How I learned Portuguese

By Paulo Rónai

Translated by Tom Moore

© by Cora Tausz Rónai and Laura Tausz Rónai

Rights granted by Solombra Books (solombrabooks@solombrabooks)

Sometimes I am asked how I learned Portuguese. I generally answer that I didn’t learn it and probably never will. But the answer evokes for me my first encounter with the language in which, through completely unforeseeable circumstances, I came to express myself with ease, and even to think.

At that time, I was teaching Latin and Italian in a high school in Budapest. Once a week I would go to a cafe where my linguist friends met. One of them was studying Sogdian, another was preparing an essay on pronouns in Vogul, a third had just published two thick volumes of stories in Cheremissian. They were only interested in exotic languages, had a true passion for difficult tongues, and despised my modest excursions in the Neo-Latin domain.

“But do you actually know Spanish?” I asked one of them, an expert in Finno-Ugric linguistics, one day.

“Come on!” he answered.

“But do you?” I insisted.

“I haven’t tried it yet,” he answered haughtily, as if it were something like bicycling or horseback riding.

I fell silent, humiliated. Really, Spanish could not compare with any of those fabulous dialects. And what was worse, it was spoken by an excessive number of people, and my friends only appreciated dead languages, or if not dead, spoken by a half dozen illiterate fishermen.

And so I couldn’t find it in myself to tell them that I had begun to learn Portuguese¾especially as Portuguese seemed to me, as a beginner, too easy: like the beginning of a romance where everything is going smoothly, and nothing points toward subsequent problems.

I still remember the day when the first book in Portuguese came into my hands. It was the little anthology The Hundred Best Lyric Poems in Portuguese, by Carolina Michaelis. I had in my collection other anthologies in the same series, in French, Italian, and Spanish. I inferred that there had to be one in Portuguese as well, and ordered it from the Perche Bookshop in Paris.

The little book arrived at 9:00 in the morning on one of the holidays around Christmas. By 10:00, I had already found the only Portuguese dictionary to be had in the bookshops in Budapest, the one by Luisa Ey, in German translation. I then threw myself into the poetry with avid curiosity. By 3:00 in the afternoon, the sonnet “Sonho Oriental,” by Antero, had been translated into Hungarian verses; by 5:00, it had been accepted by a magazine, which would publish it shortly thereafter.

Among all the Hungarian writers whom I knew, Desiderius Kosztolanyi was the only one who had gone so far as to approach the study of Portuguese. At one point he spoke to me in Portuguese, which he thought sounded as merry and sweet as the language of birds. For me, seeing it written, it gave the impression of Latin as spoken by children or old people¾at any rate, people with no teeth. If they had teeth, how could they have lost so many consonants? And I looked with alarm at words like lua, dor, pessoa, and veia, trying to hang on to what there was left of the full and sonorous Latin originals.

In fact, it was the pronunciation that was beginning to concern me.

The nasals, which were so numerous, gave me goosebumps, especially since the grammar, which came from who knows where, shrouded them in deep mystery. It is impossible, said Gaspey, Otto, and Sauer, to explain the pronunciation of such sounds; the only way to learn it was to ask a native of the country to pronounce them many times. But how was I to find a native of Portugal in Budapest? And I began to think about phonetic enigmas, as for example, the various sounds of x, a letter which doesn’t even exist in Hungarian, and even in other languages is no more than a vestige, while it appears in four different forms in Portuguese.

I still remember some of my reactions to the phenomena of the new language. It was with a certain amount of impatience that I accepted various illogicalities which it presented me, totally forgetting those which I had swallowed without protest in my own language. In particular, I could not get used to the feminine gender of the word criança. Nor did I want such French nouns as chapéu or paletó to be incorporated into Portuguese without my permission. But I recognized with excitement those terms that had been carefully handed down from Latin, as well as those the other Romance languages had treated badly: lar and ônus were old friends, made more beautiful by long tradition. Words in which I found traces of their Latin formation, such as bebedouro and nascedouro, and even horrendo and nefando, smiled at me. Vocabulary stemming from Arabic seemed solemn, and much more closely connected to its origin than it actually is; it seemed impossible to me that an alfaiate could sew coats and trouser in the English fashion, rather than only making albornozes.

Not only the vocabulary, but even the syntax provoked sentimental feelings in me.

The discovery of the personal infinitive was a surprise, and caused my patriotic pride to waver, since I had thought it was a treasure to be found only in Hungarian. I immediately felt warmly towards the mesoclitic forms of the verbs: falar-te-ei and lembrar-nos-íamos were like an anatomical slice into words that were irrevocably fused together in French or in Italian, and caused me to imagine gifts of analysis and synthesis in all those who employed them. I also admired the wise economy that was manifested in expressions made up of two adverbs, such as demorada e pacientemente, only imaginable in a language that had been persistent in not moving away from its etymological roots.

