poesía de gotán:

Cambalache (1935)

lyrics by Enrique Santos Discépolo

I’ve always known
that the world was a mess
and always will be…
in 506 A.D.
and in the year 2000 too!
There have always been crooks,
swindlers* and chumps,
happy and bitter people,
treasures and forgeries…
But now no one can deny
that the 20th century
is a sorry display
of petty maliciousness.
We live mired in the froth
of the same sludge,
all well-handled and worn…
Today it makes no difference
if you’re honest or a traitor,
ignorant, wise, crooked,
generous or thieving!
It’s all the same! Nothing is better!
Any idiot knows as much
as a wise professor.
There are no passing or failing grades,
immoral people have caught up with us.
If one guy lives a bogus life
and another robs to feed his ambition,
it doesn’t matter if he’s a priest,
a mattress salesman, King of Clubs,
a scoundrel or a bum.

What a lack of respect,
what an affront to reason!
Anyone can be a baron!
Anyone can be a bandit!
Stavinsky and Saint John Bosco
go hand in hand with La Mignon,
Don Chicho and Napoleon,
Carnera and San Martín,**
just as the rude window displays
of every pawnshop
have mixed up life itself
and you can see a wounded Bible
weep next to a boiler somewhere,
hanging on a hook.***

The twentieth century is
a problem-filled, feverish pawnshop!
If you don’t cry, you don’t get to suckle,
and if you don’t steal you’re a sap.
Come on then! Keep it up!
I’ll meet you in that
far off fiery furnace.
Don’t think anymore,
get out of the way—
no one cares at all
if you were born an honest guy.
He who slaves away
like an ox, night and day
might as well be a moocher,
a murderer, a healer,
or live outside the law.

Tita Merello

Orq. Juan D’Arienzo, singer Alberto Echagüe

Orq. Francisco Canaro, singer Roberto Maida

Orq. Miguel Caló, singer Roberto Arrieta

Susana Rinaldi

Roberto “El polaco” Goyeneche with Quinteto Astor Piazzolla

Gilberto Gil

*The original word here is “maquiavelos,” literally, Machiavellis.
**Stavinsky was an infamous swindler; Saint John Bosco helped underprivileged youth; La Mignon was an opera character who was kidnapped by gypsies as a young girl, though the name is slang for a call girl; Don Chicho a Buenos Aires Mafioso, Primo Carnera an Italian boxer who toured South America around that time, and San Martín one of the founding fathers of Argentina. Perhaps for a modern American reader, it might make more sense like this:
“Mother Theresa and Paul Manafort
go hand in hand with Holly Golightly,
John Gotti and Napoleon,
Manny Pacquiao and George Washington…”
***The original reads “wounded by a saber without rivets.”
This actually refers to a hook next to the toilet where the poor would spear books, including Bibles passed out by Protestant evangelists, to use as toilet paper. This article in Spanish explains the practice and Discépolo’s metaphor further.

(Spanish original after the jump)


Que el mundo fue y será
una porquería,
ya lo sé…
en el quinientos seis
¡y en el dos mil también!
Que siempre ha habido chorros,
maquiavelos y estafaos,
contentos y amargaos,
valores y dublés…
Pero que el siglo veinte
es un despliegue
de maldad insolente
ya no hay quien lo niegue.
Vivimos revolcaos en un merengue
y en un mismo lodo
todos manoseaos…
Hoy resulta que es lo mismo
ser derecho que traidor—
ignorante, sabio, chorro,
¡generoso o estafador!
Todo es igual! Nada es mejor!
Lo mismo un burro
que un gran profesor!
No hay aplazaos ni escalafón,
los inmorales nos han igualao.
Si uno vive en la impostura
y otro roba en su ambición,
da lo mismo que sea cura,
colchonero, rey de bastos,
caradura o polizón.

¡Que falta de respeto,
que atropello a la razon!
Cualquiera es un señor!
Cualquiera es un ladron!
Mezclao con Stavisky va Don Bosco
y La Mignon,
Don Chicho y Napoleón,
Carnera y San Martín…
Igual que en la vidriera irrespetuosa
de los cambalaches
se ha mezcla’o la vida
y herida por un sable sin remache
ves llorar la Biblia
contra un calefón.

