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Portuguese Languages: What is the difference?

By Mario D. Ferreira

" ...but for important business, technical, legal or sales-promotion translations it is quite important to address the reader in the local idiom." Keywords: Brazilian Portuguese, Lusitanian or Continental Portuguese, Portuguese Orthography and Accents.Abstract: Mark Twain referred to England and the United States as two countries separated by the same language. There are obvious differences in written and spoken Portuguese as used in Brazil and Portugal. As translators of the written word, we shall deal here only with textual communications as we might encounter them in our daily work. What with Brazil's present-day problems — including many thousands of its citizens emigrating to the "old continent" and exposing the average "lisboeta" to the "other” Portuguese; Portugal's entry into the European Common Market and expansion of its manufacturing and export capabilities; cultural exchanges, including more recently in the area of TV programs, it would appear that we shall see some narrowing of those differences in the future. Through the years various attempts have been made between the two countries to arrive at a uniform "Vocabulário Ortográfico da Língua Portuguesa" and, although both the Brazilian Academy of Letters and the Academy of Sciences of Lisbon have agreed to a mutually acceptable "orthographic vocabulary" (1940 & 1942), this has not yet came about in practice. Fortunately the "problem" is not catastrophic and we can "live with it", just as we do with British and American English and to some degree Castilian and Mexican Spanish, or even continental and Canadian French. It is important, then for translators handling texts intended for either or both Brazil and Portugal to be aware of such differences/and orthographic variations.

Differences between European and Brazilian Portuguese

Portuguese Translation: What Clients Need to Know

Portuguese Languages: What is the difference?

No longer Camões Portuguese:...

The Galego-Portuguese-Castellano Controversy

Brazilian Spoken Here

Brazilian Portuguese and Continental Portuguese

The Portuguese Language (History)

An European X Brazilian Portuguese Dictionary

What Portuguese is this?

1990 Orthographic Agreement (in Portuguese)

Mario D. Ferreira, Lumar Translations

Mario was a member of the Portuguese Language Division of the American Translators Association, a well known translator and mentor of some of the division members'. Mario died in 1993. This article was originally published in the ATA Proceedings - 1988, Seattle; republished in the June 1995 issue of The ATA Chronicle.

Red higlights are ours.


        Unlike many who perhaps were either brought up or learned the language in a Brazilian environment or with Brazilian teachers, as opposed to a continental-Portuguese environment or teachers, the writer first encountered this "problem" at a very early age, the son of Brazilian and Portuguese parents. My first Portuguese grammar and geography books were those that Dad had brought with him from Brazil. Through the years, however, Mom appeared to have exerted more influence with her Lusitanian Portuguese and, to this day my "sotaque", or accent, sounds more 'lisboeta" than "carioca". Still, in those days, I knew that when Dad said "Dou-lhe uma coça!" or Mom would threaten me with "Chego-te a roupa à pele!" it would mean one thing: I was about to get a thrashing!

       Later, as a professional translator. I encountered the Brazilian/ continental-Portuguese "problem" more seriously, when I became editor of "Automobilismo", a Portuguese trade magazine with readers both in Brazil and Portugal (and "overseas provinces", of course). What with Brazil's having been the leading importer of U.S. automotive parts at the time, there was no question but that I would have to slant the text to the Brazilian market, e.g.: freio or breque and not "travão" (for "brake"); carroceria rather than "carroçaria" (for "[car] body"); etc.

        Over the course of some 30 years as translator and manager of RCA's Translation Services, the writer has handled some interesting Portuguese ­translation projects and, of course, most of them intended for Brazil. In each case (involving millions of dollars!) Brazilian terminology (state-of-­the-art if you could find it!) and orthography had to be used. My “baptism of fire” at RCA was the NOVACAP system, a microwave hookup between Rio de Janeiro and Brazil's new capital, Brasilia; later, in 1972, the installation and inauguration of color-TV in the country, and, more recently, SATELBRAS (or BRAZILSAT in English), the satellite-communications system. Many were the instances in which, with the collaboration of Brazilian engineers, we were called upon to coin terminology that was nonexistent and — I'm proud to say — some 95% or more were legitimate Portuguese terms and not French or English borrowings (taking today's "computerese" as an example, how is one to avoid English words such as "software" and "hardware"?!).

