Swearing in Brazilian Portuguese (and the pitfalls of mistranslation…)

The Guardian has run a piece on translation, so I thought I’d share my top 6 Brazilian Portuguese swears with my literal translations and usage…

To start, though, two illustrative stories on the problems of translation. 

I have a friend called Bambino. He’s loud – burly, burned deep red, fifty-ish – and works in fashion. He likes to shock the wives of his friends and is an outrageous and insistent flirt. Outrageous in what he considers flirting to be – insulting women and then telling them he wants to sleep with them – and insistent in that no amount of discouragement will ever change this approach. There is a moment of epiphany when I suddenly understand properly something Bambino has been telling me almost every weekend morning since I’ve known him. He leans close and whispers – loudly, so everyone can hear, ‘Pegei uma puta gostosa ontem’.

This, I originally thought meant, ‘I pulled a super hot woman last night’, and while I find it unlikely given his questionable looks and charm, he does have a certain something, so I smile and say the Brazilian equivalent of, ‘Nice one, Cyril.’

This, though, is a grammatical issue. The word puta translates as whore but it also serves an intensifier, e.g. ‘That was puta cool!’ ‘It is puta hot today in the sun.’ Gostosa can be both slightly coarse adjective (essentially ‘sexy’, but with an emphasis on curves) and also noun (woman who is sexy). Naively, I believe that Bambino is using intensifier and noun. Turns out not. He is, in fact, using noun and adjective. So, for about five years, he’s been telling me stories about what I believed to be a series of interesting girlfriends. But weren’t.

There are many pitfalls with teaching teenagers, but one associated specifically with teaching foreign teenagers. My Portuguese is fluent and so when the kids in my class talk to each other, I understand them. Sometimes I even pick up new phrases, slang I haven’t heard before. The Portuguese word ‘Sussa’ means ‘cool’ or ‘relaxed’, from ‘Sossegado’, meaning ‘calm’. So, someone might ask you how you are and you reply, ‘Sussa, mate’. I’m cool.

My Upper Sixth Literature group throw this word about but add another to it, a rhyming word, ‘buça’, so the phrase becomes: ‘Sussa na buça’.

Fair enough, I think, it means the same thing, it rhymes, it has rhythm, it sounds good. You slap hands when you say it. Or you do that finger snapping, wrist shake. Very São Paulo.

A week or so passes and I am at a dinner party at my friends’ apartment, Eivy and Danillo. There are a number of people in their late-twenties and thirties who I don’t know. I have spent the afternoon with Bambino, and so am red-faced and refreshed and Isabella is working, so I have arrived alone. I step out onto the balcony and look out across the dirty greenery that fringes the favela Paraisópolis, see grim-faced men cutting their way through it. Danillo comes over and hands me a beer. Makes a few introductions.

‘You alright, mate?’ he asks.

I look around. The rest of the party are all waiting for my answer, a couple, two women and a man.

‘Sussa, mate,’ I say. ‘Sussa na buça.’

The women gasp, though one of them is trying not to smile and I register this for later. Danillo slaps me on the shoulder, telling me off. There are a couple of snorts of laughter. I’m confused.

‘Sorry,’ I say, ‘I probably sound like a teenager.’

More laughter. I wink at the woman I think is smiling, who shakes her head, giggling.

‘What?’ I say.

Turns out what I’ve said is: ‘I’m cool. Cool in the cunt.’


Anyway, my top 6 swears: 

1. Puta que pariu. 

Literal meaning: “The whore that gave birth like an animal.”

Common use: expression of surprise/indignation or description of a bad place, both figuratively and literally… 

“Vamos para puta que pariu!” – [Said, perhaps, at a party.] “Let’s go to a bad place!”

“Puta que pariu, meu. Ta horrivel.” – “Fuck me, mate, that’s horrible.”

[Football chant]: “Pu-ta que pa-riu, Os Libertadores Corinthians nunca viu!” – “Ha ha ha, Corinthians [Sao Paulo’s best supported team] have never won the Libertadores [South American equivalent of the champions league].”


2. Porra.

Literal meaning: Semen.

Common use: as punctuation when talking to someone. It can be swapped for ‘mate’, ‘wow’, or, to use the correct word, ‘Ahhhhh’.

