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.
Your comments make these lyrics memorable for us.
Another of my favorites!
Thanks for adding another demension to these old songs for myself and I am sure many others.
Amazing! I had written down a draft of the transcription: I had two major doubts – I couldn’t tell what barrio Echague was referring to, it sounded like el barrio de La Guara; secondly, I couldn’t tell what had been used to cut the thug’s face. Of course, I didn’t know what a facon was until 2 minutes ago when I looked it up in a lunfardo dictionary, so it sounded like cajon or tacon, neither of which make any sense. Also, as per usual, I’m going to disagree on some minor details. On the verse with balconearla, what I have in my version of the transcription is “Conformate a balconearla” rather than “conformaste a balconearla” which would slightly change the translation to a more imperative tone of “stay on the sidelines to watch”. I’m going to up the semantic ante and further support the one letter difference with Spanish grammar: normally when using conformaste in this form, it would be preceded by “te”, i.e. te conformaste. I don’t know why, but it is what it is. A lazy semantic at that.
The second minor disagreement is in the last line, though for this one I’m less certain: for me it sounds to me like “la cicatriz como recuerdo callejero”.
For either case, it doesn’t really change the core of the song in any significant way.
As always Jaimito, another pair of ears/eyes are welcome.
Just a few days ago another commentator pointed out to me variations in “El adiós” (https://poesiadegotan.wordpress.com/2009/09/17/el-adios-1937/). One important semantic variation also had to do with the placement of various /s/’s that I hadn’t heard (of course you know this but for readers who don’t, many speakers in Buenos Aires drop or “aspirate” their /s/’s at the end of syllables, which usually isn’t a problem–for example, Echagüe sings something more like “mue-tra” but since there is no such word we know he means “muestra”). Here I inserted a phantom /s/ where one didn’t exist. Going back over it, I don’t hear one at all, not even a puff of air, so I definitely think you are right on this one.
Also, the missing “te” is a good point, though here I will say that Lídia didn’t point that out at all, and since she’s a highly educated porteña, I’m thinking that perhaps the grammatically incorrect non-reflexive version with no “te” is colloquially acceptable to Argentines, especially in a song about street thugs.
As for the last line, “callejero” would make a lot of sense, but listening over and over I have to say that I definitely hear a /d/ right after the beginning of “recuerdo,” though the word(s) is still very garbled.
All in all, your corrections/notes are very helpful, and I will make note of them in the text above, for those whose interest in linguistic minutiae isn’t strong enough to sustain them through our longer comments :).
Derrick and Jaimito, to add my 2 pennies worth, I also think conformate is better (minor point-I think it needs an accent, as in conformáte). But I wonder whether a more direct translation of “conformáte a balconearla” may be better. If the pronoun “la” points to a woman, as I think it does, how about: ‘Resign yourself to watching her from the balcony? Otherwise the cause for the duel is not apparent in the translation. This is why I’m not sure about ‘del que fue’ because that points to a masculine noun. De lo que fue might be better but it doesn’t sound like that. Or perhaps he is meant to remember his rival?
Thanks for weighing in Paula!
So, as far as the accent on “conformate” goes, as an Argentine grammar teacher would tell you, it technically doesn’t need it. For all the non-Spanish speakers out there (as I’m sure you and Jaimito already know this), the use of “voseo” (2nd person pronoun “vos” replacing “tú” in everyday conversation and most other uses) also requires distinct conjugations in the present tense and in commands. One of these changes is stress. The standard Spanish “tú” form of the command in this case would be “confórmate” with stress on the third-from-last (antepenultimate) syllable. In Spanish grammar jargon, words with the stress here are categorized as “esdrújulas” and always require an accent mark on the stressed syllable.
The “vos” form of the command is indeed “conformáte” (sic) with the stress on the “ma” syllable as Paula points out…however, notice that the stress is now on the second-from-last (penultimate) syllable. Words with the stress here are categorized as “llanas.” Also, the compound word with the particle “te” ends in a vowel. Palabras llanas, if they end in a vowel, do not technically require accent marks. Geez, I sound like an Argentine grammar teacher here.
