Portuguese pick-ups

We’re just back from holiday in Portugal, with a mid-year resolution to sign up for Portuguese lessons at Glasgow University’s Department of Adult and Continuing Education, which thankfully seems to have survived the threatened budget cuts. As my daughter put it, we felt like such tourists, not being able to speak the language.

However, not speaking Portuguese didn’t stop me from keeping my translator’s hat on and noting mistakes in English translations of signs, menus, museum pamphlets and so on. To be honest, I didn’t see many outright howlers, but one poor translation really bugged me — mainly because it was omnipresent on one of the country’s major pieces of infrastructure.

The Portuguese motorways operate a toll system where you can either pay as you go, or sign up to the Via Verde system. Under this scheme, an electronic identifier fitted in your car lets you drive straight through the Via Verde lane, with the toll fee being debited directly to your bank account.

The motorway signs in English identified the Via Verde lane as being for “adherents” and invited the rest of us to “pick up” our tickets at the ticket dispensers.

According to Merriam Webster, an “adherent” is:

a : a follower of a leader, party, or profession
b : a believer in or advocate especially of a particular idea or church,

neither of which applies to people who’ve signed up to an electronic toll-payment system. Given that the “Via Verde” lane is clearly marked with a great big green “V” on the road itself and on the overhead signage, couldn’t the motorway people just have used “Via Verde” or “Subscribers” on their signs?

I’ll spare you Merriam Webster’s entry for “pick up”*; it’s very long. Once again, none of the definitions applies to the case in point. You pick up theatre tickets you’ve ordered by phone or online, but you take your motorway ticket from a dispensing machine. Don’t you?

Maybe I’m just being pernickety here. But I can’t help thinking of the huge budgets involved in building and running a motorway and installing all those thousands of signs, and the infinitesimally small proportion of such budgets that even the most expensive translation service would cost. Or maybe the motorway company just asked somebody in the office to translate the signs, figuring that it’s dead easy to translate just a couple of words into English. When in fact translating single words and short phrases is one of the hardest things to do, because you’ve got no context to help.

Whatever translation service the motorways used, surely they could have spent a couple of euros more to get things rightS

*On second thoughts, here’s Merriam Webster on “to pick up”  (look away now if you’re allergic to phrasal verbs):

Transitive verb

a : to take hold of and lift up
b : to gather together : collect <picked up all the pieces>
c : to clean up : tidy
2: to take (passengers or freight) into a vehicle
3 a : to acquire casually or by chance <picked up a valuable antique at an auction>
b : to acquire by study or experience : learn <picking up a great deal of knowledge in the process — Robert Schleicher>
c : to obtain especially by payment : buy <picked up some groceries>
d : to acquire (a player) especially from another team through a trade or by financial recompense
e : to accept for the purpose of paying <offered to pick up the tab>
f : to come down with : catch <picked up a cold>
g : gain, earn <picked up a few yards on the last play> <picked up her first victory>
4 a : to enter informally into conversation or companionship with (a previously unknown person) <had a brief affair with a girl he picked up in a bar>
b : to take into custody <the police picked up the fugitive>
5 a : to catch sight of : perceive <picked up the harbor lights>
b : to come to and follow <picked up the outlaw’s trail>
c : to bring within range of sight or hearing <pick up distant radio signals>
d : understand, catch <didn’t pick up the hint>
6 a : revive
b : increase
7: to resume after a break : continue <pick up the discussion tomorrow>
8: to assume responsibility for guarding (an opponent) in an athletic contest

intransitive verb
1: to recover or increase speed, vigor, or activity : improve <after the strike, business picked up> <the wind began to pick up>
2: to put things in order <was always picking up after her>
3: to pack up one’s belongings <couldn’t just pick up and leave>

As I said, it’s a long list.