Little by little, still not knowing how to read aloud, I puzzled out a new and different melody in Portuguese, and continued familiarizing myself with the little volume of one hundred poems. I translated Almeida Garrett’s “Os Cinco Sentidos,” the romance of the “Nau Catrineta,” and a handful of quatrains, among them the beginning of “O anel que tu me deste,” which today still seems like a miracle of pathetic simplicity.

The problem lay in getting hold of other books. From Strasbourg, I managed to get a copy of the Lusiads, in the Biblioteca Romanica. Thanks to a good Hungarian translation and the reminiscences of Virgil and Tasso, I was able to read them without much difficulty. But I still had not found a contemporary text, a document of living Portuguese.

That was when one of the booksellers, put on alert by me, unearthed a broken and filthy volume by a modern Portuguese author¾Samuel Ribeiro, if I remember correctly. And then things took a turn for the worse, since right on the first page there were 20 words not listed by Luisa Ey. It was a rustic story, probably rather regional, and the author seemed to take pleasure in calling the animals and plants by their pretty, but incomprehensible, names from Alentejo or Minho. Someone, upon learning of my difficulty, introduced me to a functionary from the Brazilian Consulate to whom I showed the rebellious page. He examined it attentively and declared that either it was not Portuguese, or else that in Brazil they spoke some other language. As compensation, he pronounced various nasals for me, which I tried to imitate without much success.

I put aside Samuel Ribeiro’s book, and set myself to reading Brazilian poets.

My first Brazilian book was an Anthology of Paulista Poets, arranged through the offices of a Hungarian bookseller in São Paulo, whose address I happened to obtain. I still remember that little volume, poorly produced, very badly organized (which I never managed to find here in Brazil). It contained horrid portraits of 30 poets from São Paulo with one poem by each, usually a sonnet. My difficulties began with the title, since Luisa Ey’s Wörterbuch, of course, did not contain the word paulista.

Although I didn’t manage to understand the majority of the poems, I figured out the meaning of a few, and ended up translating a little poem by Correia Junior, which I published in a magazine. On rereading my translation some years later, here in Brazil already, I discovered with humiliation an enormous error. The poet was talking of the net (hammock) in which he was relaxing and awaiting his dreams. Since I had never seen such a thing, I judged that it was a poetic image and put “the net of dreams woven by the imagination” in the Hungarian text.

Thereafter, I “figured out” and translated a few more poems from the book. With a single exception, they were all, as I later learned with alarm, authors who were unknown in Rio de Janeiro. Happenstance caused one of these translations to fall into the hands of the Brazilian Consul in Budapest at the time, who called me, gave me a volume of Bilac, another one by Vicente de Carvalho, and three old versions of the Correio da Manha.

To the latter I sent, with a brief letter, a clipping of the “first Brazilian poetry translated into Hungarian.” I never received an answer to the letter, but one day, to my great surprise, a large envelope arrived for me, covered with exotic stamps and full of poems, still unpublished, by a young poet from Rio, who, having read a notice in the Correio about my strange mania, had judged me the most fitting person to pronounce the first judgement on his clandestine works.

This missive was followed by others, written by readers of the newspaper, all poets. From then on, I received an ample correspondence from Brazil: letters with typed verses, or clipped from newspapers, magazines, and books. They arrived unsystematically, sent by offices, friends, and strangers. Some were stalwart, others regular, and some weak. But I had no guide to orient me with the multitude of new names, or to help me to establish a proper scale of value.

I could not tell if some of the poets, traditionalists in form and in expression, were from 1850 or today. At the same time, I took for extremely original some 15-year-old poets (whose unpublished work I received), since I was unaware of their models. Thus, when I finally obtained a volume of Jorge de Lima, this great poet’s work no longer gave me the pleasant surprise of discovery, since I had already gotten to know his various disciples.

Along with these uncertainties, there were those associated with the language itself. I kept on with the little dictionary of Mrs. Ey and a Portuguese-French dictionary, by Simões da Fonseca, which was not much better. They were both European, and for that reason completely ignored Brazilianisms. And so I had to rely once more on the dangerous system of conjecture.

Not all of the poems were easy. In the “Acalanto do Seringueiro,” by Mario de Andrade, the uirapuru had to be a bird. But how long it took me to realize that the cabra resistente in the same poem was not an animal, but a man.

In other cases, the lack of an equivalent notion in the Central European milieu made a translation almost impossible. I had to torture my imagination in order to come up with a term made of three words (kaucsukfacaspoló) to translate seringueiro. I did not dare to use it until I had tried it out on various poet friends and verified their favorable reaction.

