Adventures in language


Chinese guardian, Tang Dynasty, c. 618-907 A.D., Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo

My work takes me places where I have to throw my unilingual American self at the mercy of the local language. Fortunately, we live in an age of wonder, so before I got on the plane to Brazil a week ago I downloaded the Portuguese language set into Google Translate, and pre-loaded my list of survival phrases:


Sim, por favor

Qual portão?

Bom dia

And, the No. 1 phrase of my week: Desculpe, eu não falo português.

Mas vou tantar! I would quickly add — but I will try! — then would peck furiously at my phone to cobble together a few English words in the translate app.

“POSS-owe co-LOW-car EE-soe nah MEEN-hah TOKS-ah day KWAR-toe?” I would blurt, sounding like a sheepish robot thespian.

That was the mode I was in one evening at a Brasilia restaurant with several English-speaking colleagues, when the waiter approached.

“Do you have iced tea?” I spoke into the translation app, hoping it wouldn’t produce the Portuguese equivalent of your mistress emits strange odors.

Google wasn’t getting the “tea.” It was getting only so far as “Do you have ice?”

“Do you have iced TEA?” I pleaded with the phone. “TEA? TEA?”

“No, we don’t have iced tea,” the server said. My colleagues spit out their own beverages.

Because I am a glutton for humiliation, I picked this trip to a foreign country to arrange my first-ever Uber ride, after I flew from Brasilia to São Paulo. In my 8th-floor hotel room, I tapped uncertainly at the Uber app, setting up a ride to the Museu de Arte downtown. A message instantly came back: Driver will arrive in 1 min.

Procaria! Panicked, I barged out of my room, slapped at the elevator button, then imagined the Portuguese tongue-lashing I would get in the hotel driveway as the elevator lollygagged its way to a stop at every even-numbered floor on the way down to the lobby.

Sorte was with me, though, as a shiny black car rolled up to the curb just as I emerged from the hotel. The passenger window rolled down.

“Uber?” a cheerful voice called. “Sim!” I said and got in. My driver was a natty, jolly grandpa with a trim salt-and-pepper moustache, generously amused at my determination to speak local. Desculpe, eu não falo português. I showed him the maps app on my phone, which displayed the name of the museum. Confusion flickered across grandpa’s face. That’s when the phone rang.

Ugh. Not a phone call. Not now. And then I noticed that the Uber app had filled the screen. I pulled the phone back to my seat. There was a message, from a driver named Paulo.

Você está aqui?

Wrong car. I had jumped into someone else’s Uber ride.

So now it dawns on me that I am unable to communicate this unfolding emergency — namely, that I am in a car about to whisk me into the heart of this city of 20 million people, while the driver who actually was supposed to pick me up probably was, at that moment, wondering why the guy jumping into his car was telling him to go to the airport.

I could not Google fast enough. I simply thrust my phone into grandpa’s hand. He sorted it out immediately and swung the car around the block to the hotel, where my original ride was waiting.

Desculpe, desculpe, I said to grandpa as I slid over to Paulo’s car. I showed Paulo the map, he nodded in affirmation and wheeled onto the highway. With the app’s help, I explained the mixup. Paulo laughed.

We laughed a lot during the ride. Passing the phone back and forth, we let Google translate our talk about football, the traffic, the warm air, Colorado’s snow, and about the museum I was going to visit.

Which museum? He asked. I blinked. I had showed him the name, and the map, before. I showed it to him again: Museu de Arte de São Paulo.

Paulo was still putting it together. There are a lot of museums in that part of the city. “Museu de Arte?” he said. “Mass-pee?”

Mass-pee? I had no idea.

Americans call Los Angeles LA. São Paulinos call their city Sampa, and their signature cultural institution MASP. Mass-pee. No one calls it by its full, proper name.

It clicked. “Mass-pee. Sim!” I said.

I pulled up the translate app again. Imagine if we didn’t have this technology, I typed. “ee-MAH-jin say now tee-VAYsss-ee-mose es-TAH tek-no-LOGE-ee-ah.”

Paulo laughed. “Perfect,” he said.

The fun continued at mass-pee, when I had to exit the museum to meet a work colleague for lunch — a local who would be my companion and translator for the rest of the day. I loaded the app with my question, rehearsed a couple of times, and stepped up to a young woman in a security uniform.

“É permitade a readmissão?” Is re-admission permitted? (The Portuguese combination –ão is a particular challenge, sounding to my ear like a swallowed mix of the English sew and the –tion suffix. I botched it every time.)

“É permitade a readmissão?” I tried again. The museum woman gave me a puzzled look.

“Wait. Do you speak English?” she said, with the fluency of a Nebraskan.

Here’s the thing: My Portuguese ineptitude was humbling, but I never got the brush-off or so much as a condescending look from the people whose help or direction I needed. When, in my halting, American accent and robotic Google syntax, I explained to the host at the hotel front desk that my key didn’t seem to be working, he smiled and met me halfway with his English — which, by the way, is far better than my Portuguese.

Desculpe, eu não falo português, I said, from memory by now, in front of a room full of my colleagues at their office at the morning meeting. Mas vou tantar! They all applauded.

The dollar is pretty strong right now, but my most valuable currency when I’m overseas is humility and some tantar.


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