“Brazil is in many ways a country apart, held together but isolated by its Portuguese language, distinct culture and continental scale.” (Michael Reid, The Economist)
Portuguese is the fifth world language, spoken by some 200 million people on the continents of Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. Of this total, 176 million live in the country referred to as the “South American giant.” Brazil’s GDP ranks among the top 10 largest in the world, amounting to a purchasing power parity of US$1.34 trillion. The country is one of the top three markets for executive jets, soft drinks, cell phones and television sets, and is the seventh largest software market in the world.
Spanning almost five centuries of the country’s existence, one of the fundamental principles of Brazilian diplomacy has been the peaceful resolution of disputes. However, does that mean that the consuming population echoes its peaceful border and non-intervention policy when it comes to imported goods? Do warm welcomes, friendly talks and a laid-back attitude actually turn into full acceptance of foreign products and services? Nice country but… Can you really take it?
Is Continental Portuguese spoken in a country with continental dimensions?
There was a time when Portugal and Brazil spoke the same language. Even though both countries and peoples still officially speak the same language, the localization industry has long recognized that Brazil is a country of its own, a locale with a specific terminologies and styles. As author Bert Esselink mentions in his book A Practical Guide to Localization, pt_BR is the only of the so-called first and second tier languages specifically targeted at a particular locale – Brazil. But how long ago did this acknowledgement happen?
I remember working from London in 1997 for a multi-language vendor in Brazil. They were providing a major European business software company with localization services into Portuguese. The style guide and glossary were created in Portugal, while the translation and review were performed by Brazilian vendors (some, like me, living abroad). The validation of new terms was also outsourced and then checked by an Iberian Portuguese speaker located at the client’s premises in Europe. While I was amazed to see how the Internet allowed such a mixture of locations and professionals, I only came to discover the linguistic result two years later. After the product had been launched into the Brazilian market, employees of the companies using it were experiencing major difficulties. The interface menus were incomprehensible, the dialog boxes were laughable and the online help was simply useless.
By this time, I had already founded Ccaps Translation and Localization. When a new US client approached us during the year 2000 looking to localize their business software into Brazilian Portuguese, I was able to provide valuable and little known advice. They had already localized the product into European Portuguese yet were now developing a new version that targeted the Brazilian market. At first, the conversion process seemed simple. We could find all occurrences of “ficheiro,” replace them with “arquivo” and do the same for all such instances. Both words mean “file” and could be easily replaced by one another. However, this was not a “you-say-tomato-I-say-tomato case.” The localization guidelines, grammatical structures and styles were by no means similar. The story of their European competitor was enough to dissuade them from using the leveraged material previously translated into European Portuguese. They finally agreed to create a new translation memory from scratch. By wisely perceiving that their Brazilian customers deserved a product that really “spoke their language,” they added to their client portfolio companies that have had long-standing success in Brazil, such as PepsiCo, Michelin, Philips, Unilever, and the São Paulo Subway.
If you are looking for differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese, you can find extensive information on Ray Vogensen’s web site at http://www.portcult.com/10.LANG3.htm. In spite of the interesting facts collected and the long list of related sites provided, it is hard to understand why Vogensen uses the term “Continental Portuguese” as opposed to the variant spoken in Brazil. Although Europe is no longer considered “The Continent,” history must have played a major role in his choice, and perhaps he did not realize that Iberian Portuguese would be a more neutral, currently relevant term. Speaking of history, the “ish” sound for words ending in “s” that is so characteristic of Cariocas from Rio de Janeiro was brought from Lisbon when the Court was relocated to the South American colony. However, over the past 20 years, the scenario has changed dramatically: the former colony’s accent has flooded TV screens as Brazilian soap operas dominate Portuguese popular television. The truth is, the former colony that became the capital of the Portuguese Empire due to a most unusual sequence of events is today a more important player than the country that brought it to the world arena in the first place.
Microsoft recently realized that in order to pay the due respect that motherland Portugal deserves, they did not have to diminish the importance of the South American giant across the ocean. Portuguese variants now in MS products are no longer classified as “Standard” and “Brazilian,” but instead are followed by the respective names of the countries between parentheses. In some cases, history may dictate standardization but, when it comes to the so-called “new economy,” such a decision relies on the influence and power a certain country has on world economics. If, for instance, that “standard” definition were used for UK and US English in a foreign product entering the North American market, sales would certainly drop on this side of the Atlantic.
What do you mean, Portuguese? Don’t they speak Spanish in Latin America?
Brazil is said to share with the rest of Latin America its political history, economic status and cultural background. But, how much of that is true? The Portuguese Court’s transference from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1808 was only the result of Napoleon’s threat to occupy Portugal. The Portuguese could never foresee that by doing so they would draw up the boundaries of a territory with almost 3.3 million square miles and convert it into a unified nation. While the former Spanish dominion dismantled into smaller republics, Brazil retained its unity. Brazil cannot be dissociated from Latin America, but neither should it be considered an intrinsic part of the geographic whole. Hispanic America is not a homogeneous set of countries, but all of its peoples can understand one single language. The same does not happen between the two Portuguese variants, however: Brazilians often have difficulty understanding spoken Iberian Portuguese. In fact, Portuguese movies are often subtitled for Brazilian audiences.
In order to strategically address the Latin American market as a whole, the consumer goods industry has devised an alternative to please the Brazilian and Hispanic markets. The cost-effective solution is bilingual packaging, also seen on quite a number of European Union products. From personal hygiene items to candy bars, a wide range of merchandise today displays both languages. The consumer can read “Gel para afeitar” and “Gel de barbear” on shaving gel cans and “Control sarro” and “Controle de tártaro” on tartar-control toothpaste tubes. Therefore, regardless of the language the customer speaks, they will know exactly what they are taking home and will feel respected as a consumer with cultural and linguistic individuality.