“Porra, meu, o que vc ta fazendo?” – “Fuck, mate, what are you doing?”

“E ontem a noite?” “Porra, meu. Foi maravilhosa.” – “So, how was last night?” “Well, mate, it was fucking good.”

[Struggling to change a light bulb] “Essa porra não ta funcionando.” – “This piece of shit doesn’t work.”

“Que porra essa?” – “What the fuck is this?”


3. Caga ou sai no mato. 

Literal meaning: shit or get out of the woods.

Common use: To describe someone who is being indecisive.

No examples needed.


4. Caralho.

Literal meaning: large penis.

Common use: expression of surprise or an intensifier to show how good something is.

“Caralho, meu! Serio?” – “Bloody hell, mate. Really?”

“Foi bom para caralho!” – “It was fucking good!”


5. Para de encher meu saco.

Literal meaning(s): stop filling my sack.

Common use: stop annoying me. 

No examples needed.


6. Nem fodendo!

Literal meaning: “Not even if I were fucking would I do that.”

Common use: “No way I’m doing that.”

“Vem para o cinema?” “Nem fodendo, cara!” – “ Do you want to come to the cinema?” “No way, mate.”


Feel free to practise these with Brazilians. It’s the best indication of fluency in the language…



A Significant Anniversary

Tuesday marked a significant anniversary. Although it is two years or so since I left Brazil, it was one year since I separated from Isabella, which, effectively, meant I was never again going back to Brazil to live. It may have been the most amicable separation in history. She was in Paris staying with her sister and we went for a celebratory lunch at one of those restaurants where Hemingway and Picasso are supposed to have got drunk. We ordered a bottle of champagne for desert and the grim-faced, angry, practically seething waiter – he’d handed over our Steak Tartare with disgust, poured our wine with the air of a man perennially disappointed, personally aggrieved even, by his clients’ choices. The sort of waiter who wouldn’t want to improve your dish by spitting in it – begrudgingly asked what we were celebrating. When I told him it was our impending divorce, he smiled for the first time in the whole meal.

Soon after, Angus gave me a copy of Nicholas Lezard’s Bitter Experience Has Taught Me about his own adventures post-separation. ‘He’s ten years older than you,’ Angus said. ‘So you’re ahead of the curve.’ I took the book everywhere I went – and by everywhere, I mean The Whippet, The Museum Tavern, Truckles, The Duke etc – calling it ‘The Divorced Man Book’, laughing loudly, and then explaining to inquisitive bar staff just how funny it was as I was getting divorced. ‘Oh no, it’s all very amicable…I’m fine,’ I insisted, smiling. The bar staff looked unconvinced. My very un-Lezard moment occurred only a few months ago when I saw a picture of Isabella with her new boyfriend. I immediately sent her a message: ‘I can’t believe you’re going out with someone who tucks his shirt into his jeans, you sell-out!’ She replied a few hours later: ‘Er, everything alright?’ She always did understand me.

It’s strange to know you’re not going back somewhere, that after almost ten years you’re really no more Brazilian than you ever were before you went. I pretend that I am a sort of half-Brazilian, but all I really mean is that I can swear properly in the language. It’s strange too how we attribute meaning to random acts as if in themselves these moments dictate what we do, when of course by attributing meaning to them we’re justifying to ourselves what we’ve done. Recently I somehow found myself sitting on a bed alone with Sheila Heti at a house party smoking a cigarette – it’s all very hazy. It should have been my greatest triumph. I was attempting to explain how when Isabella had last visited me in London her first action at Heathrow had been to spill coffee all over Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk, the book I was reading. Later, I took this as some sort of hostile yet also benign act imbued with meaning, with a significance I hadn’t grasped at the time. I didn’t explain it very well. ‘Do you think you can call me a taxi?’ Sheila eventually replied, declining my offer of another smoke. It’s also funny how – when drunk – we’re always on the verge of saying something deeply profound but can’t quite manage it, yet moments later we’re able to reel off postcodes and names of streets we don’t even know we’ve been to, charmingly give complicated directions to an indifferent Addison Lee operator. Or as Luke pointed out when I told him how a friend had described the Rembrandts in Kenwood House as ‘self-important men pea-cocking about and miserable looking women’ – ‘that sounds like a night out with us.’

