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Godofredo de Oliveira Neto

Translated by Samantha Morito


The professor from the London School of Economics, even now, must not have figured it out. I had gone to the National Museum, a marvellous institution managed by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro within the stately Quinta da Boa Vista park in the neighbourhood of São Cristóvão, to attend a lecture on the subject of how to interpret the notion of grammatical accuracy in indigenous languages. The English professor was reading aloud from a text on his PowerPoint slide; his Portuguese heavily-accented, but technically impeccable. He articulated each sentence ploddingly, with laborious precision, the punctuation projecting the required musicality, with a somewhat overstated cadence into his speech. A pinprick of red light controlled by a small device in the professor’s hand followed the lines as he read them off the screen.

The talk did not last long. A student piped up from the back of the auditorium, ‘Professor, do you think we can’t read?’ prompting a great collective guffaw which left the guest speaker looking flustered. Afterwards, researchers from the host institution came to the professor’s rescue with topics for discussion. Professor José Carlos de Azeredo, in a presentation given the previous evening at Rio de Janeiro State University – and a most illuminating presentation at that (as, I must add, is every presentation given by this brilliant professor of Portuguese) – had recalled that Brazil’s transition from Empire to Republic had, to some extent, put paid to the tendency of our Romantics towards glorifying the Brazilian variety of the Portuguese language – José de Alencar being the most prominent example. José Carlos, now in attendance at the National Museum, also tried to give the speaker from England a helping hand, repeating those parts of his own lecture from the previous day. Indeed, Machado de Assis, the most significant Brazilian writer of Realist novels, contributed prodigiously to the field of literature, in spite of his “not confusing literary quality with rhetorical ornamentation of the discourse, nor literary language with a conservative use of grammar”. At Azeredo’s lecture, I had made the point that, in literature – with Meschonnic’s teachings in his Poetics coming to mind – it is the work which engenders the style, and not the style which engenders the work. Nor should we overlook Bakhtin’s notion of the multiplicity of voices, somebody else had jumped in. I repeated this same thought process to the room now, to ease the awkward atmosphere which was reflected all too visibly on the face of our British colleague. In fact, the English professor had referred many times to Bakhtin throughout his lecture. By now, though, the session at the National Museum had been well and truly swept off course. The issue of how grammatical correctness is judged in the unwritten languages of Brazil would have to be addressed at some later date. I went to greet the lecturer who had come especially from London and to apologise for the embarrassing episode, and he simply replied, smiling and clasping my forearm, “Molto Bello”. I couldn’t be sure if that was a touch of English irony or not.

Not long ago, confined to my home and feeling fretful over this dastardly Covid, I thought back to the events of that day again, having previously jotted it all down somewhere. The Imperial Museum burned down several years ago, and the English professor retired after a severe lung infection brought on by the virus (although he is doing fine now, according to an e-mail I received from him yesterday). José Carlos continues to turn out more new work than ever. I have been able to take a measured look at the standards for correctness in Brazilian Portuguese, and am following the recent and just fight led by students in Curitiba against the racism ingrained into many Portuguese turns of phrase, such as Criado mudo, Mulata, Nhaca, Nega maluca, A coisa tá preta, or Meia tigela (and the name of the project is “Don’t Speak the Language of Racism”)*. Yet, still, the matter of how to measure correctness in Brazil’s unwritten languages remains wide open for discussion.

* Glossary of Portuguese expressions
· A coisa tá preta - ‘It’s black’. Said when the outlook is grim for a particular situation.
· Criado-mudo - A bedside table; literally a ‘mute servant’. Originates from pre-abolition Brazil, in which anyone given a menial tidying task was likely to be a Black slave.
· Meia tigela – Literally, ‘half-bowl’. Describes an insignificant matter or a disappointing service, from the ‘half-bowl’ of food historically given to slaves whose work was deemed substandard.
· Mulata – ‘Mulatta’, from Latin mulus (‘mule’, a beast of burden cross-bred from a donkey and a horse). Used either as a noun for a woman of mixed heritage with light-brown skin; or an adjective to denote such heritage, or the colour light brown.
· Nega maluca – A kind of layered chocolate cake often made for parties in Brazil; literally, ‘Crazy Black Lady’.
· Nhaca - Body odour. From Nyaka, the name of a sixteenth-century Mozambican king.


Godofredo is an awarded writer, with 15 published books, including novels and short story collections. He has three books published in France, which have been featured in the newspapers Le Figaro and Le Monde as well as studied in French Universities. He's a professor of literature at the Universidade Federal of Rio de Janeiro.

Samantha was born and raised in London, and has done an assortment of teaching jobs in both English and Portuguese. She has recently completed her degree in Linguistics and Portuguese Language and Literature at Oxford University, and is looking forward to taking part, for the first time, in such a varied and current translation project.

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