28 January 2013

Get Your Flu Shots Here?

All my life I’ve known of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC, as the cognoscenti call it. I always believed that here was a governmental organization that actually cared about people, about keeping people healthy. And not just in the States, but all around the world. After all, its stated mission is to be the nation’s "premier health promotion, prevention, and preparedness agency and a global leader in public health." Americans have always turned to the CDC — by telephone or letter back in the "old" days, and via their Web site now — for all kinds of health advice, including what shots to get before traveling abroad. I remember that getting shots before traveling was a really big deal, something you had to check off your "to-do" travel list. Nobody wanted to get sick on their honeymoon in Paris.

My favorite -- lotion, not spray

I just checked the CDC site last week, and found that in the past three months there have been warnings about a dengue outbreak in Madeira, Portugal, an outbreak of yellow fever in the Sudan, a cholera epidemic in the Dominican Republic, ebola in Uganda, sarcocystosis (sarco who?) in Malaysia and malaria in Greece. Whew! At least for once Brazil can relax. You have to go through a lot of drop-down menus to find any warnings about travel here right now, and what you finally get is the usual warning about dengue, kind of a default warning. If nothing else, there will always be dengue. My suggestion is not to worry, they’ve got a lot of mosquito repellant in Brazil.

For years, though, Brazil was one of the countries with long lists of recommended shots to get prior to travel here: the CDC recommended vaccinations against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, yellow fever and malaria, albeit mostly for people traveling to the Amazon region, the subtropical areas, and interior areas where hygiene is a word, not a concept. I never got any shots in all my travels around Brazil, but plenty of people back home shook their heads, certain that I would come down with something. Never happened. I’ve been sicker in New York from badly prepared food than I’ve ever been in my many years traveling and living in Brazil.

Anyway, stop the presses! The tables have turned! Brazilians who are planning to travel to the United States right now are receiving dire warnings about the virulent strains of flu that are fast spreading around the States, the influenza A viruses known as H3N2 and H1N1, as well as several influenza B viruses. There are scads of newspaper stories, and television and radio reports every day. Anxiety reigns. Brazilians are scared.

Footnote: On the same web page where the Brazilian Health Ministry is urging travelers to get their flu shots at least 7 to 15 days before their trip, it is informing them that there are no flu shots available. You see, right now it’s summer in Brazil. Brazil’s allotment of flu vaccines was used up during the winter season here, when the campaign to get people immunized was in full swing, including all those freebie shots for us old folks over 60. What a conundrum! What’s a Brazilian with a ticket to the U.S. to do?

21 January 2013

Boy and Beast on a Boat

On the one hand, we have Yann Martel, the Canadian author of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi, recently made into a highly-touted film which has garnered 11 Oscar nominations. Published in 2001, the novel tells the story of an Indian boy and a tiger on a lifeboat.

On the other hand, we have Moacyr Scliar, the Brazilian author of Max and the Cats, published in 1981 and translated into English in 1990. Considered Scliar’s finest work, this novel tells the story of a Jewish boy and a panther on a lifeboat.

All of which sets the stage for the hoopla in Brazil surrounding the recently-released film based on Martel’s novel, distributed here under the title As Aventuras de Pi. You can’t open a newspaper or magazine review of the movie without reference being made to the plagiarism controversy which began shortly after Martel won the Man Booker Prize in 2002. Martel said back then, and maintains even now, that he never read the Scliar book. He only read an unfavorable review written by John Updike in the New York Times Book Review. When it was pointed out that no such review was ever written, Martel changed his story, saying that he didn't remember where he had read about the Scliar book, only that it was "a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer." Ouch.

I guess this is where I launch into a spirited defense of Moacyr Scliar, a highly respected and widely translated author whose work I have read and enjoyed — but let’s all back up a minute. Because when you think about it, what ideas haven’t been recycled in literature? Who inspired whom? Exactly how fresh is the idea of a boy and a beast on a boat? Maybe Scliar watched Werner Herzog's 1972 film Aguirre: The Wrath of God, which tells the story of a 16th-century expedition in Latin America, and ends with the main character on a boat with monkeys. Or maybe Scliar read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Lad and the Lion, published in 1914. That story tells of an old king’s grandson, Michael, who spent his early years on a derelict ship in the company of a lion. For that matter, maybe Burroughs read Alfred Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, published in 1911, a story which ends with the main character sailing away in a boat with a chattering ape. Maybe everyone’s taken their inspiration from Noah’s Ark, for goodness sake. There’s a story of people cast adrift with animals if ever there was one.

Let’s come back to the present day. It’s not the alleged plagiarism by Martel of Scliar’s work that has everyone in a snit here in Brazil. It’s that Moacyr Scliar was so arrogantly brushed off as a "lesser writer." That really gets people’s goat here — oh, jeez, I didn’t mean that to sound as if I were plagiarizing A Goat on a Boat, a wonderful children’s story by Brian Dowd. Really, you have to be so careful nowadays!

14 January 2013


Have you ever watched a foreign film in which one of the characters spews out a full minute-and-a-half of dialogue and the subtitle is, "I don’t think so"? Did you ever wonder about that? About what you were missing? I have, often. Wanting to know what people were saying — really saying — was one of the things that pushed me to study languages in the first place. But when you don’t speak a film’s language, knowing or fearing that the subtitles might be leaving out crucial plot points or character developments is extremely frustrating to me. I’ve actually gotten into some tense discussions here in Brazil when I complain about the Portuguese subtitling I see on English-language films. My Brazilian friends tell me that the subtitlers have very little space or time within which to work, that they’re poorly compensated, that they do the best they can, that it doesn’t really matter anyway, that people get the gist. But is the gist enough?

