Paulo Coelho: Translation Challenges - Part 1

September 17th, 2015

Paulo Coelho is a renowned Brazilian author; famous for his novel The Alchemist

Paulo Coelho: Translation Challenges - Part 1 | One Hour Translation

Paulo Coelho is a renowned Brazilian author; famous for his novel The Alchemist, which has spent seven years on the New York Times bestseller list. The Alchemist is about a Spanish shepherd boy and his voyage to Egypt, and in Coelho’s native Brazil the novel gained immediate popularity.

But it’s for the novel’s translation into English in 1994 that Coelho himself credits his international success. Coelho said in a 1999 interview with the New York Times: ‘In the publishing world outside the United States, nobody reads Spanish, much less Portuguese.’ He added that ‘Translation into English made it possible for other editors to read me.’

Today, his novel ‘The Alchemist’ can be found in 67 different languages!

Sometimes There’s No Equivalent

But sometimes it’s no easy task translating Brazilian Portuguese for an English-speaking audience. From cultural concepts and references to words that have no equivalent, it’s the translator’s job to find the right balance between being true to the original content while offering the reader an accurate understanding of Brazilianisms. Zoe Perry is the translator for the novel ‘Adultery’; Paul Coelho’s latest offering. She said it’s really important that the reader not be treated like an idiot. She added: ‘I only put in footnotes things that are culturally specific; things 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 the sizeable population of Japanese immigrants and Brazil’s military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985 are among those that are often left unexplained.

Street Slang and Nicknames

Even though readers of today are quickly and easily able to cross-reference queries online, sometimes Brazilian literature deals with issues that are so specific that even native readers might not recognise them. An example of this is Paulo Lins’ novel titled ‘City of God’: in 2002 the novel became a box office hit movie of the same name: the story revolves around drug-gang culture within the slums of Rio, which is a concept that, in itself, is generally misunderstood.

This is a book containing a lot of street-slang, and there are some quite creative nicknames too, like the character Mane Galinha – Mane is short for Manuel and Galinha means ‘chicken’: it’s also a term used for a person with many partners. Alison Entrekin translated City of God into English and in the end she settled on Knockout. She explained: ‘Sometimes the translator must choose something when it’s just impossible to find an equivalent word’. 

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