A few days ago I came across a terminology discussion in a translation forum on how to translate “zagueiro” into English. Even though the first answerer guessed it was a simply a defender, actually “zagueiro” is not any defender, but specifically a central defender, or centre-back.
After reviewing literally millions of words in football articles translated from English and Spanish into Brazilian Portuguese, I’ve realised that many translators often overlook how difficult it may be to translate position names. That’s because the game is seen differently in each football nation—in this case Brazil and England.
Even though modern football was first organised in England, Brazil has long developed its own branch of the game, both tactically, technically and linguistically. At least until recently, before the advent of the internet, there was very little interaction between players, coaches and fans from each country, so it’s just natural that experts from each nation would describe the same game differently even if watching it side by side.
The topic is fascinating, but I’d like to focus on the linguistic aspect rather than on pure tactics. Defender, for example, is a term whose Portuguese cognate is hardly used in Brazil.
The reason? Whereas in England it has historically made sense to talk of defenders in general as there have been many footballers able to play in multiple defensive positions in a 4-4-2 formation, full-backs in Brazil usually take on more attacking roles, whilst being covered by two very deeply positioned holding midfielders.
When a Brazilian full-back transfers to Europe, he needs to go back to the drawing board and learn to defend. Otherwise he’ll be deployed in a different position, very often as a wide midfielder. Brazilian central midfielders, on the other hand, are so defensively-minded that they might as well play as centre-backs in Europe.
But I digress... Even with such differences, full-backs are part of the defence in Brazil too. However, since they are technically and tactically very different from central defenders, referring to any footballer as a “defensor” in Brazil adds very little information. After all, are you talking of a lightning fast wide man such as Roberto Carlos or a sturdy centre-back such as Lúcio?
That’s why, if you’re translating a football article into Brazilian Portuguese which describes a given player as a defender, you should not take the easiest path and choose the cognate.
Instead, you need to do more; you need to improve the original writing and provide a more detailed description. Either call him a “zagueiro” or a “lateral”. Even better, if he’s a full-back, make sure to say if he’s a “lateral esquerdo” or a “lateral direito”, depending on the side of the pitch where he plays.
Going the extra mile may be necessary the other way around as well. Two players who are commonly described as “atacantes” in Brazil may be regarded as playing in two different positions when being referred to in English.
For example, even though the Brazilian Portuguese words to refer to a winger or to a centre-forward are now outdated in Brazil, one can’t overlook the striking difference between the two roles. However, very often will players such as Robinho and Cristiano Ronaldo be grouped together with others such as Peter Crouch and Fernando Torres under the “atacante” label.
Therefore, the best piece of advice I can give you for rendering position names in other languages is to make your choice on a case-by-case basis, depending on the specific footballer. If you don’t know the player, you’ll need to do a little bit of research to please your reader by providing relevant information instead of a literal translation.