March 26, 2010

Speaking in (other) tongues: A tale of two talks in Portuguese

My Brazilian colleague, Izabel, asked me to give a talk at her university – Universidade Federal de Goiás in Goiânia. I agreed, as I thought it would be a good idea to share my research with Brazilian students and faculty, and to learn from them. A few days later, she asked me to give another talk – about my previous research on blackness in Peru. Again, I figured it would be a good idea to have a discussion with Brazilian students and scholars about race. So, I accepted.

As the date for the talks got closer, it sunk in that I had to give these talks in Portuguese. And, my Portuguese skills were not as good as I thought they were going to be. Sure, a lot of my language skills were coming back. But, giving a 40 minute academic lecture requires a pretty good grasp of the language.

I had already accepted, so there was no turning back. And, I certainly have seen people give talks in “English” where I can barely understand a word. So, I decided I would do my best and not worry about any of the potential errors I could make.

My first talk was to be in a graduate class with history and anthropology students. The theme of the class was “Identities.” Because of the historical focus, I decided to give a talk based on the third chapter of my book on the different roles that blacks and Indians played in the national imaginary in Latin America between 1870 and 1940. This is a piece I have been working on since 2006, and, after several revisions, is completed. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to make a PowerPoint on the basis of that chapter.

My second talk was to be for a more general audience and I decided to give the talk based on my current research on deportees. I have given several talks in English on mass deportation from the US, and even gave one in Spanish in Guatemala a few months ago. So, I figured I had the material down.

When it came time to prepare the first talk, I stumbled over each word in Portuguese. It is often hard for me to be sure if a word is actually Portuguese or if I just made it up from Spanish. So, I decided to use Google Translator to translate each PowerPoint slide from English to Portuguese. I made the slides one by one on the basis of the chapter. I put a lot more information on each slide than I normally do when I give presentations in English. I thought that would give me more of a crutch to lean on as I was speaking. My agility in Portuguese simply is not the same as in English. So, plenty of fully formed sentences seemed like a good thing to have.

It took longer than I expected to select the text that I would use for the presentation, and to translate and then correct each slide. But, I managed to have a working draft of the presentation done in three days. Then, it was time to practice and make final adjustments. I practiced the presentation out loud at least four times before I gave it.

Meanwhile, I also had to prepare the other talk – for a more general audience. In this talk, I thought it would not be a good idea to have too much text on the PowerPoint. The attention span of graduate students tends to be greater than the average undergrad, so I decided to put less text and more images to keep the undergrads awake.

I again used Google Translator – this time from Spanish to Portuguese, as I had given a similar presentation in Spanish. I took images from my blog and formulated a presentation that explains why Latin Americans are significantly more likely to be deported from the US than Asians or Europeans. Having spent so much time with the first PowerPoint, I had less time to dedicate to the second, and practiced it fewer times. Admittedly, I don’t think I ever got a chance to practice the whole thing out loud. Retrospectively, I really think I should have done that at least twice.

When it came time to give my first talk, I remembered to speak slowly and enunciate my words in Portuguese. I even found myself with the ability to go off on tangents and explain the background of certain slides. I was interrupted twice with questions for clarification, and was able to get right back on track. After the presentation, students and faculty had plenty of questions, and I was generally able to understand the questions. In all, the talk was a success. But, of course, that was the easier audience – 30 graduate students and a handful of faculty - people who are used to long, boring treatises.

I was invigorated after the first talk, but also tired. I had woken up at 4:30 that morning to get to Goiânia, and the talk was around 3pm. I didn’t get to sleep until 11pm, and woke up the next day at 7:30am. My talk was at 9am, so I didn’t get a chance to practice it as I had hoped.

The second talk was in a larger room – with seats for about 200, and more than half of them filled up with students. I was given a microphone, which I had to hold in my hand while I managed my PowerPoint and notes pages. Not an ideal setup, but certainly doable.

I began my talk and saw a few students eyes glaze over as I explained the various laws and policies that have led to mass deportation. However, once I got on the topic of how Latinos and blacks are targeted by police and immigration authorities, a few students seemed to perk up. And, as I told the stories of five deportees, I think quite a few of the students were actually listening.

For this presentation, I put less information on the PowerPoint slides, but put full paragraphs in Portuguese on some of the notes pages. That worked pretty well as a strategy. Some of the slides I explained without notes and others I read directly from the notes page. At the end of the talk, the audience was not as lively as the day before, but I did get a few good questions and had a bit of dialogue.

Overall, the two talks went a lot better than I thought they would. If I have to do this again, I will remember to practice, to have a mixture of reading and ad hoc explanations, to include images and provocative slides, and to have a printout of the notes pages and PowerPoint slides handy. And, of course, to use Google Translator!


  1. You know, when you posted the other day that you were going to be giving these talks, I immediately remembered that it wasn't too long ago that you had arrived in Brasil only to discover your portuguese was rustier than you thought. So, I just figured, either you took the easy way out and was doing the talk in English (in Goiânia? no way) or had become proficient in academic portuguese in no time. Now I see that Google Translator is THE tool to have! Great strategy for preparing though. For once, PP is actually useful!

  2. Gelede: Yes, google translator worked wonders and PP was a good crutch to have. Also, giving the talks and being in Goiania talking a lot with people, my Portuguese is definitely starting to come back. I still forget words and can't remember all those verb tenses I once knew. But, it's getting better.

  3. Wonderful narrative Tanya put this piece in your tenure file.

  4. Tanya, I was in your second presentation, when around 200 students have had opportunity to open their minds and to know the reality of deportation in EUA. I have learned much throught your "second talk" and I have seen your endeavour to talk in portuguese. (And, it haven't any problem to use Google translator; sometimes I need it also to translate expressions from portuguese to english).

  5. Thanks, Pablo! I am glad you found the talk useful. And, ... make sure to let me know if you find anyone deported from the US as I am still looking!