        More recently, our one-year-old Metro-New-York Portuguese Translators Group consists of Brazilians, "middle-of-the-roaders" such as myself, and "Lusitanians". We have discussed the question of differences between Brazilian and continental Portuguese and have even helped one another out in converting translations from Brazilian to European Portuguese. This, by the way, having been the "germ" for the present paper and presentation.

        In my own case, at Lumar Translations, when doing texts into Portuguese for clients, the first question we ask is whether the intended audience is Brazilian or continental Portuguese ."The question usually surprises a news client, but then, following the appropriate explanation, they appreciate the concern. A recent important translation was being directed to officers and other employees of a US company with facilities both in Brazil and Portugal. The client was somewhat surprised when we suggested there be two versions—one for Brazil and the other for Portugal, but they accepted the reality of the matter and were appreciative of our alerting them to the "problem". To be sure, continental or Lusitanian Portuguese is easily read in Brazil and, conversely, Brazilian Portuguese is "acceptable" in Portugal – with an occasional raising of eyebrows, of course – but for important business, technical, legal or sales-promotion translations it is quite important to address the reader in the local idiom.


        The Treaty of Tordesilhas, dating back to 1494, set the boundaries for Portuguese and Spanish colonization in the Americas, with Brazil taking the easternmost part of the continent. When it later broke away from Portugal in 1822, Brazil found itself surrounded by Spanish-speaking neighbors. Add to that the influx of other Europeans, including Italians, and we have a good basis for "outside" influences. Take the case of pronoun placement, as in the Brazilian "Me dê esse livro, por favor." Italian being the only Romance language placing the pronoun before the verb in the imperative, it appears likely to be the origin of such a construction. A Lusitanian prefers using the traditional "Dê-me esse livro..."

        Differences in sentence structure and phraseology are worthy of a more detailed review, so we shall devote ourselves here to spellings, accents and word usage.

        With so many Spanish-speaking neighbors, there's a good possibility that the Brazilians saw merit in adopting more of the open vowels so characteristic of those countries' very phonetic language, rather than the more varied vowel pronunciation of continental Portuguese, from the 'uh" of a closed a to the "oo" of a closed o; also, as for consonants, the more sibilant s to the heavy "zh" of continental Portuguese, more pronounced in the southern provinces.


There are several aspects to the "problem" of differences between Brazilian Portuguese and continental Portuguese. First and foremost is the one of geography, with a big ocean separating the two countries. Is it any wonder that, particularly in the technical fields, there are important differences in spelling and word usage, with continental Portuguese in some cases borrowing terms from nearby France, the source in years past of cultural and technical innovations. Here are a just a few examples:











veio de manivelas






estrada de ferro

caminho de Ferro

chemin de fer

space shuttle

ônibus espacial

táxi (1) espacial

shoulder (of a road)




There's a clear analogy between the foregoing differences and those between British and American English, e.g.: the British "bonnet" for the American "hood" (on a car, that is!), a "spanner" for a "wrench", and "windscreen" for the American "windshield"; likewise, divergent spellings such as "colour" for our "color", "tyre" for "tire" and "cheque" for "check" and so on down the line.

3.1 Mind your "c"s and "p"s

One of the most frequently occurring differences between Brazilian and continental Portuguese spelling is the "superfluous" c or p in Portugal (or, depending upon your viewpoint, the "missing" c or p in Brazil). The man-on-­the-street in Lisbon, on hearing a Brazilian visitor say: "É um fato bem claro" may think that the São Paulo visitor is referring to a light-colored suit. Then again, a knowledgeable Lusitanian would know that the Brazilian would not say "fato" for suit but "terno" instead. So the Brazilian is really saying "It's quite a clear fact."

