Little Big Differences Between Spanish and Portuguese

Although there is a very close relationship between Spanish and Portuguese to the extent that oftentimes they display a high degree of mutual intelligibility, there are also considerable differences that complicate the process of learning these languages and translating between them.

In Spanish and Portuguese there are many words that are written identically (e.g., voz, meaning voice), others that are very similar (posibilidad in Spanish and possibilidade in Portuguese, meaning possibility), or that can easily be deduced (hombre and homem, meaning man). However, there are also words that are very different in the two languages, a result of the influence of other languages and cultures, such as ventana (window) in Spanish which in Portuguese is janela, or rua (road) in Portuguese, which is calle in Spanish.

Likewise, and as occurs in many languages, we may come across the notorious false cognates. These are words that are written similarly, yet which have different meanings, and which can create so much trouble if we don’t resort to effective research. As examples we can cite estar embaraçada (to be embarrassed) in Portuguese, which should never be confused with estar embarazada (to be pregnant) in Spanish. In fact, to describe being pregnant in Portuguese you use the word grávida. We can also mention the word exquisito which in Spanish means “sophisticated/tasty,” yet which in Portuguese has a completely different meaning of “strange/odd.” Not to mention the rather famous false cognate between these two languages, camisinha, whose meaning is actually “condom” and not “T-shirt” as many Spanish speakers would assume.

On the other hand, gender is another very important question which must be considered in both languages. Some words are feminine in Spanish and masculine in Portuguese, or vice versa. A clear example of this are the words that end in –aje, which in Spanish are masculine, yet whose corresponding translations into Portuguese ending in –agem are feminine. For example, we talk about un viaje (a trip) in Spanish and uma viagem in Portuguese. Other examples are la leche (milk) in Spanish and o leite in Portuguese, or el árbol (tree) in Spanish and a árvore in Portuguese. There are also words that in one language may have various meanings depending on the gender, yet which in the other language are always written in the same gender. An example of this is orden (order) in Spanish, which can be el orden or la orden depending on how we want to use this word. In Portuguese, however, it is always feminine, i.e. a ordem.

Lastly, while there are of course more differences, it’s important to pay special attention to verb conjugations. A clear example of this is the use of the pluperfect in the indicative tense in both languages. For example, the verb cantara (had sung) in Portuguese should be translated as había cantado in Spanish, and should not be confused with the imperfect past subjunctive cantara/cantase in Spanish. Although the trend among Portuguese speakers began to favor the use of the composite verb – in this case, tinha cantado – as we use it in Spanish and English, we shouldn’t be surprised upon finding the simple form in various works of literature.

Thus, we see that even Spanish and Portuguese don’t escape from certain “traps” that may lead us to perform work that is incorrect and, ultimately, of poor quality. Regardless of whether we consider the languages to be very similar, there are many differences that we must pay attention to in order to achieve success. That’s where the merit of a translator lies… in not letting ourselves be led on by the simplistic solution of “intuiting” the meaning of words. Undoubtedly, this is the basis of the ultimate success of our work: to overcome all the obstacles that our profession presents by using the correct tools. A pretty little challenge for those of us who love the art of translating.

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Pequeñas grandes diferencias entre español y portugués