Brazilians are trying hard to get ready to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Despite having a big territory rich with natural scenery, Brazil is not accustomed to many international visitors. The World Tourism Organization, which ranks tourist spending in different countries, puts it 39th on the list, behind much smaller countries like Lebanon, Croatia and Malaysia. Next year, the government expects tourism spending in Brazil to grow by 55 percent, thanks largely to the World Cup.
But as that time draws near, the general feeling among my compatriots is one of disbelief, as if somebody was expecting to see a turtle fly or explain the Schrödinger equation. The prevailing feeling is captured by the expression “Imagina na Copa …” — Imagine during the Cup — spoken every time we see a 112-mile-long traffic jam, an overcrowded airport or the rising prices of hotels and flights. If things are already bad, imagine what they’ll be like during the World Cup.
Such pre-tournament pessimism is common. Last year the British were skeptical about the Olympics, which turned out to be O.K. So were the South Africans, who, after the last World Cup, celebrated the fact that “Armageddon did not happen,” in the words of the Africa correspondent for The Guardian, David Smith: “No one died. No one was stabbed, no one was kidnapped and no one took a wrong turn into the clutches of a gang of garrotters.”
But Brazilians are especially apocalyptic in our expectations. We belong to a country where corruption costs $28.7 billion to $47.7 billion a year, according to an estimate from the Industrial Federation of São Paulo State; that’s between 1.4 percent and 2.3 percent of the gross domestic product in 2010. We have poor infrastructure and serious social inequity. We worry about violence from drug trafficking and organized crime — last month, one gang from São Paulo threatened to unleash “a World Cup of terror” if the government didn’t agree to its demands.
And yet Brazilians are doing what we can to welcome tourists.
There’s a school teaching English on almost every corner, seeming as common as bakeries, hair salons and evangelical churches. The Brazilian Association of Franchising estimates that there are a total of 6,088 franchises of 77 language schools with names like Wizard, Yes! and Wise Up. Some schools guarantee that a student will learn English in 18 months, six months, eight weeks and, yes, 24 hours. The Ministry of Tourism has created a program to increase access to English classes called Hello, Tourist!
Nevertheless, the Education First English Proficiency Index places Brazil at No. 46 of 54 countries. Even some of the official efforts to further English translations of public signs are clumsy; six months ago, a giant football stadium in Salvador, in northeastern Brazil, opened with exit gates marked “Entrace” — both mislabeled and misspelled. On the streets of the capital, Brasília, a sign pointing to “Setor Hoteleiro Norte” (Northern Hotel Sector) had the translation, “Southern Hotel Sector.”
In the great tradition of Brazilians making fun of ourselves, this set off a fad of nonsensical English translations of Brazilian locations on social networks. One of my favorite translations: “Santos Dumont the True Airplane Inventor and Not The Wright Brothers Avenue” (for Avenida Santos Dumont). More than an effort to communicate, these inside jokes are a way of strengthening our bonds against outsiders.
Shortly before the 2008 Olympic Games, in Beijing, the world was presented with a new language: Chinglish. A blend of Chinese and English, the term was commonly applied to ungrammatical or nonsensical English in local contexts.
One particularity of Chinglish is its straightforwardness, as in examples like: “Deformed man toilet” and “Keep it carefully to avoid gangster.” It’s a way to ignore Western euphemisms when talking about sensitive topics. As Oliver Lutz Radtke, the author of “Chinglish: Found in Translation,” puts it, “Chinglish is right in your face.”
Brazinglish, on the other hand, is very casual and reckless, and often chooses to go literal just to avoid making the effort to explain better. The results are word-by-word translations with an unintelligible (or quite strange) content, sometimes nothing more than playing with sounds. Imagine, for instance, translating “Manhattan” (Man-hat-tan) to “Guy with an embrowning cap, as by exposure to the rays of the sun.”
Some great examples can be seen in restaurant menus. To Americanize some foods, we could write “Barbie Kill Sauce” instead of “Barbecue Sauce.” Trying to explain some typical food to foreigners, we often create nonsensical expression such as: “Meat of the Sun with Friend Potato” (Carne de Sol com Batatas Fritas), “Crazy Meat” (Carne Louca), “Sleeve Juice” (Suco de Manga), “Chicken to the Bird” (Frango à Passarinho) and “Against the Brazilian Steak” (Contra-filé à Brasileira).
Brazilians have also adopted plenty of English words, though we often change the meaning in the process. We have begun using “outdoor” to designate a billboard, and “folder” instead of brochure. Claire Rigby, the editor of Time Out São Paulo, has written about these curious words. “We speak roughly half English and half Portuguese in the office — and then descend into a world of hybrid language,” she writes.
Brazinglish can be poetic, but it’s not nearly so lyrical as Chinglish. Some of the best known phrases in Chinglish are substitutes for a well-known sign in parks: “Little grass has life, please watch your step,” “Show your tender heart by leaving the green leaves untouched” and “Show mercy to the slender grass.”
Brazilians are so nervous about what will happen when tourists descend for the World Cup, we’re practically wishing we could call it all off. Perhaps we can plant a new sign at our stadiums. It would be a perfect translation, and it would be placed in the middle of the soccer field: “Keep off the grass.”
Vanessa Barbara, a novelist and columnist for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo, edits the literary website A Hortaliça.