Sunday, October 21, 2012

Lost in Translation--Literally

Does it seem like all of my posts are centered around the same theme? Well, my life, right now, seems to be centered around that theme, so what else do I have to write about?! When you learn a new language, (which I hope I will, someday) you have to be careful about some of the subtleties of the language. Here are just a few things that I have learned to be careful about (the hard way):

1. Besides having masculine and feminine nouns with agreeing adjectives (this makes my head hurt, just thinking about it), there is the tricky business of conjugation. In Portuguese, verbs are all conjugated depending on past, present, and future tense (I know that we have this in English, too, but I swear it is ten times easier!) In addition, verbs are conjugated depending on the subject of the sentence. Pronouns (I, me, you, they, etc...) are optional in speaking. You can just drop the pronoun in any given sentence, because the conjugation of the verb tells of whom you are speaking. (For example: I am tired. You are tired. He is tired. In essence, you just have to say, "Tired" and everyone will know whom you are talking about depending on how you say the word "tired".) The other day, I was doing the dishes. (I was putting them in the dishwasher.) I feel a little embarrassed about having this luxury item, and have the compulsive need to comment about the indolence of Americans to everyone who sees it. My housekeeper saw me loading the dishes, so I did my typical self-deprecation act to ease the awkwardness.  I'm pretty sure I told my housekeeper that SHE was lazy.

2. The Portuguese words for "coconut" and "poo-poo" (I'm sorry to all you sensitive readers out there) are pretty much the same--the only difference being on which syllable you place the emphasis. I will not be ordering coconut while I am here.

3. The common word for shoes, (and the only word that I learned in my studies) is "sapatos", but another word for shoes is, "calcados". All of the shoe stores here are labeled "calcados", which to me, at first, sounded a lot like the word for pants: "calcas". I kept getting confused when I would see the signs for "calcados" and expect to see pants, but only found racks and racks of "sapatos" (shoes). The word for barefoot is "descalco" (without shoes)....calco, you see how similar these are?!  So, if I ever walk down the beach barefoot, and decide to stop and enjoy a coconut, I won't be telling anyone about it...just to be on the safe side.

4. I found out in my Portuguese class (too late) that the word I had been using to describe heavy traffic in the city was actually the word for drug trafficking. I feel slightly comforted by the fact that Marly knows my opinion on drugs: Trafico = bad

5. I kept telling people for the longest time that I was from "Estamos Unidos" ("We are united"), instead of "Estados Unidos" (United States). They were in the midst of a political campaign when we first arrived, so maybe they thought I was just politically active??? Probably not...

6. And finally, the subtleties in communication in a foreign land do not stop with oral language; one must beware of insulting gestures as well! We have been here for over two months now, and Tom finally decided to inform me that the "OK" sign (that I use all the time!) is equivalent to the middle finger in the U.S. I'm glad he told me this AFTER I had flipped off several neighbors...and possibly the gun-toting security guards at our complex.

Isn't learning a new language fun?  The first sentence I learned to say in Portuguese is, "I don't speak Portuguese". Tom said I wouldn't need to state the obvious. But, I find that I use that sentence as a sort of apology for all of the countless language faux pas that I commit each day as I struggle to communicate. I shudder to think of what I may or may not have said to people, but, in my current situation, ignorance truly is bliss...right?


  1. We have all been laughing at your posts! You are an awesome writer-if not an awesome Portuguese speaker:)

  2. This post made my day. Thanks for the good laugh and don't order any coconuts!