I am still learning Portuguese. I know that it’ll take me many more months before I can have a fluent conversation, though I am reading well (thanks to captioning on the TV and struggling through news articles). It’s the speaking and listening for understanding part that is still very difficult. But it’s coming along apace, and I’m encouraged by my progress.

This past week, I edited a book on Roman theories of translation. Truly an interesting subject, and I simply flew through the edit (as opposed to editing a book on math theory, which recently bogged me down).


One of the major points made by Roman translators, such as Cato and Catallus, was the importance of translation when learning a new language. It was their opinion that one couldn’t truly learn a language unless one translated its literature, and not simply by performing word-by-word translation, but by recreating the poetry and rhythm of thought of the original into your own language.

This is a task I have set before myself in the coming months: to translate Brazilian-Portuguese poetry and literature.

I had a taste of this last night during my Portuguese lesson when my teacher had me listen to a famous Brazilian song and work through the translation. The song is “Aquarela do Brasil” (“Watercolor of Brazil”), a lovely song with a samba beat. (You can listen to it here.)

We listened to the song first, just to gauge what Tom and I could understand from first hearing. I caught a line about “terra boa e gostosa,” which I easily translated as “a good and pleasant land,” and a few random words.

Then, she worked with us translating the lines of the song…and what an apt title it is, as the song paints a word image of Brazil.

And here is where a good translation becomes vital. For example:

O Brasil, samba que dá Bamboleio, que faz gingar … when translated by Google Translate becomes: Brazil, samba that gives wobble, which makes waddle.

Completely lost in that translation is the understanding of what the line means, the idea that Brazil is the land of samba, of sensuous dances and movement.

Quero ver a sá dona caminhando pelos saloes arrastando o seu vestido rendado … becomes: I want to see the owner walking the halls dragging your lace.

Again, completely lost is the desire to see the women of the past floating through the halls in long lace dresses.

Of course, there are many more examples, but the wobble and waddle illustrated the truth of what the Romans said: translation is an art not to be taken lightly.

And so, I shall set myself to the task of literary translation, to better learn this language of Brazil, where “I tie my nets in cool moonlit nights.”