Babel

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -- 21 July 2006 | Permalink

My travel reading this trip is more than usually random, with “Zuleika Dobson” and “Far from the Madding Crowd” jammed in alongside a copy of Daniel Pennac's “Le Dictateur et le Hamac”. The latter actually deals with Brazil - although it's about the sertao, where we won't be going - and at one point he describes his own bewilderment when confronted by “the phonetic abyss between Spanish and Portuguese, and between Portuguese and Brazilian”.

The popular theory that Portuguese is little more than a kind of nasalized Spanish breaks down sharply in Brazil, where a good knowledge of Spanish will get you the right word about 30% of the time and the wrong pronunciation 100% of the time. If you know Spanish, reading Portuguese is easy, but even fluent Spanish offers no guarantee that you'll be able to make yourself understood verbally, especially with people who simply don't have a second language.

To make matters worse, I spent the first three days of my stay doing half-day stints as a translator for one of M's colleagues, a Malagasy speaker whose second language is French. I don't have either the fluency or the speed of thought necessary to do simultaneous translation, but her French was fairly basic so my role was to provide a kind of running pr