Converting Portuguese to Spanish.

My brother sent me a 460-page pdf put out by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training called Argentina: Country Reader that includes interviews with embassy personnel who were there for stretches of duty between the 1930s and early 2000s, thinking I would be interested in the sections on the time when we were there, in the late 1960s, and I was indeed — I learned a lot about the politics and economy of the country that I had been unaware of when living there. I thought this passage from the interview with Edward M. Rowell, Political Officer, Buenos Aires (1965-1968) was LH material:

ROWELL: June, 1965. I was assigned to the Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had no workable Spanish. So I was assigned to the FSI for four or five weeks, the maximum amount of time I could be given that would allow me to get to Buenos Aires to be useful from the point of view of the Political Counselor and the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission].

I arrived at the Foreign Service Institute. I said, “I already speak Portuguese and you have already tested me in that. Now I need to speak Spanish.” They started to give me, in knee jerk fashion, their usual four-to-six month course. I said, “No, I don’t have time to waste on that.” They said, “Well, you’ll have to take that course, because otherwise you won’t learn Spanish properly.” So I said, “Test me.” The first thing that they wanted me to do was to sit at home and listen to endless tapes on how to pronounce Spanish. I said, “I think that I can pronounce Spanish. Give me a tape and have me read something. I may not understand what it says, but I think that I can pronounce it.” And I could. They said, “Well, all right, we’ll get rid of those tapes.” It interested them that I didn’t mispronounce Spanish the way a Brazilian would. That’s what they were afraid of — not my American accent but my Brazilian accent.

They finally turned loose a linguist who listened to me and listened to my Portuguese. Then he said, “All right.” And they created a special program for me. I went out and bought some books at one of the university bookstores, probably at George Washington University. I brought them in. They gave me a special class, which involved one linguist, one language instructor, and one student left over from the previous Spanish language course who still didn’t have an onward assignment. That person could act as a foil. In five weeks I was at the 3 – 3 level [speaking level 3 – useful; reading level 3 – useful], because they paid attention to converting my Portuguese, rather than just teaching me Spanish from scratch. That was the genesis of the present language instruction which converts Spanish to Portuguese or Portuguese to Spanish. That is the six-week program that they have.

This is not language-related, but it’s a great story, so I’m quoting it:

After I had been in Argentina for a year, I assumed responsibility for covering political events in some of the northern and western Argentine provinces. So I started off on my first provincial trip to call on governors, business leaders and others just to take the pulse of people outside of Buenos Aires. The views of the provinces throughout Argentina’s history had always differed sharply from the views of people in Buenos Aires.

On the Argentine railroads you could get a ticket for a berth, but you normally didn’t take a whole compartment. When I went to take this trip, the only unoccupied berth on the train, on this relatively long trip, was in a compartment of four berths. So I climbed into the railroad car.

The other berths were occupied by traveling salesmen. We talked. They learned who I was, and I knew who they were. About 10:00 PM they started a card game. I was tired, but they were talking and smoking. They were beginning to run low on wine but still enjoying the card game. Well, I happened to have a couple of bottles of wine in my bag, so I took out a bottle and gave it to them. They invited me to sit at the table. I said that I didn’t want to play cards. They said, “That’s all right. Just sit and talk with us.” So we talked. As the train rolled along the track to Córdoba in the middle of the night, they would look out the window and say, “Oh, this is Fulgencio,” or Diego, or whatever it was. They would give the names of these stations and the “estancias,” or large ranches, and then the towns. They said, “You know, this ranch owner has this and this, and he’s married to so-and-so, but his wife is having an affair with” somebody else. They knew this important person and that important person, and the mayor in this town had done this and that, and they’ve gone broke, so we don’t stop and sell machinery there this year.”

By the time I got off the train in Cordoba at 9:30 AM the next day I was cross-eyed, because I hadn’t been to bed and hadn’t slept. And I knew everything that was going on in the territory between Buenos Aires and Cordoba. I really didn’t have to call on a soul. Well, I did call on the senior provincial officials — the governor, the mayors of the big cities, and so on. However, ever since then I have respected the role of the traveling salesman.


  1. An anecdote from a Mexican diplomat on the potential pratfalls of conversion: reading the papers in Brazil, he was alarmed to read a classified ad — se vende secretaria con cadeiras movibles.

    They were selling a secretarial chair with a swivel seat, and not as he feared, a secretary with hips that move.

  2. Ha!

  3. This probably is a pretty common confusion word. Sekretar’ is a (masculine) word for secretary in Russian and sekreter is secretair as GT informs me. Russian word is not very widely used, but less exotic then English one. The saving thing in Russian is that the last vowel in both words is under stress, which diminishes the chance for confusion.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Sekretär for both in German, and for the secretarybird, too.

    But of course the stereotypical secretary continues to be of the female persuasion, thus Sekretärin.

  5. “Secretary” in English can also mean a certain kind of desk, although that usage probably counts as quaint these days.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    Same for le secrétaire in French, a desk with shelves built above it. For centuries, human secretaries were male. When women entered (and almost monopolized) the profession, la secrétaire could no longer be confused with the piece of furniture, or the exotic bird with some long feathers..

  7. I assisted my parents in picking out a secretary, of the furniture type, about a quarter century ago. Hardly any of those available were designed for actual use as desks. That function of the secretary desk seed to be essentially obsolete. Buyers, including my parents, wanted them to adorn their living rooms for purely esthetic reasons.

  8. I had a manual typewriter on top of my secretary when I was a teenager (1969-1976, more or less).

  9. Lest anyone think I was that diplomat, it’s from the memoirs of Jesus Silva Herzog.

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