Friday, September 23, 2011

This fog where the light of Lisbon begins - trying to learn Portuguese

A logistical note:  During the Scotch Challenge, I hit my mark like a pro, posting right along with my co-readers.  My library access is not as good as it was then, and for some reason I have picked a language where my library is particularly weak, although it is strangely well-supplied with Machado de Assis.  I may need a little extra warning if we want to preserve simultaneity.  If we do not, that is fine; I can catch up.  Maybe I will just order a big pile of books and salt them away.

The Portuguese Reading Challenge has a second piece, a much greater challenge for me:  I am going to learn some Portuguese.  Note my strained confidence.  No, I will.  In the past, I have had two great successes with teaching myself the rudiments of a language (German and Turkish), and one complete wipeout (French).  I acknowledged my failure and took a couple of years of classes at the Alliance Française, covering the equivalent of first semester college French, and as a result my French, however appalling, is alive, while I remember only a few words of German and Turkish.  I claim to have “some Spanish” as well, acquired in the classroom, cemented, however roughly, by a couple of months of immersion.

For Portuguese, Spanish is an asset but also a trap, a path to disastrously bad pronunciation.  I have been following, weakly, Prof. Mayhew’s advice for learning a language, just listening to some Portuguese every day.  The podcasts at Escriba Café have been especially enjoyable.  It is too bad that I cannot tell you what that site is, since I do not understand Portuguese.

I do not plan to learn Portuguese, not really, but I have discovered that knowing the most elementary elements of a language – pronunciation, numbers, the most basic words – allows the tourist, or reader, to leap ahead.  I just want to be able to compare a translation of a translated poem to the original.

For example: a poem from Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry of Eugénio de Andrade, tr. Alexis Levitin, 1974, pp. 116-7.


Esta névoa sobre a cidade, o rio,
as gaivotas doutros dias, barcos, gente
apressada ou com o tempo todo para perder,
esta névoa onde começa a luz de Lisboa,
rosa e limão sobre o Tejo, esta luz de água,
nada mais quero de degrau em degrau.


This fog upon the city, the river,
seagulls of another day, boats, people
in a rush, or with all the time in the world,
this fog where the light of Lisbon begins,
rose and lemon upon the Tagus, the light of water,
I wish for nothing else as I climb from street to street.

The translation is nearly literal.  I need almost nothing to see this.  No rhymes to worry about, although the vowel sounds of the last three lines are abandoned.  The repetition of “Esta névoa / This fog” is the most artificial or poetic device, and it is intact. I presume that “o tempo todo para perder” is an idiom, something “like “all the time to lose,” fair game for the substitution of an English equivalent.  The cognate, perhaps false, in the phrase “gente apressada” has a nice feel – “pressed people” – but that’s not really English.

I have spent so little time with the language, but I know that “o” and “a” and “as” are “the,” that “e” is “and,” that I need to pronounce all of the vowels.  The vocabulary in the poem is so simple, isn’t it?  Those gavotting seagulls stand out, allowing me to pick up a new word.  Only “de degrau em degrau” remains a total stumper.

Perhaps I should abandon Teach Yourself Brazilian Portuguese and just study the poems of Eugénio de Andrade.  I am not sure that I would learn any less Portuguese.


  1. I admire your dedication to literature, really. I think your approach is a really good one.
    Can you really learn a language without a teacher? I tried Italian once and I had difficulties to keep my motivation. Of course I wasn't studying poems but stupid sentences, like "Francesca has a kind soul".
    This makes me think that in France "My tailor is rich" is a cult sentence coming from a method to learn English.

  2. Can you really learn a language without a teacher?

    Great question. My answer is: No, not really. Not really, at least I can't.

    But up to a point, I can learn some pieces of a language. The effort - the motivation - is crucial, and even good motivation and effort were little help with French.

    Part of the purpose of this post is to publicly declare my intention, thus strengthening my motivation. I hope.

    Still, my goals are limited. If I want more, I will need a teacher.

  3. Last year and this I discovered Eca de Quieroz to be the most fantastic 19th century novelist, reading his 'Tragedy of the Street of Flowers' and 'The Maias', alas in translation, acclaimed nonetheless. He really is a mixture of Dickens, Balzac and Proust; Zola in a typical snub, considered him greater than Flaubert. Much learnt about 19th c. Portuguese society in the reading thereof and vastly under-rated/unknown why, because from Portugal !

  4. I once inadvertently discovered that I could read a surprising amount of Portuguese, based purely on my knowledge of Spanish (which knowledge has since mostly receded). Pronunciation is another matter entirely--I really don't know how they compare. Surprisingly, when I took Italian, rather than the Spanish pronunciations impeding my Italian, the Italian has hurt my Spanish, and I am inclined to pronounce Spanish words as if they are Italian.

    I would like to learn a very little French, primarily because I can't say the names of French authors or their book titles correctly in the least. It also seems it would be helpful for those times when I come across French phrases in English-language books, although I can generally get the gist. Perhaps I should just take the advice of just listening to the language.

  5. Hydriotaphia - on my third book, I am coming to your conclusion about Eça de Queirós.

    One more reason he may be less read - how do you pronounce his name? What do I do with the cedilla under the "c"?

    I agree, Amanda - I really just want to know how to pronounce the names! And then read a line of Portuguese verse with mangling it too badly, whether or not I understand it.

    Eça de Queirós: "EHsaw" is close. The "ç" is pronounced like an English "s".

    Euclides da Cunha: "COONya" - "nh" is the same as the Spanish "ñ".

    And so on.

    Just one ten-week Alliance Française class or the equivalent will take care of those French author names.

  6. I speak spanish very well. At least, I did a decade ago when I was in college and lived in Bolivia. I had a friend from Brazil and he could speak to me in porteuguess and I would respond in Spanish. it was pretty cool to understand it. But I haven't been practicing Spanish for many years...and I can't read Portugues at all. Looks like spanish spelled "wrong."

  7. Spelled wrong and pronounced wrong - all of those "zh" sounds, like it's Russian. And the nasal vowels - nothing like those in Spanish. And "no" is not "no," but is some preposition or other.

  8. "I would like to learn a very little French" -- most of my students would sympathize with the impulse.

  9. Poor put-upon students, always being force to learn things.

  10. Are the streets very steep in Lisbon? Stairs, in fact? 'Degrau' must = degree = step; in fact it does mean stair or step, I just looked it up.

  11. Ah, that's it. Yes, Lisbon, or at least certain neighborhoods, does have steep streets. The speaker may well be climbing stairs connecting two streets. Maybe one that allows him a view of the Tagus as he looks back.

    My knowledge is, by the way, based on Googling "Lisbon steep streets," which I had not thought to do before your comment. Thanks!