If there is one thing I’ve learnt it’s the absurdity of how leaving the person who cares for you the most means you’re able to discover quite how much other people care for you. (Apart from, perhaps, my mum, who had grown, understandably, tired of my answering reasonable questions with: ‘I don’t give a fuck if there is any fucking milk in the fucking fridge! I’ve got bigger problems!’) An afternoon – 12pm is the afternoon – in The Whippet as I dithered over whether to stay married or leave Isabella with Lee was a case in point. Somehow a discussion on David Foster Wallace and West Ham helped me make my decision.

When I make mistakes I generally know that I’m making them even as I’m making them. Leaving Isabella, leaving Brazil definitively, was one mistake I was careful to make not knowing if it was one. For that reason alone, perhaps, it feels like it wasn’t a mistake. You understand a place better when you’re away from it, and I’m now engaged in a love/hate relationship with São Paulo. I met someone on Sunday who said to me: ‘Oh, so you lived in Brazil? Well, that makes you interesting.’ I’ll always be grateful to Brazil for that: for making me interesting – to a guy I’ve never met in a pub full of Liverpool fans cheering as their team batter Man United. After twelve years in a relationship, living together in New York and São Paulo, that’s what being single in London again is like: being in a pub full of Liverpool fans cheering as their team batter Man United.

My late night experience in a São Paulo Favela

Favela – (n.) slum. Central São Paulo’s biggest favela is Paraisópolis, or Paradise City.

One Tuesday night, during the holidays, I do something remarkably stupid. I’ve been playing tennis and then head to the condominium bar to drink, eat a sandwich and read, when I am joined by Julião, a large, bald man in his fifties known for his prodigious capacity for alcohol. He looks like a cross between Shrek and Big Daddy. He is a good man with a good heart, but when drunk…let’s just say that he makes questionable decisions. I’ve seen him before in the early mornings when going down to the garage to drive to work, padding about barefoot with a can of lager, chatting to the seguranças.

We talk and he quickly nails two or three bottles of beer – the tall, 600 ml type that one normally shares. He tells a succession of filthy jokes and I try to keep up with his slurred and coarse Portuguese. At closing time, he wanders with me towards the lift.

‘Let’s go to the favela?’ he says.

‘Why?’ I ask, not really wanting to know the answer.

‘Another drink. I know people.’

I think about what Isabella will say when she hears of this and decide to never tell her. She has warned me before and like many middle class Brazilians has a deep distrust and fear of the favelas, especially, and not unreasonably, for me as a gringo.

‘You’re a prime target,’ she’s said more then once. ‘Don’t you ever let him take you there.’

Julião’s little excursions are well known and other friends of mine have been with him, vowing never again. Well, it turns out he is not the only one capable of making bad decisions, and before I really know what I’m doing, I’m jumping into the passenger seat of his car and we stutter and shunt down the hill into Paraisópolis. He parks – ‘parks’ doesn’t really capture it. The car rides up onto a curb and grinds to a halt, almost by itself, it feels, like a homing device or family pet who has arrived home.

So now we’re in a tiny, poorly-lit street with a shop-front bar, mosquitoes buzzing around naked bulbs, crates of empty bottles of beer stacked up in the street. A couple of sullen looking men sit at rusting, beer-brand tables, not talking, raising their bottles and glasses of cachaça to the owner. They greet Julião with nods and look at me with undisguised surprise. I don’t fit in here. I have no idea where I am. I’ve driven through the favela once before taking a short cut to work at seven o’clock in the morning and even then the maze – the warren – was confusing. Hills dip up and down, the houses lurching out at odd angles, lines of washing strung across the streets. Each house looks different, but the same. The same rough brick and corrugated iron, the same painted on house number, the same noises echoing out from the hollow walls, the same thick smells hanging in the heat like clouds.

The point about a favela is that you are in it. It’s a separate place from the city, a community, yes, but an alien one. There aren’t too many pale, reddened faces here.

We sit and Julião orders drinks. I am tense, my legs shaking, though everyone who passes seems to know him and he introduces me as O Gringão, The Big Gringo. It seems to satisfy them. I don’t have my wallet, just some loose change and I wonder if that is a good or bad thing. I want to trust Julião, but you never know with him – he’s created his own myth, and I can’t be sure how much of it is fiction.

