have to check the definitions of bowel and movements.

Still to the side of criticizing the definition of bowel movements of one of the best dictionaries ever written, in terms of the English language, the Longman Dictionary, is the following remark: Our excrement does not need to be solid and, at least sometimes, it will be a sort of liquid, especially if we have diarrhea.

We could interpret the just-mentioned expression as movimentos do intestino by means of literal interpretation. This would be understood at the other end, but perhaps only after a certain amount of repetitions.

Ideally, we would simply use the local expression for such a thing, that is, what a doctor from Brazil, for instance, would be saying in place of bowel movements in the same sort of situation. We would then say digestao.

Some purists would then argue that this is an incorrect choice of terms because we have the word digestion in English and, if the doctor wanted to talk about that, they would have said digestion.

Notwithstanding, we have to know the culture of the Country where we work and the difference between interpreting and translating.

In Brazil, the amount of people that would acknowledge a movement of their own bowel is, pushing it, probably something like five percent.

Of course they should be able to understand any question of the sort how are your bowel movements going? but it is very likely that they do not.

We can then imagine that people in Australia, for instance, are so superior in all that they worry quite a lot about their own health: They worry to the point of monitoring, on a daily basis, or at least on a frequent basis, the movements of their own intestines.

Well, congratulations to them. They would then be able to answer such a question with oh, yesterday I accompanied the movements of my bowel and the contractions were exactly the same, in pattern, that I saw it making when I was five or something like that.

In a place like Brazil, however, the maximum that the local standards of intelligence and observation would allow for is: Yes, I am going to the toilet as usual.

There is then no point in agreeing with the purists and saying bowel movements in Portuguese (movimentos do intestino) when serving someone in the quality of professional interpreter. We should, in this particular case, sacrifice detailing in the name of information and communication.

If the doctor really meant it, and that is rarely the case, this also in Australia, then they will reword that question in a way to make communication possible.

If we are serving someone in the quality of professional translator, however, we should probably say movimentos do intestino and make a note on the cultural differences involved (footnote).

We should not use movimentos peristalticos, which is the most we could be hearing in Brazil for this one. The reason for this advice is that we have the word peristaltic in the English language and this word has not appeared in our original expression.

We then notice that the work of the linguist is, most of the time, happening inside the upper levels of the Bloom’s scale (Overbaugh, 2011), that is, inside Evaluation, Synthesis, and Analysis. Only rarely does it happen inside the lower levels (Application, Comprehension, and Knowledge).

A good linguist therefore has to be a person who has at least an inquisitive mind, since remaining in the lowest levels of the scale will lead to a large probability of increase in difficulty of communication amongst people.


Pearson Education Limited. (2005). LONGMAN Dictionary of Contemporary English. ISBN: 1-405806737

7Graus. (2011-2013). Onde Autenticar Documentos? Retrieved July 13 2013 from

Ordem dos notarios. (2007). Termos de autenticacao. Retrieved July 13 2013 from

7Graus. (2011-2013b). Casamento pelo Registo Civil em Portugal. Retrieved July 13 2013 from

Attorney-General’s Department of Australia. (2013). How to become a Justice of the Peace. Retrieved July 13 2013 from (1999-2010). Certified Documents. Retrieved July 13 2013 from

Collins Thesaurus of the English Language – Complete and Unabridged 2nd Edition. (1995, 2002). Vomit. Retrieved December 25 2013 from

Overbaugh, R. C. (2011). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Retrieved July 13 2013 from

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