Here’s an example: in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there’s a recurrent phrase that has become one of the film’s most iconic lines. After what they think is a just another hold-up, Butch and the Kid marvel at the unusual persistence of their pursuers. They keep asking each other, "Who are those guys?" And here’s the Portuguese subtitle: "Odeio esses caras," which means "I hate these guys." Now, asking "who are those guys" shows vulnerability, it’s crucial to Butch and the Kid’s slow, painful realization that they are — for the first time in their joint life of crime — up against it. But if they say "I hate these guys," they’re showing attitude, and that changes everything. Here's a great montage of that line:

Sometimes the subtitlers don’t rewrite, they get it totally wrong. So much so that it’s funny. Mark and I were just watching an old American film noir called Criss Cross, with Burt Lancaster and Yvonne de Carlo. At one point the Lancaster character, a tough guy, says to another tough guy, "I’ll give you a ring tomorrow." The subtitle? "Vou te dar um anel amanhã," which is a literal translation of "give you a ring," provided you’re talking marriage. Okay, so now the Brazilian audience is supposed to think this tough guy is giving his enemy a piece of jewelry?

Tucci as Frank Nitti
There’s also a tendency when subtitling in Portuguese to sidestep English vulgarity. Okay, even I can understand how some people might shy away from foul language, there’s probably far too much of it these days anyway. But when you do that, when you rewrite the dialogue, your audience completely loses what the dialogue says about the characters. In the movie Road to Perdition, Stanley Tucci’s criminal character tells another criminal character, "You don’t know your thumb from your dick." It’s vulgar, but it’s also funny, it’s colorful and it’s true to the character. The subtitle? "Voçe não entende nada" or "you don’t understand a thing." Not vulgar, true, but also not funny, not colorful, not in the least interesting.

I know this isn’t the most important subject in the world, but it’s one of those niggling things that just make me itch. And as a devoted cinephile I’ve started to worry about how much I’m missing when I watch a Russian film with English titles, or a Danish film with Portuguese titles. More than I’d like to miss, probably. But in the grand scheme of things I guess it’s okay. People still go to the movies and still get something out of the experience. Do they get all the details? No. Do they get all the popular culture references? No. Will Mark and I continue being the only people in the theater laughing? Yes, sometimes. But our friends know that we’ll explain it to them later.

***Just one more instance: I mentioned how subtitles can’t get all the cultural references. Take this zinger that I loved, and will always remember, from the movie Leatherheads, so snappily delivered by Renee Zellweger’s Lexie to George Clooney’s Dodge: "How quiet it must be at the Algonquin with you here in Duluth." How’s a subtitler going to handle that? No matter how good you are, that line needs footnotes, not subtitles!

07 January 2013

On Being Number Two

I am the second of three daughters. Since my father always mixed our names up, he settled for calling us by number. I was "Number Two." So I know full well what it’s like to be number two, to have second billing, to be second in the chain of command, and I can imagine what it must feel like to be second in line to the British throne. Currently, I’m the second listing on one of our utility bills, which shows my husband’s name followed by the words "e o outro" (and the other one). Boy, do I know what it means to have to try harder. Avis, I’m with you.

I used to live in the Number One country (according to scores of criteria), but now I live in the Number Two country (which might explain why I feel so at home here). There isn't a day that goes by that I don’t read the words, "Brazil is second only to the United States in . . ." or "Brazil is the world's second largest market for . . .," always followed by the United States. It’s become quite the joke of the house. Here’s just a sampling:

On the health and medical front, Brazil is second only to the United States in the number of stomach reduction and cosmetic surgeries performed. Brazil is the world's second largest market for breast implants, dental implants, and private health plans. In its search for healthier lifestyles, Brazil is the world's second largest market for exercise equipment. But at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Brazil unfortunately ranked second only to the United States in the number of reported cases of AIDS. On an even darker note, Brazil has become the world's second largest market for cocaine and crack consumption.

Moving on to food consumption and/or production, Brazil is second only to the United States in land area planted with genetically modified crops. It’s second only to the United States in soy production and in corn exports. Brazil is the world's second largest market for pet food and for Nestlé products. And although "they’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil," the country is also second to the United States in coffee consumption.

blindado = armored

As a country with a thriving, pulsating business economy, Brazil is the world's second largest market for executive jets and helicopters, for cell phones and for fax machines. It’s also the world's second largest market for armored cars (hmmm). Brazil is second only to the United States in the number of ATM machines it has, and in the number of private swimming pools it boasts. Brazil is the world's second largest surf and skateboard market, and the world's second largest market for jeans. (Why I can’t find a pair of Brazilian jeans that I like is another story.)

And here’s an interesting one for the socially-networked: Brazil is second only to the United States in number of Facebook users!

Mind you, I can’t vouch for any of this information because it’s constantly changing. In some instances China has surpassed Brazil (particularly in the luxury goods markets). But I can vouch categorically for what it feels like to be number two, and I know that Brazil has that "number two" mind set. I know. I wasn't just number two in birth order. In my most shining high school moment I won second place in the 1967 New Jersey Forensic League Oratory Contest. "Always number two," said my almost-proud father.