Recently, Robert V. Levine performed a research study on how human behavior varies in crowded cities. He and a group of collaborators in 23 different countries ran nearly 300 “trials of helpfulness” that involved feigning blindness, dropping pens, and approaching passersby while pretending to have an injured leg. According to the research study, entitled The Kindness of Strangers and published on the American Scientist Online website, people in Rio de Janeiro are the most likely to help a stranger in the above situations. Levine also says that social psychologist Aroldo Rodrigues, a colleague of his at California State University, was not surprised by the results. “The term simpático,” Rodrigues explains, “is a very important word in Brazil and refers to a range of desirable social qualities—to be friendly, nice, agreeable and good-natured, a person who is fun to be with and pleasant to deal with. Brazilians, especially the Cariocas of Rio, want very much to be seen as simpático.” Anyone who has visited Rio or any other Brazilian city for that matter would say the same. But don’t be fooled! They may receive you with open arms at first, but that does not mean you will have conquered them in the long run. Beneath every “Welcome,” there might be an underlying, unspoken “How long is it that you are planning on staying again?” Unless you become a real Carioca, you should not expect Rio to treat you as if the city were your adopted hometown. The bad news is: the same process applies to incoming foreign products and services throughout Brazil.
When Pizza Hut and Subway came to Brazil a few years ago, many people were excited about the possibility of finally having a whole group of foreign fast-food chains to call their own. At first, the entrepreneurship was rather promising and the initial restaurants in São Paulo soon branched out into Rio de Janeiro and other cities. They provided Brazilians with a typical American way of eating and attempted to reach the success that McDonald’s has enjoyed since the late 1970s when it made its “McDebut” in Copacabana. However, something did not work quite as they expected. A few years later, both chains were forced to close their doors and return home with a bitter taste of failure. The reason became clear: neither spoke the language of their target audience.
In Sao Paulo, for instance, Italian immigrants have long dominated the local taste for pasta and pizza. Therefore, when Pizza Hut brought its famous thick crust to Brazil, the variation that is so popular in the United States was quick to fail. Similarly, when Subway first arrived, the sandwich chain threatened to take over the kingdom that McDonald’s had established in 1979. Again, with no formal communication or marketing research to learn what Brazilians wanted from them, Subway also swiftly became a royal failure. McDonald’s strategy, on the other hand, was successful because instead of simply importing American burgers and fries, they conducted extensive research to find out variations that the demanding Brazilian population might enjoy. The Cheddar McMelt sandwich, for example, was actually created in the country specifically for the local population. The guaraná (a traditional Brazilian fruit) soft drink has become a permanent addition to the McDonald’s menu and is exclusive to Brazilian restaurants. Had Pizza Hut and Subway listened to their customers more carefully, had they tried to “speak their language,” they might have avoided becoming a tropical fiasco.
Brazil has an enormous consuming market that includes a wide range of social classes and a variety of educational backgrounds. The government recently initiated a fervent campaign to eradicate illiteracy by 2006, and the number of people with university degrees is escalating by the day. This means that Brazilian consumers will be increasingly demanding when it comes to the textual aspect of the products and services they are introduced to or end up purchasing. Hence, the language requirements to address this audience will inevitably become even more specific and rigorous. This, together with the “camouflaged xenophobia” described above, will make it increasingly harder for foreign brands to be fully accepted and adopted by the population. While one could endeavor to acquire such expertise, the effort is neither productive nor attainable in short- or medium-term enterprises. A more dependable and much faster alternative is to find a local partner who is linguistically skilled and fully aware of such intrinsic facets of the target locale.
With that awareness in mind, one can avoid the odds of investing a large amount of money when localizing an IT product that will be either competing with a foreign competitor or will be disregarded for a new native opponent that is slowly but surely accumulating clout; the booming Brazilian software industry. The Brazilian government expects software and computer-related services to reach US$9.2 billion this year. In addition, the promising position Brazil occupies in the computer industry worldwide can be explained by its inclusion in the newly created BRIC group. In the words of Jonathan Murray, vice president of Microsoft’s Global Accounts sales group, “We need to focus our resources where our customers are going to generate their growth in the next 10 years — the BRIC geographies of Brazil, Russia, India and China.”
When they first arrived in Brazil, the Portuguese managed to deal with the indigenous by trading the valuable pau-brasil tree in exchange for mirrors and other low-cost ornaments. Yet, the first contact between the two groups did not develop into successful economic relationships, as the initial warm reception did not transform into full acceptance of slavery. We may find the roots to the Brazilian “camouflaged xenophobic” character five centuries ago, but if you plan to enter the country and trade, whether it be inexpensive knick-knacks or highly sophisticated technology supplies, you might want to learn a lesson from the Jesuit missionaries. These determined men who marched inhospitable lands in the name of their God understood that in order to “save” souls, they had to first learn Tupi-Guarani, the language of native Brazilians. Poor Jesuits! They did not have local language providers to help them in the Brazilian endeavor. On the other hand, today’s multinational companies have it all: modern localization resources and a friendly population eager to buy their goods. Nice country, right? But just don’t take it, try to make the most of it.
Reprinted from MultiLingual magazine (2003, #60 Volume 14 Issue #8) with permission from Multilingual Computing, Inc., www.multilingual.com.