t was a tense moment. The powerful voice of Governor Carlos Lacerda, entrenched in the Government Mansion in Rio de Janeiro, was heard over the radio,
provoking Admiral Aragão, challenging him to a duel: “Aragão, covarde, incestuoso,
venha decidir comigo essa parada! Quero matá-lo com meu revólver” (Aragão, you incestuous coward, come have this out with me! I want to kill you with my gun). It was April 1, 1964 and Admiral Aragão was
said to be marching his marines to storm the Mansion and put the rebel governor under arrest. Had Admiral Aragão done it, Brazilian history might have
The point I would like to develop here, however, is not historical, as this is the Translation Journal, not the Journal of Recent Brazilian History. What interests me here is the use of the word incestuoso (incestuous). Incestuoso, as its English
cognate incestuous, is a learned word, not a dirty word a boy would hurl at another in the course of a street fight.
One of the strongest epithets you can throw at a Brazilian man is to join the three words and call him a veado, corno do caralho!
In addition, in Brazil at least, calling someone incestuous is not a common insult. You can insult a man by calling him a cuckold or a homosexual, but you
do not call him incestuous. In fact, there is no good translation for mother fucker in these parts. Having sex with one’s own mother is beyond
the imagination of any Brazilian. Or at least, of most of us.
In other words, Governor Lacerda, opted not to use a vulgar insult to provoke the Admiral. God knows why, for he could be as foul-mouthed as the next man.
Perhaps he thought a translated English insult, however unusual in Portuguese, would be more appropriate, given the circumstances. He is dead now, too late
It doesn’t mean what it means
Not that those things mean what they mean, so to say. When you call someone a mother fucker it does not mean that you believe he is incestuous; if
you believe the guy had sex with his mother, you would call him incestuous and that is that. Same go for other words. What the fuck is this? does
not have any sexual connotations. Decidedly, it is not an inquiry concerning the nature of a sex act.
In fact, it is a less elegant substitute for what the hell is this? which, in turn, also doesn’t mean what it means either. Both the fuck and the hell contribute nothing to the meaning of the phrase: they are expletives that just help demonstrate how strongly we feel
over the damned thing.
That creates a lot of problems for the translator. For instance, it is easy to translate they were fucking in her mother’s bedroom, wherein fuck means having sex. Translating what the fuck were they doing in her mother’s bedroom is not so easy, because fuck is
just an expletive that helps convey the admiration of the speaker regarding the fact that John and Jane were in Jane’s bedroom at a certain moment.
The problem lies ahead
The problem lies in that, although there are several ways to refer to acts of sex in Portuguese, we would not use any of them in this context. Expletives
cannot be translated literally.
You can say Que porra / caralho / cazzo eles estavam fazendo no quarto da mãe dela? Porra is cum, in the sense of sperm, not in
the sense of cum laude. Caralho is the penis, cazzo, is also the penis. Cazzo, actually, it is an Italian import which entered
Brazilian Portuguese though São Paulo.
“OK,” you could say, “there are three idiomatic translations: take your pick.” Very good. And what if the answer to the question is
“Well, they were just fucking”? You can translate it as Bom, estavam só fodendo, but the play on the two fucks would be
and porra are probably the expletives in widest use nowadays, judging by the Greater São Paulo Area, where I live. Some people can hardly
articulate a phrase without using at least one of those words: Porra, está fazendo calor pra caralho (Literally, Cum! It is hot for dick or (as the Bowdler siblings would put it) it is terribly hot today).
Insulting a gentleman in Brazilian Portuguese
As I said above, we do not insult a man by accusing him of incest: we accuse him of being homosexual (veado) or a cuckold (corno). Why veado, which is a red deer, should be associated with homosexuality
in Brazil is beyond the limits of my comprehension. Also beyond my comprehension is why corno (horn) came to be associated with being the victim of
an unfaithful wife, an association which seems to have originated in Italian. The fact is that closing a fist and raising index and small finger can get
you into trouble in Brazil. Of course, referring to a man as a veado or corno does not imply that the he is homosexual or has an unfaithful
One of the strongest epithets you can throw at a Brazilian man is to join the three words and call him a veado, corno do caralho! or, literally, a
red deer horn of the penis, or, more figuratively and, perhaps, more precisely, gay cuckold. Don’t ask me how to translate the do caralho, in this connection, but believe me when I say this is a very common expression.
Provoking a Brazilian Rear Admiral
Perhaps, if Governor Lacerda had said Aragão, seu veado corno do caralho… Rear Admiral Aragão might have become puto da vida (literally: male prostitute of his life; idiomatically: fucking angry) and walked into the palace gardens, gun in
hand, taken the challenge and Brazilian history might have been different, for he was probably a better shot than Lacerda.