What really caused me to stumble, however, were the most common and simplest words. The wise glottologists of my café had to agree with me, however reluctantly, when I demonstrated to them that one of the most difficult Brazilian words to translate and fit into a Hungarian verse was dezembro. Our December, etymologically identical, but which evoked notions of ice, snow, and misery, would never produce for any Hungarian reader the image of Christmas in Rio, torrid and stifling. And then, what did the word Nordeste mean? A long letter from Ribeiro Couto (then secretary of the Brazilian Legation in the Netherlands) was necessary for me to get a rough idea of the complex geographical, anthropological, sociological, and, above all, poetical sense of the term. With his comprehensive intelligence, the poet of Província sketched out a succinct spiritual portrait of the Northeastern region, of which, as I was lacking other documentation, he drew me a schematic map. I was less lucky with a young adept of social poetry, in whose poems I found innumerable references to the morros of Rio de Janeiro. Thinking I had not understood the word, he answered my query with a list of synonyms: hill, hillock, etc. Only after another exchange of letters did I come to understand that, contrary to what was the case in my city, where the hills, covered with luxurious little palaces, only sheltered rich people, in Rio, morros were synonymous with favelas, or “groupings of popular dwellings rudely constructed and unsupplied with hygienic resources.”

The publication in newspapers and magazines of some of these translations of Brazilian poetry produced some curious episodes. In one of my Latin classes, for example, a student asked, with his colleagues looking on derisively, that I explain to him a strange poem he had read the night before and began to recite, “No Meio do Caminho” by Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Although I didn’t like to interrupt my classes, this time I gave into temptation and quoted other verses by the poet. I spoke of the necessary iconoclasm of modern poetry, of the healthy reaction to the stereotypical “poetic,” of the deep value of primitive and virgin sensations; I showed how the demands of lyricism and logic are different; I insisted on the emotional power of the grotesque element; I talked about the importance of the collaboration of the reader with the poet. By this point, the explanation had transformed itself into an animated conversation, and by the end my students agreed with me that each age has its own literary expression, different from those which came before. Having arrived at this conclusion, we could return to reading Horace. And then my students read with much greater interest the ode in which the Roman poet, considered until that point by many of them as a versifier of cliches, excused himself for the revolutionary boldness with which he had introduced into Latin literature forms and expressions, “never before made public.”

The appearance of the translations in a volume entitled Message from Brazil was welcomed by the critics with the interest that the moment permitted (it was August of 1939). For the first time in Central Europe Brazilian verses were read, and one could get a glimpse of the existence in Brazil, until that point only known as a producer of coffee, of a civilization worthy of study, even admiration. The critic György Bálint, later to be murdered by the Nazis, gave his article the title “Brazil comes closer.”

This was really my impression for three days. On the fourth, the German tanks crossed the Polish border. A curtain of smoke came to hide Brazil, poetry, and the joy of living.

And then, after 15 months, whose sufferings and anguish I will not relate here, there I was with bags packed and ready to get to know Brazil up close. My trip had to be made through Portugal, the only exit from a Europe already in flames. I headed for Lisbon with all the preoccupations of the exile, but somewhat consoled by the interesting linguistic experience that was waiting for me. What could happen to me, if I already knew the mesoclitic forms and the personal infinitive?

I suffered, however, a great disappointment. I spent six weeks in Lisbon without being able to understand anything of the spoken language. I picked up the newspaper and understood perfectly; however, the doorman at the hotel or the waiter in the cafe would speak three words, and once again I was lost in the jungle. An even greater humiliation: the Portuguese intellectuals to whom I was introduced, after trying with frustration to speak their language with me, resorted to French. I went to a play (by Carlos Selvagem, if I remember correctly), without understanding the plot; to a high school class, without knowing if the students had answered correctly; to a defense in the Faculty of Philosophy, without ever discovering the topic addressed by the candidate. What would the philologists of Budapest have said if they had seen me in such straits?

During my stay in the Portuguese capital, I used to take a particular trolley every day and get off at the same stop, where the same conductor would call out the same location. I sat near the man, listened hard, trying to understand him¾all in vain. I could have asked, of course, but that wouldn’t have been fair play. I preferred to get off, ashamed and unhappy, until, the day before I left, the revelation came. What the conductor was shouting was Restauradores; it was just that he was suppressing three of the vowels, exaggerating the r’s and hissing the s’s. I went running to check the sign at the corner: I had it! But it was already too late. The next day I embarked on the Cabo de Hornos for Rio de Janeiro, tormented by dark premonitions.

I arrived 20 days later. What a relief as soon as I arrived! Brazil received me with a clear language, without mysteries. I had not even disembarked, and yet I didn’t lose a single word of the stevedore, who, in compensation, lost one of my trunks. I understood the functionary from the customs office equally as well; and was so happy that I did not rebut his surprising declaration that Portuguese and Hungarian were sister tongues. My amazement continued in the street, in my first taxi, in the hotel. The language I had learned in Budapest really was Portuguese!