Craft Capsule: On Cultural Specificity, or the Brazilian Padaria

Julia Sanches

This is no. 117 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Anyone who has lived far from the place they call home, who has been uprooted from one cultural context into another, will recognize the feeling of having to grasp for the right words to explain to a new friend or stranger a particular institution from their past—one that fits so seamlessly into the cultural landscape that it’s hard to know what the world would look like without it. I haven’t lived in my home country for most of my life, though you could also say that, cumulatively, counting Christmases and New Years and Carnavals, I have lived there for three years. The home country is Brazil and the institution I find difficult to pin down with a single English-language word is the padaria.

Translators come across these culturally embedded institutions and terms all the time, and our job entails finding passable equivalences. When that doesn’t work, sometimes we resort to footnotes or to a tactic that we in the industry call the “stealth gloss,” which is this: When I, the translator, explain to the reader what a particular thing is in the same voice and register as the narrator. Other times we just leave the word in the original language and let the reader do the work.

The word padaria comes from the word pão, which in turn comes from the Latin panis for bread. At its most basic, a padaria is an establishment where bread is baked and then sold. Yet I’ve translated the word a dozen different ways, depending on the purpose it serves in the text, and only occasionally have padarias ended up as bakeries in my English translations.

I’ve been to dozens of padarias in my life. There is the padaria my family always stops at on the five-hour drive to the beach from São Paulo, in a town called Taubaté, a modest one-room establishment where you can buy a dozen of what we in Brazil refer to as pão francês, or French bread—basically a small, pudgy baguette. Here you can also get freshly pressed orange juice, black coffee, or something we call a pingado, which is kind of like a treacly, less fancy cortado—itself a milkier cousin of the macchiato or the smaller, headier nephew of the café au lait, which at the end of the day is kind of like a latte, isn’t it, except without the espresso. Other things you might get at this padaria are sandwiches: French bread with melted cheese, fresh tomato, and ham, or just a plain buttered roll, though there’s nothing plain about pão na chapa, which is prepared on a griddle. Or chocolate bonbons, lottery tickets, soda, and various other sweets made of coconut and custard, or chocolate and condensed milk. The only seating is outside, next to a busy road, at a series of white plastic tables surrounded by white plastic chairs that are in turn constantly circled by stray dogs.

But padarias contain multitudes. Some are more expansive than a plain bakery, extending beyond its core etymological function—think of the American drugstore, where you can buy Cheetos and Coca Cola, as well as omeprazole to manage the eventual heartburn. (I wonder how a French reader would feel about an American character in New York City walking out of a pharmacie with a box of Captain Crunch and a gallon of chocolate milk.) There is the padaria-slash-luncheonette, where you can get something we Brazilians refer to as a Swiss lemonade, which is sweetened with condensed milk; or you can get tea, coffee, smoothies, burgers, milkshakes, coxinhas, sfihas, and pastéis, which are Brazilian empanadas—large, rectangular deep-fried pastries filled with things like cheese, heart of palm, shrimp, ground beef and more. There’s also the padaria-slash-bar, where alcohol is served, and patrons can sit and watch a soccer match on TV. To complicate things further, the physical locales can sometimes look like 1950s American diners, complete with the grease and subway tiles.

Perhaps if Brazil had the same cultural dominance as France, or the geographic proximity of Mexico, or the imperial status of Britain or the United States, it would be easier for me to say: For every padaria in the Portuguese text there will be a padaria in the English translation, so that gradually, through repetition, the English-language reader would acquire some understanding of what a padaria is. In this hypothetical scenario, their comprehension would be aided by all the Brazilian novels translated into English and subtitled movies set in Brazil—narratives that would be about more than violence, favelas, and beaches, narratives in which everyday people stream in and out of padarias. All the same, until you’ve been to not one but dozens of padarias over the course of dozens of years, working your way through their extensive, comforting menus, the truth is you’ll never really understand, you’ll never really have the same affective ties as I do to this Brazilian cultural institution, the padaria, or rather the bakery-slash-café-slash-diner-slash-luncheonette-slash-bistro-slash-greasy-spoon-slash-etcetera. Don’t worry, this doesn’t make translation impossible—assuming that’s where your mind went—it just makes translation something a little different than what you thought it was.


Julia Sanches is the author of more than a dozen translations from Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan into English. Her translations and writing have appeared in Granta, Literary Hub, the Paris Review Daily, and the Common, among other publications. Her recent translations are Mariana Oliver’s Migratory Birds (Transit Books, 2021) and Eva Baltasar’s Permafrost (And Other Stories, 2021). Born in São Paulo, she lives in Providence. 

Thumbnail: Jonathan Borba