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Once upon a time

By JUNE LOVER [email protected]

After 35 years in the TV and film industry, June Lover retired to the Algarve in 2006.  Having owned a holiday property here for 12 years she now lives in the hills above Almancil.

Picture the scenario. It’s a cold winter’s evening and you’re toasting your toes in front of a roaring log fire. Curled up next to you on the sofa is your five-year-old granddaughter – we’ll call her Sophie.

Fresh from her bedtime bath, she smells delicious and looks every bit the angel in her fluffy dressing-gown and pink elephant slippers, a far cry from the little demon who tried to dry Raffles in the tumble-dryer a few hours earlier.

“Tell me a story, Grandma”, she says.  Sophie’s no fool.  She knows full well that Grandmas and Grandpas don’t mess about with Goldilocks or Little Red Riding Hood. They tell real stories where she is the heroine and saves all the other little children from the jaws of the giant or the clutches of the wicked witch.

“Once upon a time,” you begin, “there was a little girl called Sophie, who lived with her Mummy and Daddy and her little dog Raffles in a beautiful house…” You know the rest. Before long Sophie’s eyes are closing and she falls asleep without hearing the end of the story, safe in the knowledge that everyone lives happily ever after. Either that or she just got bored.

Whatever, with this image in mind, I decided to use the “once upon a time” theme as one of my language lesson homework projects. I thought it would help me with my past tense exercises, particularly the imperfect tense, an area which needs some serious attention, and I’m desperately trying to impress Guida whose patience, I think, is wearing a bit thin.  

I must have been mad. As always, I fell at the first fence.  How do you say “Once upon a time” in Portuguese?  Surrounded by reference books and dictionaries, I began my research. “Once” translates as uma vez, which means ‘one time’, or ‘a time’. Looks like I’ve killed two birds with one stone! “Upon” translates as sobre, which can also mean ‘over’, ‘above’, or ‘about’. I put them all together and came up with Uma vez sobre uma vez.  

Sixth sense told me this wasn’t quite right, but what do I care? I liked the sound of it.  It had a sort of make-believe magic quality about it.  So I ploughed on.

“There was a little girl”.  Hmmm.  I know how to say “there is”, which is a stupid little word called há. Given you don’t pronounce the ‘aitch’, this could mean anything, but I didn’t know how to say “there was”.  Back to the reference books, which came up with houve.  Once again you don’t pronounce the ‘aitch’ so it sounds like a vacuum-cleaner from Wapping.  

“…called Sophie”.  Aha!  You can’t catch me out here!  Because I know that this is all to do with reflexive verbs. We don’t say “I’m called June”, we say “I call myself June”.  Chamo-me June.  I was on a winner here.  Almost. “She calls herself Sophie” translates as Chama-se Sofia.  Give it a bit of past tense and you get chamou-se Sofia – she called herself Sophie.

So!  How are we doing so far?  My translation of “Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Sophie” has turned into Uma vez sobre uma vez, houve uma menina chamou-se Sofia.  Sounds good to me!  And so it went on.  My imagination ran riot.  I told my tale, which, of course, had a moral, and everyone lived happily ever after.  I could hardly wait for my next lesson.

On reflection, I should have stayed in bed.  Those of you who speak Portuguese will know that my interpretation of “Once upon a time, etc. etc.,” was total rubbish. Absolute nonsense.

And I was bitterly disappointed that I had failed to grasp a fundamental (albeit foreign) version of an age-old tradition – that of story-telling.  But what really hurts is that the correct translation is about as romantic as a slice of bacalhau. No magic. No mystery. Just a lump of cold cod. Here it is.

Era uma vez, uma menina que se chamava Sofia…..  

Translate this back into English and you get “It used to be a time, a little girl that used to call herself Sophie…..”.  Hardly the beginning of a fairytale bedtime story.  Well, not in my book anyway.  

My ‘oover got the heave-ho which is a bit sad ‘cos I put a lot of work into that. And my knuckles were severely rapped for getting “called herself” wrong.  

I had used the past tense, but as she’s still called Sophie, I should have used the imperfect tense. How is one supposed to know these things?  

My translation was about as much use as an ashtray on a motor-bike. Imperfect is the perfect description of my inadequacy where I’m concerned.  Fortunately, I’m not planning to develop my story-telling skills to the local Portuguese children.  

Re-wind to the top of the cosy scene in front of the fire. “Tell me a story, Grandma”.  

“Once upon a time, there was a land far, far away. It was called Portugal.  And some of the little children in Portugal didn’t speak English, so their Grandmas and Grandpas had to tell their stories in a different way. The Portuguese way.”

And that’s what I have to do.  Talk in a different way.  Think in a different way.  They say you can’t speak a language until you can think in it.  In which case, I’m doomed.  It’s hard.  At least, it’s hard for me.  

I bumped into an old chum in the supermarket a few months ago. “I’ve been reading your articles in the Algarve Resident,” she said.  Before I had time to compose a friendly smile that would surely convey my gratitude for her forthcoming compliments, she continued, “You’re not very good, are you?”  Well!  That wiped the stupid grin off my face, and I made mental note to cross her off my Christmas card list.  But she was right.  I’m not very good.  In fact, I’m pretty hopeless so I suppose I should be grateful for her honesty.  

If, like me, you’re struggling with the language, you have two options:

Forget the whole thing and revert to English – it’s perfectly acceptable and no-one will think the less of you. Certainly not me!  

Or carry on and keep making mistakes.  This is the option I have chosen.  Whatever I say, and however I say it, it’s bound to be wrong, but I live in the fond hope that my efforts will be appreciated by our Portuguese hosts.  And eventually, who knows, I might get just a teeny-weeny bit of it right.  That’s my theory anyway. I ain’t giving up yet. Fala Português!