After what feels like an extremely long time (measured by two beers between us) a group of very young women saunters by. They stop to talk to Julião and he makes them laugh, though I realise he is being pretty provocative. They examine me like an exhibit and raise their eyebrows, suck their teeth, slap hands. I find out later that they are prostitutes who come to dance Samba in the little, grotty garage bar opposite the condominium on Saturday afternoons. One nice thing about Julião – he doesn’t judge and will befriend anyone. A few young men in shorts and flip-flops pass by, calling out to the owner. They look a little more hostile. I try to reason with myself. Just how much influence does an old drunk really have? They eye me a little. I’m saying nothing, drinking too quickly to compensate. I start to think how I’m going to explain this to Isabella. I tell Julião I need to leave, make something up about having an early start. It is already past two o’clock. He grunts something about a saideira, one for the road, but I know that he rarely just has one. I ask about a taxi and he laughs.

‘I’m not letting you go off on your own,’ he says.

I’m not reassured.

Another beer is ordered. I think about Isabella, wonder where she is, know that she would be both worried and angry if she knew where I am. Part of me is relieved by this. We’re not spending much time together and perhaps when she does find out she’ll understand why I’m doing it, why I’m feeling a little lost in São Paulo.

The young men are joking and laughing at something. I hope it isn’t me, but I can’t be sure. They’re speaking in a rough slang much of which I don’t understand. And I’m trying not to listen too carefully anyway. I’m trying to sink into the background, but it’s a bit like hiding a glowing light bulb under a thin sheet.

There is a light breeze. It’s that rare thing in São Paulo when the heat finally dissipates and the freshness is cool and comforting, like the dusk in summer in England. Here, you have to be up in the middle of the night to feel it. The houses that bend over us in the tight street, their irregular shapes jutting out at odd angles, corrugated extensions hanging low, seem to sway with the wind. There is a low, constant crackle of electricity in the wires strung criss-crossed above us, straining to carry the current around the Paraisópolis labyrinth.

The girls amble down the street and the young men swagger behind, laughing at them, flip-flops slapping on the bumpy road. I look at Julião. He smiles and punches me on the shoulder, kisses me on the forehead.

‘Embora,’ he grunts. Let’s go.

We throw some money on the table and there is a tense moment as Julião does a quick round of goodbyes at the bar, each one taking a little longer than I’d like. I stand awkwardly grinning, nod my own goodbyes. Julião’s car staggers up the road and into the condominium garage.

I sneak into bed. Isabella, though, isn’t there.

All the Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell

Today, another “review”. (I bet Nicholas Lezard is quaking in his boots.)

My book of 2013 – in the sense that I bought it for a lot of people as a present, as well as enjoying it immensely – was “All the Beggars Riding” by Lucy Caldwell, which is out in paperback next week (Faber).  At its heart, I think, the novel is an examination of what it means to feel excluded by the one person whose love and affection you most desire – and that, in part, your desire for this love and affection is intensified precisely as it has been withdrawn, and you don’t understand why. This is a compelling theme when handled so skilfully and movingly.

Lara, Lucy’s narrator, is middle aged, single, and childless, and, inspired by a creative writing workshop, recounts the story of her parents’ relationship and the dreadful realisation that her “father is living a lie. The lie is us.” The novel takes us to eclectic locations – Belfast, Spain, the Soviet Union, London, Yorkshire – and the vivid, sometimes clinical depiction of place is a sharp and intelligent reflection of the emotional atmosphere of each section. The novel reads like a series of tentative attempts to discover a truth that, deep down, Lara already knows, as if, with each carefully constructed memory, she is ripping away a layer of skin. 

Lara unpicks the story of her parents’ romance from her mother’s perspective, but telling it in the way Lara herself imagines. It is a clever and illuminating device as Lara’s own emotions pour through her account of the complicated affair as she adopts her mother’s voice. This is a superior example of the slightly meta story-within-a-story thing and is as much a meditation on honesty in fiction and the best way to tell a story as it is a forensic and validating take on the madness of passionate, irrational, but real love (“My heart knows not from logic” to quote Woody Allen) versus the rather depressing fact that practicalities sometimes blind us to what we want and need. Perhaps my favourite line comes as Lara’s mother – now pregnant by a charming, roguish Irish Doctor – cleaves to the belief that this man will leave his wife for her: “Hope is a hardy weed. It sprouts up at the slightest, meanest sustenance; it clings, conserves, keeps going.”

