Practical Examples of Localisation – The Bass Question

I was hospitalised recently. Before anyone worries too much about the fact let me assure everyone that I am fine, or at the least on the path to recovery; no this post doesn’t have the goal of gathering your pity and words wishing me well but rather it has a much different purpose. Waiting 9 hours in the ER waiting room as I did with what appeared to be a porcupine tearing my insides up I felt the need for distraction. Phone charged, before the 9 hours of waiting drained it completely I looked at it as a way to ignore the pain for however briefly. And even though  Smartphones are incredible pieces of tech, they can do everything from word processing to crunching numbers to play games, in fact I’m typing this on my phone, too conked out to get up and type on my laptop, both by the sleepiness provided by the prescribed pain pills and the worry that moving around too much will flare the pain again while attempting to pass the time I still  ran into some issues.

Yes phones are amazing pieces of tech but in an hospital built in the 16th century with thick stone walls blocking my data and with having to stick near should I be called invalidating my Pokemon Go option I roamed through whatever I had on my phone for entertainment. After discarding the hundreds of books I keep given I didn’t have the focus to make sense of any writing, and after browsing my photos for a while it was while watching random clips of TV shows I just so happened to have saved up that it came to me.


Surprisingly Translation Theory does not make for good reading when in the Hospital. (From Post-Colonial Translation Theory and Practice)

I don’t watch most (English) TV shows subtitled given the…ahem methods I use to access them, even on Netflix I very often keep the subtitles in English, as Closed Captions but somehow my mind wondered about it. Subtitling and dubbing are two areas of translation I’m not overly experienced in, though I have had the training to do them both they do not call to me.

They also have some of the hardest tasks and  and are often the most judged ones, when you are subtitling and the viewer can hear and sort of understand the original they will observe your translation and judge it given their understanding, ignoring realities and lessons pertaining to subtitling that most, me including before being trained on it, ignore. It’s a task only rivaled by having to limit and sync your translation to lip flaps of  characters in video, previously recorded. Take for instance the word knight, which can be spoken rather quickly in English, in fact the sound can be half swallowed to be read something like “”itgh” and compare it to the word for it in Portuguese cavaleiro, even if the character isn’t singing, and songs are another matter entirely the fact that Portuguese tends to bave longer and bigger words than English reflects on it. It’s something I occasionally have to deal with when translating videogames, when there’s a character limit in a textbox, but it’s a reality for every word in dubbing and subtitling, where one fights for every letter, space, and ponctuation.

But I think I’ve spoken about theory for a little bit too long. After all I promised you practical examples of localization and today I plan to show you a real example. This one here is an excellent example and I adore it because it’s so clear. Even though I regularly deal with localization the way they come at solving the problem still surprised and amazed me. Allow me to show it to you.


When a Pun cannot be translated.

Many people dislike puns, thinking them groan worthy, in the eyes of those people puns are a sign of lazy humor, cheap gags which aren’t overly smart or well thought out. Personally the linguist in me finds them to be somewhat cute, if only because they’re a good way to explore the language in which the pun is made…I enjoy a good pun, when it’s well placed and unexpected it can only make me laugh however I’m also a translator and as a translator…well I can’t help but dread them.

It’s a particular style of humor that is very hard to translate without replacing the joke entirely.  Maintaning it without any sort of replacement, coupled with the visual aid to the joke is likely to make the viewer who has no access to the original confused. I’ll even give you an example. Because it was one I, as a fan of the show in English knew but that the friends I had convinced, or rather almost forcefully dragged, into watching it with me in Portuguese looked at  oddly. 

Not to spoil an a now eight year old  episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic but let me paint the scene, three characters, the Cutie Mark Crusaders (Scootaloo, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle) are desperately trying to catch up to an out of control parade float. As they run they attempt to hijack – or catch a ride, from another float. The following dialogue ensues:

Scootaloo: Pinkie Pie, let us in! (“lettuce in”)

Pinkie Pie: [laughs] Funny joke!

Apple Bloom: No, really! Let- us- in!

Pinkie Pie: Ohhh! Here!


Now this makes some sense in English, when you consider that the parade float Pinkie Pie (that’s the pink pony, if you can’t tell) looks like this:


There’s a very similar play on words in Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was really a good excuse to watch both MLP and ATLA for “research”.

You know, a lettuce but when the word for it in Portuguese does not sound anything like “let us in”, or the Portuguese version of it,  and the episode hangs on the joke for like 30 seconds if you don’t find a replacement it’ll just look like a random moment. Perhaps because the character of Pinkie Pie has a tendency for non sequiturs, sprouting random stuff that has little to do with the situation the translator choose to maintain the talk of salads and lettuces, even if it made no sense but there was a way to fix it.

The next example comes from Steven Universe: The Movie, now Steven Universe is a show I have followed in both Portuguese and English since both versions premiered. I was there for the grand reveals, and I participated in online speculation about what was to happen in the future, for a few years, intense moments in the months where episodes premiered I frequented online chat rooms and forums dedicated to the show.  Being close to a piece of media, that is knowing it inside and out and yet having no part in its translation makes it so that, perhaps unfairly so, as a translator I look at the choices made by the team in a harsher manner. Remember translators cannot read or see somethign without that tiny part of their brain wondering how they would do it, so I couldn’t turn it off.

Luckily however, as with Gravity Falls, another show I obsessed over the Portuguese localization was top notch. While this isn’t a big surprise, Cartoon Network and Disney play great importance to the quality of their dubs, it’s still a delight.

So here’s the original, I’ve made my best effort to cut any spoilers, but I still wouldn’t be googling the song or the movie. Since it’s a recap of the entire series.

[PEARL, spoken]

Steven! I’m learning to play the bass!

[GREG, spoken]

I keep telling her, it’s “bass (pronounced base)”!

[PEARL, spoken]

Excuse me, B-A-S-S spells “Bass”!

For someone “learning to play” an instrument she really does rock it on 30 seconds after, though.

Given the same duality doesn’t exist in Portuguese the team had to find a way to replace it. So here’s the Portuguese version of that same scene:


[PEARL, spoken]

Steven! Estou a aprender a tocar o “alto”!

[GREG, spoken]

‘Tou sempre a dizer-lhe que é “baixo”!

[PEARL, spoken]

Eu peço desculpa, mas isto aqui toca bem alto!

There’s a few things here that make it a very well put together localization, before we get onto the meaning of the words I want you to see that Pearl’s last line is way longer than the original in English. Why? It’s not only that Portuguese in general uses longer words, but it’s also the fact in the original she spells out a word – B-A-S-S and given she just has to speak, not spell in Portuguese she gains a few extra seconds to say a longer line. Meanwhile Greg’s middle line has a few syllables cut short at the beginning due to the way he speaks so to best match the lip flaps. “‘tou” instead of “eu estou”.

Now onto the meaning, an accurate translation of the lines back into English would be something like this:

Pearl: I’m learning to play the high/loud (alto means both depending on context)

Greg: I keep telling her, it’s a bass/quiet (the word “baixo” can mean the instrument, or short/quiet)

Pearl: Well it plays very loud!

Explaining the joke kind of kills it but what the translation team did was try to find as close an equivalent to the play on words as possible. Unlike the pony example which completely played it straight the team tried to adapt it. Given the Portuguese word for bass can also mean short or quiet that was what they took as a basis for the misunderstanding.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again but to translate is to create. It’s something I’ve long held and not only because Translation Theory vindicates it but there is a reason many of the great names of Portuguese literature were also translators (even if most hated it).


To translate takes imagination, creativity and the ability to improvise, I hope this example, one of many I have shows you just that.



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