The question of the c and p has apparently been a thorny one in the discussions of uniform orthography between the two Academies. The Lusitanian is quite adamant about their use, while the Brazilian doesn't care for them. Etymologically they have come down through the decades and, as a matter of fact, their use is still prevalent in the other Romance languages. In continental Portuguese they are not always pronounced. So, the Brazilian asks, why use them? The Lusitanian may not pronounce them but they do serve to maintain the a, e or o open where, otherwise, they would be pronounced as closed vowels. Here are some examples:










to adopt































The Brazilian apparently feels that, since his/her pronunciation of the a, e or o is already open in such cases, there is no need for a traditional c or p, particularly when it is not pronounced at all. There are cases, however, in which use of the c or p occasionally prevails in Brazil or the choice is up to the writer, to wit: aspe(c)to, cará(c)ter, ó(p)timo, respe(c)tivo, etc. In all such cases the c or p is indeed used in continental Portuguese.

3.2 About those accents

There are divergent views, too, in the matter of use of accents and diacritical marks. In Brazil, the vowels a, e or o in an antepenultimate syllable followed by an m or n take a circumflex (Antônio, econômico, prêmio) while in Portugal the same words would have an acute accent (António, económico, prémio).

Where the Brazilians use the acute accent on words ending in "...eia" (assembléia, idéia, platéia), the accent disappears in most cases in continental Portuguese.

3.3 The matter of "preppies" (prepositions "em" and "de")

Something else that each finds "odd" in the other's writings is that in Brazil one actually has a choice of contracting or not the prepositions em or de followed by an indefinite article, adjective or pronoun (em um or num, em este or neste, em outro or noutro), while continental Portuguese generally opts for the contracted forms (num, neste, noutro). The Brazilians frown upon the contraction of de um into dum but the latter is quite common in continental Portuguese.

3.4 How is that spelled? What's the use?

Lastly, there are differences in spelling and of use, and there are no set rules or patterns to watch out for or to explain the phenomenon (except, perhaps. the geographical dislocation already referred to). The Brazilian spells "control" as controle while in Portugal it is controlo; a soccer "team" in Brazil is equipe while across the ocean it is equipa and the players will score a gol for the Fluminense (Rio) but a golo in the case of Benfica (Lisbon).

Word usage also presents us with variations between the two countries and, again, to learn and be aware of them simply requires a great deal of reading and plain and simple curiosity (isn't that, after all, what a good translator is constantly doing?!). Here are a few examples:














pasta de dentes



meias curtas


And how about these two...

a male "hunk"



a female "dish"

garota de fechar o comércio (1)

borrachinho (1)


In his book "O que é português brasileiro", Hildo do Couto presents an interesting breakdown of differentiations or what he terms "distortions" of Portuguese:

-temporal (or historic)

-spatial (or regional)

-social (or class)

Temporal "distortions", he writes, started with the medieval troubadors, progressed through the Age of the Discoveries and the famous poet Camões, and ended up as present-day Portuguese. Spatial "distortions", relate to the language as used in Portugal and former provinces of Angola, Mozambique and others, and in Brazil; also, the language as used differently within the countries, e.g. Rio Portuguese as opposed to Belo Horizonte Portuguese; Lisbon Portuguese as contrasted with Coimbra Portuguese. Lastly, social "distortions", starting with the upper class, often educated abroad; the middle class; and, at the "bottom of the heap", the "favelados” (shantytown dwellers) and "marginalizados" (social outcasts).

Mr. do Couto constantly refers to how the "rich, elite upper class imposes Lusitanian Portuguese upon all classes of Brazilians", repeating this somewhat obsessively time after time, yet his book is quite well written following traditional Portuguese!

The point to be made is that a "standard-type" Portuguese should continue to be taught and the orthographic committees of the two Academies should go on with their efforts to narrow even further the differences between the "two Portuguese languages". 


1. Ellison, Fred P.; Games de Mato, Francisco, and de Queiroz, Rachel. "Modern Portuguese" (Alfred A. Knopf, New York - 1971);

2. do Couto, Hildo. "O que é português brasileiro" (Editora Brasiliense, São Paulo - 1987);

©2004 Necco Enterprises Inc. and its licensors.