Lost in translation

Our intrepid English teacher in Brazil, Nina Cirana, recalls the incident that prompted her to start learning Portuguese.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a busy café having lunch – a vegetable pie with a crusty top. I picked up a fork and sat down to enjoy my lunch. It was a bit of a struggle trying to eat the pie with a fork. Suddenly out of the blue, a man came up to my table and said “f*** you?”

I didn’t hear him clearly, so I gestured as if to say ‘what’? He repeated, this time a bit louder, “f*** you?” I was stunned and shouted ‘WHAT DID YOU SAY?’ He said it again. I started swearing at him, “How dare you! I’ll call the police….” and looked around to see if anybody would look up or come to my rescue. Nobody did. They didn’t understand my language.

The man left without saying a word and returned with something in his hand. It was a knife and fork set. He offered the knife to me, saying again “facka you?” He gestured to me to use it to cut my pie. My rusty brain suddenly clicked and I realised that he was asking me if I wanted a knife – a faca (facka) –  to cut the pie!

I decided to learn Portuguese there and then. If you try to learn the language from a phrase book, it is difficult. But if you learn the rules of the language, then you can tackle any word. First comes pronouncing words, then sentences. My burning urge to learn a new language is for one reason only – food – to be able to enjoy food! If you don’t know the language, you won’t be able to go to a restaurant and it’s a struggle to do your food shopping. For example …

Milk – leite is pronounced as leichi – rule: t followed by a vowel sounds as ch

R is never pronounced as r at the beginning of a word. It’s not pronounced as Rio de Janeiro. It’s Hio de Janeiro. The currency is not said as reais, but heais. Rachel is Hachel (Hakel) and Rebecca is Hebeka. Romildo is Homioudu because R becomes H and L in the middle of a word becomes a u sound.

I now know how to say basic words and phrases like ola, tchau, obrigada and many more; a few sentences to greet people like ‘tudo bem?’ ‘voce esta muito bom’; and a majority of sentences to help me with my food and shopping. I haven’t stopped patting myself on the back whenever I have asked for something in Portuguese and they have brought it for me. 


I don’t know about the big cities in Brazil, but in Iuna and in Alto Caparao, people flock around you when you are speaking in English. I’m not exaggerating but whenever there is a conversation in the cafe (one way of course), people repeat my words and laugh – e.g. ‘thank you very much’. They repeat that many times and laugh, but there is no rudeness. They laugh because they’re happy to have learned one ‘Ingles’ phrase, even if they don’t understand what it means.


Nina turns a cafe into a classroom for one of her older students.

This entry was posted in Eldergate Members' Blog, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.