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Lost in translation: English in Brazil

Brazil is considered a 'low English proficiency' country, and ranks among the lowest in the world for workplace fluency, putting the emerging economy at a disadvantage, writes a guest blogger.

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Travel writer and fellow Brazilophile Seth Kugel has written about this issue, finding a mixed bag. In March, he wrote about the puzzingly poor translation of Embratur (Brazil's tourism bureau)'s English site, particularly the interactive World Cup section. Some errors were particularly egregious since they simply required a Google or Wikipedia search rather than a translated phrase. At the end of the post, Kugel wrote:

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"Obviously, no one is going to decide not to visit Trancoso because of a vocabulary error. But give up visiting a country that doesn't have legible information on its official website? With so many other countries with their eye on the billions of dollars from international tourists? It's not only possible, it's probable."

In response, Embratur said it had hired a third-party company, Agencia Click, to do the site and translation, and that it would release the site with a new translation later this year. The whole thing was quite strange, considering that the agency in question, which is one of the largest and well-respected digital communications companies in the country, should have no problem finding real translators. But it's a symptomatic case in a country where things are often and sometimes unnecessarily lost in translation.

On the other hand, the upcoming mega-events have added pressure to the tourism sector to hire more English speakers. In a recent "review" of São Paulo's Guarulhos Airport, Kugel found that three different information booth workers were able to communicate in English, providing helpful information about hotels and sightseeing. (However, special groups run by judges aimed to solve issues like lost baggage and overbookings at Brazil's biggest airports have only a single English-speaking employee, a recent report said.) Language schools estimate that foreign language courses will grow by 30 to 40 percent over the next four years in preparations for the World Cup and Olympics. Last year, around 120 taxi drivers in Rio received English training in a special course for taxistas – the first of its kind in the country – which inspired similar taxi driver courses from Piauí to Rio Grande do Sul.

My experience is that there are plenty of English speakers in Brazil, but these speakers are sometimes concentrated in specialized fields like finance and web companies. But for me, Brazil's real challenge isn't just going to be finding and training English speakers in key jobs before the mega-events, but rather improving foreign language education at the elementary and secondary school levels so that the next generation has better opportunities in the global economy.

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog Riogringa.com.

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The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Latin America bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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