This Could Spell Trouble

A new orthography is gradually taking hold all over the Portuguese-speaking world. Translators need to know what lies beneath the reform, says Luciano Monteiro.

This article was originally published in the May-June 2009 issue of the ITI Bulletin. Click the images to see the original or scroll down to read a text version.

Originally signed in Lisbon on 16 December 1990 by delegations from all of the member nations of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries, the Portuguese Language Orthographic Agreement spent more than one decade in limbo before finally coming into force on 01 January 2007.

Now that governments, media outlets, publishing houses and educational institutions are gradually shifting to the new spelling, it is imperative that all translators working into and from Portuguese, the world's eighth most spoken language, are fully up to date with the changes.

The Agreement was originally conceived as a compromise solution by CPLP members to move towards a unified orthography on both sides of the Atlantic in order to close the ever widening gap, most notably between the variants spoken in Brazil and Portugal.

As the CPLP points out, "…Portuguese is the official language in eight sovereign States, but it has two orthographies, both correct ones, one in Portugal and other in Brazil. There are disadvantages in maintaining this situation, and the greater its unified weight, the more important it will be internationally".

The CPLP clarifies that the agreement is now fully in force "in the international legal system and in Brazil, Cape Verde, Portugal and São Tomé and Príncipe," nations where both the original agreement and its two subsequent amendments have gone through all due ratification procedures.

However, ratification is still pending in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and East Timor, which means that the hoped for standardisation is still some way from being achieved. In addition, the two biggest countries within the CPLP, Brazil and Portugal, are taking different approaches.


In Brazil, the government is showing plenty of enthusiasm. According to a federal decree enacted in 2008, all changes envisioned in the Agreement became official in Brazil as of 01 January 2009, though the old spelling rules will remain valid until 31 December 2012.

The fourth estate was quick to follow suit. As of January 2009 most major media outlets, including newspapers such as Folha de S. Paulo, O Estado de São Paulo and O Globo and weekly magazines Veja, Época and IstoÉ, have been complying with the new orthography.

In addition, a number of publishing houses are instructing their editors and translators to observe the newly ratified spelling rules, which means that these rules will be reflected in more and more books edited in Brazil in coming years.

In Portugal, the agreement was ratified back in May 2008, but it is expected that acceptance will be a lot longer in coming. There have been conflicting messages from different government branches. In 2007, it was reported that Portugal would need a ten-year moratorium to make the shift, but now some government officials have given their backing to a quicker schedule. In an interview with Agência Lusa during a visit to Cape Verde, the Portuguese Culture Minister, António Pinto Ribeiro, said that the official institutions in both Portugal and Cape Verde should start implementing the new rules by the end of 2009.

Paradoxically, even though Portugal was originally the main driving force behind the changes, it is also the source of the strongest opposition to the Agreement. An opinion poll published by Correio da Manhã found that 57.3 per cent of the Portuguese are against the new spelling rules, and 66.3 of them say they are not going to use such new rules.

Also, on the eve of the vote that approved the Agreement in Congress, a petition criticising the changes, with 33,000 signatures, was handed to the President of the Republic. The signatories included well-known Portuguese figures led by writer, translator and MEP Vasco Graça Moura, who called the Agreement "a scientific, economic and geostrategic catastrophe."

In short, whilst Brazilians have been generally uncomplaining and accepting of the Agreement, a real power struggle is going on in Portugal, which could eventually see the South American nation assume a leadership position.

This has already been the case with the Brazilian Academy of Letters, which in late March published a new, revamped 'Orthographic Vocabulary of the Portuguese Language'. The 976-page Vocabulary contains 349,737 words and complies with all the rules contained in the Agreement, as well offering clarification on various grey areas that were previously not completely clear.

The Academy accepts that it may have to make concessions in order to arrive at a common Vocabulary in future, but it is now likely that Brazilian usage will end up prevailing in those grey areas.


In view of such rocky developments and different levels of acceptance in academic, political and professional circles, it is no wonder that we translators are now facing the difficult choice of whether to leap forward and embrace the changes as a competitive advantage or to keep it old school and hope that the Agreement will fail to materialise in practice.

For those who, for one reason or another, are willing to apply the new changes in their daily work, there is both good and bad news. The bad news is that as of April 2009, Microsoft Office, market leader in office suites, has yet to release a new Portuguese spell checker. The good news is that work-around solutions can be found.

In a communication issued in January, Microsoft representatives informed business partners that the company would be working on a new, updated spellchecker, but not for the moment. "The expectation is to provide users with a free online update in the second semester [of 2009]," said Eduardo Campos, Microsoft productivity and collaboration manager in an interview with Folha de S. Paulo.

Until then, however, there are third-party tools which can be used to perform spell checks. For instance, the 7th version of Priberam's Flip includes the option for the user to choose three different orthographies – the new standardised system or the legacy spellings from either Brazil or Portugal. The price for an individual licence starts at just over 50 euros + VAT.

If you don't rely on Microsoft Office to do your word processing, you may not even have to spend a thing to make the shift. The freeware community has leapt ahead with the release of a Portuguese spell checker for BrOffice, the Brazilian version of OpenOffice. It can be downloaded for free as a patch or together with the full software programme.

As an alternative, major Portuguese publishing house Porto Editora has developed a neat utility for those who just want to "convert" their text. It is definitely not aimed at professional wordsmiths, but may come in handy if you don't have any other spell checking solution.

And if you're worried that your huge translation memories may end up compromised by the many spelling changes, you may want to check out a small utility developed by Brazilian language services company Ccaps. It can be used to convert translation units in SDL Trados TMs from the old Brazilian Portuguese spelling to the new orthography.

Whatever your opinion on the matter, as a translator one should not lose sight of the fact that the customer is always king. It is part of our job to advise clients of the current legal status and actual usage of the language. If the client opts for the new spelling you then have two options – either to refuse the job or to use the new applications and pay redoubled care not to leave any dangling trema.