Let's avoid translationese, shall we?

On June 5-7, 2015, I attended the 6th International Conference organized by the Brazilian Translators Association (ABRATES), which took place at the Rebouças Convention Center in São Paulo. On Saturday, June 6th―the first day of presentations―I spent most of my day in Room 5, where several presenters talked about literary translation.

The third session I attended was "Let's Avoid Translationese, Shall We?", presented by Ponte de Letras, a group formed by Petê RissattiCarolina Caires CoelhoFlávia Souto Maior and Débora Guimarães Isidoro, four book translators (and very good friends) who got together to write a blog about the subject.

They started the session with Petê reading a thank-you note to ABRATES and, at first, it all sounded very weird to those in the audience. At the end of his reading, we found out that the odd language and behavior had been intentional: the presenters wanted us to feel uncomfortable with how unnatural it all sounded. After all, they were there to talk about "translationese."

Petê then recommended Paulo Henrique Brito's A tradução literária as a reference book for those who wish to learn more about publishing. However, he warned us that "You translate for publishers, but readers are your end client." With this reminder, Petê went back to the subject of keeping a natural language in book translations in order to hold the reader's attention.

Here are some other reminders made by the group:

  • Translation, at its best, doesn't sound translated.

  • When someone thinks about the translator, it's because something went wrong.

  • The more translators work on a text ―making an effort to respect the original and, at the same time, make it sound natural in the target language― the least it will make themselves present in it.

  • The more invisible translators are, the more we can see them.

Still on the topic of sounding natural, Flávia talked about one of her book translation and how she tried to strike a balance between making it flow and keeping true to the space and time "atmosphere" created by the author. In this case, she was referring to a noir book written by James Elroy and set in 1040s Los Angeles. With that in mind, she had to adapt slangs and language of that space and time. Her tip? "Get as close as possible to what is really being said."

Petê then mentioned the “tapestry analogy” according to which Miguel de Cervantes said translations are like the back of a tapestry: people can see the knots in the plot, some threads hanging on the backside, but can't quite contemplate the beauty of the image created. "We must strive to make sure our tapestry isn't loose and comes apart; it must be tied together well, without knots and patches," he explained.

Carolina said that "translationese" happens when translators go into "autopilot," when the deadline is too tight, or when editors change something during the reviewing process. Débora complemented that thought saying that we must read and re-read our translation to make sure our final product will be as natural as possible. For example, she likes reading her translations aloud to check if they're "easy on the ears." "There are no rules and each one of us must find our own way to accomplish it," she assured.


RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation," a book based on the class she teaches as part of the English/Spanish Translation and Interpretation program at University of California San Diego Extension. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates a project called Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS) to promote Brazilian literature worldwide.