By Marian Dougan

12 Responses

  1. This must be a sign, Marian! I’ve been meaning to resume Portuguese for years (I studied it for 6 months at uni many years ago and found it fascinating even though conflicting with my Spanish very much).
    I have been thinking about it just this morning and bang! You posted this.

    I feel ‘invogliata’ now!

    Thanks and hopefully you had a great time in Portugal.

      1. Hello (again) Marian,
        I do agree with you that a translator, or more generally speaking, a linguist, can’t help looking for howlers or, and we’re verging into – my – obsessive compulsive disorder here, performing constant translation. My wife sometimes wishes I would stop translating everything I see on TV, newspapers, food labels, etc. but it’s just stronger than me.
        As for Portuguese, I forgot to tell you this morning that I did a 6month course in Bologna which ended in May, so, in case the possibility for night classes at Glasgow Uni arises, I’d be delighted to join in!

  2. Marian

    It’s wonderful to know that we have guardians of good English like you, who, even when on holiday, don’t take their professional hat off. I’m like that with all things marketing, particularly service (who isn’t?) Funnily enough, I usually get much more twitch and enraged, when I’m back home. Surely it has nothing to do with service here but rather that I’m in a much more forgiving frame of mind when relaxing on holiday! Keep up the good work.

    1. I suspect that I’m not so much a guardian of good English, more of a pain-in-the-neck Virgo – detail-obsessed and hyper-critical. Anyway, I think most translators suffer from the occupational hazard of being constantly on the look-out for howlers. Designers, web-developers and others probably suffer from a similar syndrome.

  3. A literal translation from ‘Reservado a Aderentes’?
    But it’s weird because the Portuguese, just like the Dutch and the Scandinavians are usually far better at speaking languages than most of Europeans.
    I went to Portugal a few times this summer – we were on the Northern border, in Galicia. It’s funny the way, although they speak Spanish pretty well, they simply refuse to speak it. In the restaurant, they were always spot on when guessing and addressed us either in perfect French or in perfect English (my wife’s Irish). But at the same time, the translation of their menus was atrocious (though clearly not MT).
    That just goes to show that writing requires quite more skills than speaking…

    1. Thanks, Pierre. Yes, we were impressed by Portuguese people’s spoken English too. Which made us feel even more like those awful tourists who don’t make any effort with languages! And a lot of the written English translation were fine too.
      The “adherents” and “pick up” ones really bugged me, though, mainly because they cropped up at every single toll-station. I suspect the annoyance factor was increased by the number of tolls themselves, and all that searching around for small change you have to do.

  4. We live in Italy so you have to get used to these things, though we’re never really immune to them!!

    You must get SO annoyed with incomprehensible ‘spam’. Sorry. What I really mean is that I get so annoyed with incomprehensible spam.
    For example:
    I give birth to interpret a scarcely any of the articles on your website at this very moment, and I extremely like your tastefulness of blogging. I added it to my favorites entanglement page roster and resolve be checking back soon. Cheer check into public notice my site as well and fail me know what you think. Thanks.


    By the way, given that you are a stickler for correct English, I was surprised to see this as a complete sentence – – ‘When in fact translating single words and short phrases is one of the hardest things to do, because you’ve got no context to help.’ We all let one slip through occassionally. 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing that quote with us, Rowland. It takes “incomprehensible” to a whole new level!
      Confession: I wrote that incomplete sentence deliberately. I do it quite often, especially — but not only — in my blog and/or website.

  5. Hi Marian,

    You should forgive the Portuguese (and the Spaniards) because they only started embracing the English language. Some of the attempts at English translations I see here in Spain are so hilarious and I can create a blog based on those alone!

    1. Oh, I do forgive the Portuguese. Indeed, I admire them. They put me to shame with their knowledge of English, when I could barely string 2 words together in Portuguese. What bugged me was that the silly mistakes I described in this post were plastered all over the motorway signs. How much does it cost to build a motorway? And how much would it cost to check that your English translations were accurate? In proportion, nothing at all.

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