The plot unfolds at a serene and hypnotic pace and this is a real strength of the novel – there are moments of genuine tension and look-away/deep-breath heartbreak. Lucy’s prose is precise and measured, and her great gift as a writer is an ability to distil a deep well of emotion into a phrase or a single word. (Her forthcoming collection of short stories will, from the few I have seen, be something of a master class in this.)

The novel opens with the description of a fictional documentary on Chernobyl and the plight of a woman who, effectively, allows herself to grow sick and die for the sake of her husband, a potent symbol of loss for Lara. The woman’s comment on why she is doing this captures the beauty and sadness of this wonderful book: “Because I love him, is why. Because is what love is.” Later, the novel articulates one of the great truths about love and loss: “I would do it all again, I wouldn’t trade anything, not even the outcome, not even if I knew the outcome from the start.”

Twice now I have bought “All the Beggars Riding” as an inappropriate gift, though both recipients were as enamoured by it as I am. I’ll just say that one of them was my Step-Mother.

My Biggest Lie by Luke Brown

Today, a departure from Brazil to Buenos Aires, where much of Luke Brown’s debut novel ‘My Biggest Lie’ (out April, Canongate Books) takes place. There is, however, a brief, touching, and faintly desperate scene in São Paulo, and on that flimsy premise, I’m writing this review. 

Not long ago, it was fashionable in certain circles to speculate on the inspiration behind Liam, the narrator of ‘My Biggest Lie’. I’m not going to comment on that (though he was once was ‘Lee’, and then briefly, brilliantly, tantalisingly ‘Joe’) but I will say that had I known Luke when he was writing the novel, I would have definitely thrown my hat into the ring: Liam is such an engaging, charming and delightfully flawed character that you can’t help wanting to see yourself in him. A friend recently described me as (and this is going on my headstone) “a seasoned hell raiser with the heart of a teenage girl” (any excuse to write that) and anyone with a romantic disposition, a love of literature, and a tendency to make questionable decisions will take an awful lot from this novel. And frankly, if you’ve none of these qualities, then you’re probably not reading novels at all and, as we say in Brazil, pode tomar uma. 

The plot is straightforward: a heartbroken and disgraced editor repairs to Buenos Aires to heal wounds and have adventures, with a Marías/Murakami type literary mystery thrown in. So many first person, coming-of-age novels about clever, sensitive, but reckless young men feel contrived and arch: ‘My Biggest Lie’ is neither. It is defined by a joyful sweetness and innocence, and this is largely due to the trick Luke pulls off in creating a character both authentic and illuminating. We want to know what Liam is thinking and while we recognise his foolishness, we root for him. The clever thing about the novel is that we’re not really sure what exactly it is we are rooting for him to do.

Place is key to this novel. It captures perfectly the bewildering and exciting experience of living abroad, which is something of a symbol of falling in love, being rejected, and then dealing with the uncertainty and dislocation, once again, of having to face life on your own: the foreignness of separation. I’m not going to do any bookish analysis as such as I feel I would be cheating on David Peace, so I’ll cut straight to the hyperbolic comparison thing: ‘My Biggest Lie’ combines the effortless humour of Geoff Dyer, the best bits of Martin Amis’ ‘The Rachel Papers’ and ‘The Pregnant Widow’, with the insight and tenderness of Anne Enright.

I realise I haven’t really discussed the literary merits or weaknesses of the novel (this isn’t really a review at all – you’ve probably learned more about me than about the book) and that’s not to say there aren’t any of either. It’s just that reading ‘My Biggest Lie’ is such an enjoyable and affirmative experience it seems churlish to focus on anything else. In fact, to quote the author (on a quite different topic, admittedly), reading ‘My Biggest Lie’ makes me want to go out, take ecstasy and talk to girls about their haircuts.