However, in your defense, Paula, most non-voseo using Spanish speakers would read unaccented “conformate” as “confórmate” if it didn’t have an accent mark, so the hypercorrection may actually be helpful.
Now as far as “la” goes…in Argentine slang, sometimes “la” is used sort of like “lo” in a generic sense. This one is harder to explain because there are no by-the-books grammar and spelling rules to help me out. But for example, when a porteño says “se la re-cree” it means something along the lines of “he thinks he’s such hot sh*t.” There are other generic uses of “la” where other Spanish speakers would use “lo” that I can’t quite think of at the moment…time to go Ask an Argentine! But in this case, I don’t think that the “la” refers to a woman, or that a woman was even necessarily in dispute (though once again, this is just my feeling/understanding, yours isn’t necessarily wrong). What I think is that “la” just sort of refers generically to all the action (¿la acción? haha) going on in the streets that he has to watch from the balcony.
As far as “del que fue” goes…if that is indeed what Echagüe sings, then it refers not to the rival, but rather to the shamed man’s past self vs. his current self. He had the reputation of a being a badass fighter and thug, but now he doesn’t even have a shadow of what he once was. That is, he’s a man of the sidelines, of the balcony, always sitting and watching but too humiliated to participate. A rival gang shamed him and cut his face, and now the only thing he’s got to remind him of the street fightin’ man he used to be (el que fue) is the scar. So for my interpretation, perhaps a better way to render the last line would be “the scar as a reminder of the man you were.”
Hi Derrick-thanks for a thorough explanation, as always! Especially the use of ‘la’ instead of ‘lo’. Now when I read it, it makes more sense as the speaker displays a sense of righteousness that might be out of place if ‘la’ referred a woman, unless she was being abused for example – although I suppose it is also a viable interpretation.
Regarding accents in the imperative of vos, I used to think the same as you until I had my essay corrected by my profesora porteña. I’ll check with her again.
“La” insults the subject as being a wimp: a girl perched in a balcony (yes, I know the subject is a guy- thus my point)… try not to wring the poetry completely out of a sweet little song like this. Here’s a quick poetic stab at it:
A lout logs his fame-
now you’re without shadow or the flame
of what you’ve been.
En the barrio of La Aguada
your rage was poorly spent.
Perch up in your balcony
since your face shows where you went,
with the bare edge of the blade
your scar and memory were made.
I couldn’t resist the rhyme scheme although it’s not perfect but you get the idea. Translation of poetry has to be poetic. Poetic license, within reason and keeping to the the flavor of the poem, applies to translation as well. The music’s not just in the melody here or in any fine tango. L.
Listen again, the last line says “la cicatriz como un recuerdo te quedó.”
Aha! That’s definitely it. Sometimes an obsession can blind one to the obvious. Now, several months after posting and several weeks since I last listened to this milonga, I can definitely hear it. Thank you!
What an interesting discussion.
After hearing and reading the posts, and finally arriving to Idaho’s comment, I heard the Te quedó.
Also, please tell me, more trained native speaker ears, if you hear an S in conformate…. i hear conformaSte…
what makes me think that its conformaste, and not conformate, is the fact that everything in the song is already past tense: ‘ya no te queda…, ya se acabó…, conformaste a balconearla ya’
what do you guys thing?
I can usually hear the lyrics to tango songs very clearly when I am dancing (even in cases where other people can’t — my ear is good at filtering out interference). But this milonga always just sounded like “mumble mumble mumble something mumble mumble” to me. Which is odd because now I have the transcription in front of me it sounds as clear as day. I’m definitely going to enjoy dancing to it more now. And I love the term “balconearla”.
Thanks Derrick for your very hard work in finding / deciphering what the cantor is singing, followed by your introspective translation to English.
So interesting to compare to Mandria – in terms of the Gaucho knife fight tradition I mean..
I love you did this. My favorite milonga ever.
Thanks for writing about this tango and the English translation with some explanations. It’s a favorite milonga of mine and now I can appreciate it further while listening and dancing thanks to your post. Even though I can’t understand a majority of the vocal tangos in an evening at a milonga the ones I know translations of allow me to connect even more as a dancer.