Brazilian Portuguese plays a versatile role in Vilém Flusser’s multilingual intellectual universe. It is a site of engagement, an intersection where the most diverse cultural currents merge, the terrain on which Flusser sought to become a writer, and also a raw material demanding to be processed and altered. Because Flusser found it easier to write in German than in Portuguese, writing in Portuguese became, for him, the work of a lifetime. Unlike German, which entices us to dive below the surface, Portuguese seduces the speaker into going off on a tangent, away from the subject. Portuguese is the language of digression, of so-called free association; it therefore calls out for rigorously structured thinking that forces it to keep itself in check.
Flusser engaged with Portuguese in order to manipulate it with German, as well as with English. At the same time, Portuguese helped him to regenerate and renew a postwar German corrupted by fascist jargon. His practice of translating his own work, especially in the first years of his writing career, was also intended to overhaul German philosophy, particularly that of Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, by rendering it into Portuguese. In doing so, Flusser achieved through translation not only defamiliarization, but also a liberating clarification. The translation process became a form of critique of philosophy and language.
In his early essay “Da Língua Portuguesa” [On the Portuguese Language] (in: Revista Brasileira de Filosofia, vol. 10, no. 40, 1960), Flusser notes that what is fascinating about Portuguese is not its vitality and effusiveness, nor the melodic aspect of its many euphonious, Latin-derived vowels, but rather identifying a fundamental structural difference from German. The monotheistic ontology of the German sein [to be] – and here we touch on Heideggerian existentialism – yields to the polytheistic trinity of estar, ser, and ficar: the one splinters into three possibilities and can no longer be put back together.