Mixed · Translation

Mad Me

My sisters playing bossa nova in Brazil in the 1960s

I was watching the series “Mad Men” yesterday (I know, I am late on that train) and I got really upset – again – and decided to post about it. Nothing to do with the show, which I am enjoying quite a bit, as I was born in 68 and remember my mom wearing wigs and pretty scarves and my dad playing “Manhattan” in the living room. Also, Advertising was my major in college and I even did an internship in a big agency in Rio in the late 80s, early 90s. Although it wasn’t wild as the one in the show, and I was a level-headed young woman… I ended up not working directly in Advertising, though. Some people may not know this but, before becoming a pro photographer, I have worked for many years as an ESL instructor and English-Portuguese translator. I worked in many fields within translation, from pharmaceutical companies to literary publishers. I even went back to my university “alma mater” to take a course on Translation for Subtitles. Therefore, I learned a thing or two on the captioning subject. And that is the reason for my being even more upset yesterday.

Rule number one on translation or transcription? Don’t guess, don’t rush, don’t be lazy, don’t assume! Do your research. I didn’t have google when I first started translating, and that was tough. Nowadays, there are so many resources…. But if you still can’t figure out something, don’t translate it at all then. Better omit than make a mistake. Time frame is usually tight for translators and mistakes will be made, but cultural aspects are one thing that requires extra care. Even if it is just background music.

That’s when I go back to Mad Men and its subtitles. Suddenly the background music gets to be actually foreground, as no one is talking, and a classic from my childhood, “Água de Beber” by Tom Jobim starts playing. Bossa nova was a beloved genre in the 60s, part of the culture of that era, before being downgraded to “elevator music”. Born in Brazil like myself, this genre got famous worldwide for its tender notes and sweet lyrics, and it enchanted any ball with its suave demeanor. Many romantic tunes became couples’ theme songs. My parents included, which elected “Wave”, by the same Jobim, as their “official” song.

As the notes start on the show, the caption reads “[music playing in Spanish]”.

I yelled at the TV. My Irish-Italian-American husband, unaware of the sinful mistake, laughed at my rant:

“Wtf??? That is Portuguese!!! Bossa Nova, folks! Brazil doesn’t speak Spanish, that’s “Água de Beber”…. ok, you don’t have to know the song, of course, not even the genre, nor Portuguese, but don’t assume, please. Just write “background music”, or “soft music” then… at least it’s not incorrect.”

I know that I am a Brazilian-American and the world doesn’t need to know about the culture there as much as I do. However, a translator or caption professional can’t just assume. It is enough that I have to go to many places and people start speaking Spanish with me just because of the way I look. I love Spain, I live in Florida, I have dear friends who speak mainly Spanish. People can speak whatever they want, in my opinion. And although I believe that when you migrate to a country you should assimilate and learn the language to speak in public places, I understand it’s not easy sometimes. There is also the desire for honoring your roots and not “losing the language”. That’s why my son speaks Portuguese, so he can help me keep it alive at home and so he is able to talk to our family in Brazil with closeness. He also took Spanish in school and has many Spanish-speaking friends, he communicates very well with them in their native language. But I don’t. There are differences. Including differences in my mood… Most times I answer in English, and the conversation naturally goes back to English. Sometimes it’s easier to go with the flow and just smile, trying to understand at least 50% of what is being said. Sometimes I start speaking Portuguese and people get surprised. Many times, I start explaining that I am an American citizen born in Brazil, and therefore I am bilingual in English and Portuguese only – most people understand, but some look at me as if I were a snob just trying to be difficult. Why can’t I be proud and protective of my roots too?

DNA testing showed that I am 59% Portugal, 19% Spain and 19% French, plus other ethnicities in smaller numbers. I have Latin languages all over my DNA, I love them all and embrace the diversity with all my heart. I can communicate a little in all of them. But I was raised in a specific country with a rich and specific culture. Portuguese is actually more similar to Italian sometimes… I just wish people stopped assuming and knew more about the largest country in South America. It has a different history and culture – unique authors, singers and artists. It’s not fun to see your native culture dissolved in a melting pot, becoming a generic substance. Mixing is great, but while maintaining unique individuality is better. Each culture is so rich, it’s important to protected them from fading. I am assuming that Spanish speakers also go through that, trying to untangle their individual countries’ cultures from the web of generalization too.

It’s all way worse when it transcends beyond the grocery stores of Florida into the mass media realm. You should have known better, caption makers.

Thanks for reading, or “obrigada por ler”.

2 thoughts on “Mad Me

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