Siglo veinte, ¡cambalache
problemático y febril!
El que no llora, no mama,
y el que no afana es un gil.
Dale nomás! Dale que va!
Que allá en el horno
nos vamos a encontrar!
No pienses mas,
sentate a un la’o—
que a nadie importa
si naciste honra’o.
Que es lo mismo el que labura
noche y día, como un buey
que el que vive de los otros,
que el que mata o el que cura
o está fuera de la ley.

About Derrick Del Pilar

Born and raised in Chicago, I came to the tango while studying at the Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires in 2006. In 2008 I earned my B.A. with majors in Creative Writing and Spanish & Portuguese from the University of Arizona, and in 2009 I earned an M.A. in Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. My specialty is the history & literature of early 20th century Argentina.


12 thoughts on “Cambalache (1935)

  1. Thegreatest rant in tango!

    Posted by Johanna Cummings | 11.12.2011, 1:33 AM
  2. WOW…. How politicial, poetical and what a social commentary…..are these lyrics….
    just when I thought every song was a “love lost and found” !!
    I love the music of the dance… it is complex… and beautiful…. but I NEVER really
    understood just what the lyrics were all about… and understanding the lyrics just makes it
    all the more complete…. THANK YOU SO MUCH…. You have made a huge task easier!!!!!!!!!

    Posted by twotsful | 11.12.2011, 3:21 AM
  3. Gracias, gracias, gracias! for this masterpiece translation. The lyrics are relevant. I knew it was popular among portenos, but now I know why. Cambalache reflects the life of many in BsAs. It’s no wonder that so many recordings were made.

    Posted by jantango | 11.12.2011, 7:06 AM
  4. So interesting to read this poem in light of internet fraud and scams! And also that anyone can be an ‘expert’ on-line, however little they know about a subject. Thank you so much for this translation, and site as a whole. I don’t speak (or read) Spanish, so it is important to me that the English version works as a poem in itself, and this certainly does.

    Posted by pscottier | 01.10.2012, 5:04 PM
  5. There’s a bit more to the line that reads “y herida por un sable sin remache ves llorar la Biblia contra un calefón.”

    Though the translation “you can see a wounded Bible weep next to a boiler somewhere, run through with a rusty saber” is literally correct, there’s meaning behind the original that is lost in that translation. In poorer households which could not afford toilet paper, there used to be a hook placed next to the toilet (usually next to the water heater) on which old newspapers and wrappers could be hung and used as toilet paper. The hook was known as the “sable sin remache”. Hence, you see the Bible crying “pierced by the sable sin remache”.

    Posted by Merops Apiaster | 02.09.2012, 10:08 PM
    • Thank you very much for this very enlightening tidbit! These are the things that are critical to the understanding of the lyrics and the context. I will put this in as a footnote in the translation.

      Posted by poesiadegotan | 02.09.2012, 10:27 PM
  6. I believe the line “En el quinientos seis” does not refer to 506 A.D., but to 1506. That was the year of Columbus’ death…

    Posted by Glenn | 07.21.2012, 9:05 AM
  7. Having compared several translations online, I note that some use the year 1492 (voyage of Columbus) instead of 506 (year when the Visigoths captured Dertosa from a Roman tyrant) in the fourth line. Is this merely “free translation”–or was an actual revision made of the date? What was the poet trying to get at here?

    Posted by Brian Jenkins | 08.01.2012, 3:17 AM
    • As a commenter above you pointed out, in colloquial Spanish it’s okay to omit the initial 1 (“mil”) in some dates, and thus refer to the year, say, 1902, as “902.”
      My two cents—the exact year doesn’t matter as much as the idea that the world was a mess hundreds of years ago and still is today.

      Posted by poesiadegotan | 08.08.2012, 8:53 PM
  8. Como argentino, tanguero, hincha de discepolo, y traductor, te agradezco el excellente trabajo.
    Best I’ve ever seen.
    (I personally miss the rancid innuendo of “todos manoseaos” in the translation, but I know: choices, choices, choices)
    un abrazo

    Posted by Carlos | 09.29.2013, 10:07 AM
    • ¡Gracias Carlos!
      I did think about translating “manoseao” as “well-handled,” but it didn’t sound quite right in English, and still didn’t convey the seedy sense that it does in castellano. Choices indeed. Como dijo alguien más sabio que yo, “Toda traducción es un ejercicio en omisiones.”
      Update 6/11/2014–I did change it to well-handled and worn. 🙂

      Posted by Derrick Del Pilar | 09.29.2013, 11:38 AM

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