Those of you who are frequent visitors to my blog will note that I do not editorialize. I try to keep my comments to a minimum, sometimes inserting footnotes to the lyrics where a literal translation would break the flow of the poetry, or drawing attention to discrepancies between different versions of a song. But this song is important to me, so if I may be allowed a bit of indulgence here, I will tell you a little story.
I first heard this milonga, like so many others, when I was living in Buenos Aires in 2006. I loved the energy of it, and the provocative title, but I could only make out two of the lines—the ones about leaving a scar as a reminder.
Fast forward a few years. I’d already begun translating tango lyrics, for fun, for the linguistic challenge, and to share with a few friends. I danced “La cicatriz,” at a milonga somewhere in the Bay Area. Remembering how intriguing it was, I decided to try my hand at translating it.
But to my dismay, I couldn’t find the lyrics on Todo Tango, nor anywhere else on the Internet (ah, the sign of a true 21st century kid: if it’s not on the Web, it must not exist). Had I still been in Buenos Aires, perhaps I could have hunted down a collector who had the original sheet music, or merely asked some porteño friends to help me. I could have Skyped a friend in Buenos Aires, or asked my friends Gustavo and María when they came to the Bay Area, or even my friend Marcelo who lived there. But I always forgot to—somehow it never came up.
When I danced it again at some other milonga (maybe the Denver festival?), I really wanted to translate it. “Okay,” I thought, “no big deal. Just listen to the song. You can transcribe it. After all, you’re working on your M.A. in Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley, you’ve got a degree in Spanish & Portuguese language and literature, and a lot of linguistic experience under your belt—you even did an undergrad project on hard-to-distinguish fricatives in Polish. You’re a fluent Spanish speaker. It can’t be that difficult, right?” Wrong. The combination of Echagüe’s singing style, the unfortunately poor recording quality that plauges many of the Golden Age tangos, and the fact that despite any university degrees I hold I am not a native speaker—all these things worked against me. I could still barely understand the song. So, I saved my partial transcription (half of it looked like this: “¿…?”) in my tango lyrics folder, and promptly forgot about “La cicatriz.”
Until a couple of weeks ago, when fellow tango blogger Jaimito el Zorro Gris asked me if I had a transcription of its lyrics. No I did not…but I had just been in email correspondence with Lídia Ferrari, my first tango teacher in Buenos Aires, a wonderful lady and a scholar (she’s currently based in Italy). Abandoning my pride, I emailed Lídia to ask if she could help me transcribe the song. And she did, though the last two words are only a guess, since the recording quality has lost them. She also pointed out to me that La Aguada is a barrio of Montevideo (I knew it wasn’t the name of any neighborhood in Buenos Aires that I had ever heard of). By digging in Todo Tango’s poorly organized discographies, I was able to find the name of the lyricist, who, judging by the one location named in the song, was probably Uruguayan.
The lyrics themselves may not seem like much—just a story about some punk kid who though he was hot stuff, until someone cut his face and put him in his place. But as I was translating this milonga, finally, it dawned on me that the content didn’t matter so much to me. Rather, it was the idea that with the help of modern technology uniting me with friend a few thousand miles away, I had finally been able to salvage something that had been, at least for me, half lost half a world away.
lyrics by Raúl Aguirrezabalaga
You’ve got the fame of a big thug—
but now you’re not even a shadow
of who you once were.
In the neighborhood of La Aguada
you’re no longer all the rage.
Keep yourself to the sidelines,*
since they left on your face a sign,
with the edge of a big knife—
the memory that remains is the scar.
*The original here uses the slang term “balconearla”—that is, to watch the action in the narrow street below from a balcony, probably much like the San Telmo balconies in the banner picture of this blog.
Orquesta Juan D’Arienzo, singer Alberto Echagüe
(Spanish original after the jump)
De matón tenés la fama—
ya no te queda ni la sombra
del que has sido.
En el barrio de La Aguada
tu furor ya se acabó.
Conformate a balconearla
ya que en la cara te dejaron como muestra,
con el filo de un facón—
la cicatriz como un recuerdo te quedó.