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Lost in translation

By Nickunj Malik - Oct 18,2017 - Last updated at Oct 18,2017

The thing about linguistics skill is quite binary, really. Either you have it or you don’t. If one is lucky enough to be in the former category, learning new languages is as easy as a walk in the park. In this instance, you hear a foreign tongue, get curious about it and experiment with the strange sounding semantics till you get familiarised, and soon start conversing like a native speaker.

The problem arises if you are of the latter variety and every alien word ricochets off your eardrums without making even the slightest dent. Subsequently, any effort to make sense is so labourious that one gives up the challenge, even before attempting it. 

Personally, I have learnt several new languages simply by talking to the local people and mimicking their dialects and accents. In my home country India, which is a land of 122 major languages, according to a latest census, being bilingual and even multilingual is no big deal. In addition to this, Indians also speak in English and Hinglish (a curious mix of English and Hindi) with equal fluency. We switch from one vernacular to the next effortlessly, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, without anyone batting an eyelid.

So, when it is time for me to learn Portuguese, I give myself the shortest possible span to master it. One week of living in a rural village, where everyone smiles benignly and speaks gently, is good enough, I think. To be on the safe side, I throw in another five days, to kind of, fine tune my accent. 

I get my conversation-starter perfected at once, but have to put in a bit of work towards the ritual of it. I mean, in Portugal, you cannot just wish anyone hello (Ola) and walk off. That is considered rude because the culture here is more formal and going through the entire ceremony of greeting is a way of showing respect to the people you meet. So, one has to offer the requisite salutation, and follow it up with a bit of small talk, like, did you sleep well, or how are you feeling today and so on. Also, bom dia, which is good morning, can only be wished before mid day, and right after that one must switch immediately to boa tarde (good afternoon). You can continue to use this for the rest of the evening till it becomes bedtime, when it gets replaced with boa noite (good night).

Moreover, it is essential to shakes hands while saying “bom dia”, “boa tarde” or “boa noite”, depending on the time of the day, and one is expected to greet every person individually, even if they are together. This means that if you meet five people in a group, you have to shake hands five times!

Right! All this is easy to establish but I stumble as soon as I reach the Portuguese translation for expressing thanks, which can be either obrigada or obrigado, depending on the gender of the speaker. 

“The vowel at the end changes with the gender,” I explain to my husband. 

“Of the greeter or the greetee?” he asks. 

“Greeter, greetee is wrong English,” I correct him.

“How will you say thanks to me?” I test him. 

My linguistically challenged spouse is quiet for a moment. 

“Obrigadeh”, he accentuates, obliterating all vowels at the end of the word. 

“Ahahah,” I exclaim. 

“What is that?” he quizzes. 

 

“Sound of laughter in Portuguese,” I laugh.

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Comments

Ah,the inveterate gymnast with words, can it be called wordnast, happy in the new turf. I am certain you will soon be the master of all you survey. I always get a feeling that one who can connect with hearts will always find the words to do it. And you can do both with consummate ease.

The one word that comes to my mind immediately,to describe you weighing the unsuspecting people and their language is Conquistadore. Don't really know whether it is Spanish or Portuguese, but in a very short time I see myself, clairvoyant that I am, negotiating the CAPTCHA of PT.

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