I’ll end on a request: Dear Jamie Byng, after a gruelling research trip, it has become clear that upstairs at Catch is definitely the ideal venue for the launch party…

On the genius and relevance of Cazuza (and his white trousers)

Perhaps my favourite Brazilian (apart from my ex-wife, though I’m legally obliged to say that) is the great ‘80’s lyricist and singer Cazuza who died tragically young due to complications with AIDS. He was, remains, the poet of the disaffected; he’s representative of a growing alternative movement that rejects the nepotism and vulgar capitalism of the country’s elite. I first came across him in a terrific biopic ‘Cazuza – O Tempo Não Para’ from 2004. (Not long after the film’s release, Isabella and I attend a theatre party. The actress who plays Cazuza’s mum – a sort of Brazilian Maggie Smith – is also there and I say, too loudly, ‘Fuck! it’s Cazuza’s mum!’ She turns to me, all icy smile. ‘No, sweetheart. I’m just an actress.’ I say, ‘She called me sweetheart!’ and Isabella pretends not to know me.)

While witnessing the protests earlier this year, I was reminded of two of his songs.

1. ‘Brasil’, and the line: Brasil, mostra tua cara, quero ver quem paga para a gente fiche assim. Brazil, show your face, I want to know who pays for us to end up like this.

2. ‘O Tempo Não Para’ (Time doesn’t stop), and the line: Te chamam de ladrão, de bicha, maconheiro, transformam o país inteiro num puteiro, pois assim se ganha mais dinheiro. They call you thief, faggot, addict, while they turn a whole country into a whorehouse, because that way it makes more money.

The lyrics were prescient in the early years of democracy in the post-dictatorship period, and now they reflect a current and deepening dissatisfaction with the political system. Many Brazilians, young and old (though mainly young, I think), have had enough of the endemic corruption, of the widening inequality, of the general passivity when faced with societal injustice. The protests are growing from a desperate feeling of hopelessness. There’s a recurring slogan: O gigante acordou. The giant awoke. In Portuguese the verb ‘acordar’ means to wake up, and, as in English, there is the connotation of stirring yourself to action. I can’t decide whether to appreciate and enjoy the timelessness of Cazuza’s lyrics, or feel depressed that what he sang thirty years ago rings true today. A line I saw time and again in June: Brazil, I’m not proud of you, but I love you.

Also, of course, in terms of Cazuza’s genius, it doesn’t hurt that he looked this good in white trousers…



Brazilian Music is cool

The Guardian seems to think so.


And a lot of it is. Personally, I’d listen to Criolo, Tim Maia, Cazuza, Marisa Monte, and, like The Guardian, Jorge Ben before visiting. My own experience is ‘varied’.

While in Araguari, my in-laws’ small hometown in Minas Gerais, I attend a lot of parties and weddings. I’m always amused that the bands include dancers on stage, flanking the singers and gyrating about quite pleasantly. I’m not complaining, but it seems to define popular music in Brazil: sensuality and physicality combined. Similarly, a very popular weekend television show features a fat bloke shouting into a microphone surrounded by scantily clad dancing girls.

Sertanejo is the most popular form of music in Brazil, originating in the interior and combining elements of tacky country and forró (a fast-moving music and accompanying dance from the north-east of Brazil) making it both cheesy and easy to dance to and sometimes characterised by overtly sexual references. Consider last year’s global hit ‘Ai se eu te pego’, Oh, if I pull you, by Michael Teló, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZt2t8JHV-c with its accompanying arms pulling/groin thrusting dance, in the international gesture of ‘humping’. Sample lyric: ‘Wow, wow, like that you kill me, oh if I pull you, oh my God, if I pull you, delicious, delicious, like that you kill me.’ And it’s not restricted to the mainstream. Funk MC’s are not only male or misogynistic. Tati Quebra-Barraco (her surname means Break the Shack, a metaphor for having shack-breaking sex in the favela), is a current female Funk superstar, her hit ‘Boladona’ perhaps her most famous. Sample lyric: ‘Sou cachorra, sou gatinha’. This can be translated in a number of ways: ‘I’m a dog, I’m a kitten’; ‘I’m a bitch, I’m a pussy’; or, perhaps best, ‘I’m a bitch, I’m hot and sexy.’

I wonder if these artists will be on the BBC and ITV slow-mo montages before and after the football matches.