Soccer Stars in Nightgowns

Originally published as a subchapter in the book Found in Translation, by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche


Brazil is known the world over for the ethnic, religious, and racial diversity of its people. But language and sport are two of the very few things that unite almost all the country’s inhabitants. So when you translate the words that appear in the soccer section of one of Brazil’s most popular newspapers, the stakes are high. There is no escape from scrutiny with the members of this audience, most of whom have been living and breathing soccer since birth.

“The Brazilian reader of the soccer pages is extremely demanding,” explains Luciano Monteiro, a translator who specializes in soccer.11 “He spends hours each day arguing about it with a passion that he will never have for politics, economics, or religion.” According to Luciano, the reader will open the newspaper not only to learn the news but to validate his own opinions about the game. “Brazil is a country of two hundred million soccer coaches. Everyone claims to be an expert.”

The minute the Brazilian soccer fan opens the newspaper—or increasingly, the web browser—he can easily spot the nonexpert writer. When it comes to soccer, any awkward phrasing or dullness in the text immediately jumps off the page. Obvious statements are not taken kindly, because the Brazilian fan does not want to be lectured. Sometimes, providing too much context can make the reader feel offended, as in, “Who do they think they are writing for? Someone who doesn’t know soccer?”

Translators for Brazilian Portuguese do most of their work in the local market within Brazil. Even though soccer is also popular in Portugal, European Portuguese varies significantly from the Portuguese used in Brazil. For example, players from Portugal use the word camisola for “jersey” whereas in Brazil it means “nightgown.” The word balneário means “locker room” in Portugal, but in Brazil it means a “seaside resort, a spa, or a beach town.” Many a Brazilian has had a chuckle upon hearing a journalist from Portugal explain that the soccer players from his homeland are “headed to the spa in their nightgowns” during half time.

Of course, the need for translation in soccer extends beyond just the realm of news. Communications between players, agents, and FIFA agencies must be translated back and forth each day. Often, communications involve things like contracts that have been signed but not enforced and demands for payment of penalty fees. Usually, these projects are urgent matters, so the translation is often required with a very fast turnaround.

But the most visible of all translation work by far is the type that goes out to the masses. In Brazil, soccer unites all walks of life. So while other types of soccer-related projects have their challenges, as Luciano explains, “Soccer-related writing in Brazil has to accommodate both the semi-illiterate readers and the ones who are highly educated.” The translation, like the writing, must use language that every reader can understand, to reflect the all-encompassing social phenomenon that defines the country.

Luckily, there is one word that requires no translation: Goooooooooooooooal!