poesía de gotán:
The Poetics of Word Choice

The translator’s job is always tricky, but translating poetry and lyrics can be downright devilish. Poets and lyricists choose words not only for their meanings, but also their sounds. When two languages have very different syllable structures and rhythms, as do English and Spanish, we are caught in a conundrum: attempts to stick too closely to the meanings of individual words can lose the music of the whole, but attempts to capture the overall rhythm and flow can distort the message the original words attempt to convey. Translating poetry and lyrics, then, always puts the translator on a tightrope teetering between two precipices.

I can’t go through each tango line by line and justify my word choices, but with one (rather extreme) example I hope to share with you some of the processes that go into all the translations.

There is a line in the vals “A Magaldi” that I find absolutely perfect in the original Spanish:

La flor del dolor se deshoja, sembrando congojas en mi corazón.

The lyrics, by the hardly famous Juan Tiggi, are an elegy to the late tango singer Agustín Magaldi. Most of the vals is replete with standard, almost cliché images—a winter’s morning, weeping and lamentations, a mention of Gardel—but this line is a gem. Listen to it spoken in Spanish (recited to the best of my ability by yours truly). Even divorced from the orchestra and melody, this line is musical, beautiful.

Now, Google’s automated translating program renders it as “The flower of pain is defoliated, sowing grief in my heart.”

Ugly, ugly, ugly. Word for word, the translation is accurate, but it captures none of the music of the Spanish original. So how would I go about creating a faithful, mellifluous rendition of this line in English? Here is a description, step by step, of an attempt.

First things first: translations are often monstrously inept at rendering the musicality of the words in the original language, but here the task is further complicated by the incredible assonance in the original. In the Spanish, the vowel sound /o/ is repeated nine times in twenty syllables, almost half of the syllables in the sentence. Careful readers may also notice that most of the syllables containing other vowels are what linguists call “function words,” short words that act as the grammatical and syntactic glue of the sentence: la, del, se, en, mi. (the, of the, reflexive marker, in, my). The words that carry the brunt of actual content and meaning in this sentence are dominated by /o/ sounds. I can’t hope to reproduce that quantity of assonance in translation, but I should attempt to hint at it.

Next: single, elegant verbs in one language may have no direct one-word translation in another, requiring instead unwieldy phrases and circumlocutions. In Spanish, Tiggi uses the fantastic verb deshojar which refers either to the action of tearing petals off a flower, (a favorite pastime of lovesick rural schoolgirls), or tearing the pages out of a book. We have no such word in English, except the pompous, obnoxious Latinism “defoliate” which sounds too much like “exfoliate,” a word that belongs exclusively on skincare products. Also, in Spanish, deshojar, while uncommon in everyday usage, is not particularly ostentatious—the average Spanish speaker may encounter many hojas on a normal day: an hoja can be a sheet of paper, a leaf, or a petal. But there are few English speakers who run into “folios” on a daily basis, and “foliage” is the particular jargon of landscapers and gardeners.

I could coin a new word, like “depetal,” but the goal is to render both meaning and sound, and “depetal” rattles unpleasantly in the ears. And I have another problem: in Spanish, the verb is reflexive and therefore passive; the flower of pain causes its own petals to fall off. There is no simple way of expressing this reflexivity in English; Google’s program uses passive voice: “The flower of pain is defoliated.”  But la flor del dolor se deshoja is a much more active sentence, as it is clearly the flower that tears itself apart. But “the flower of pain tears itself apart” is entirely too cumbersome. I might as well say “the flower of pain self-defoliates,” but that creates an ugly image through dissonant sounds, and that word, “defoliate” is still too pretentious, too bookish. Lacking any way to express this idea directly, I would choose to say “Petals fall from the flower of pain.” At least here, I have a simple action (“petals fall”) without the need for passive voice or reflexive constructions that are inelegant in English.

On to the second clause of the sentence: sembrando congojas en mi corazón, “sowing grief in my heart.” Sembrar does mean “to sow,” which is a good word in English, simple and specific, and even Google got that one right (it could very well have chosen “disseminate,” which would be quite atrocious). And there is no English word that has the force of the Spanish word congojasCongojas are intense feelings of anguish and sadness, and out of the myriad of possible glosses Google gives us “grief.” Not terrible, but I prefer the word “woe,” which has the same vowel sound as “sow” (at least in my particular American English accent), though the meaning is slightly different. So now I have “sowing woes in my heart.” A bit of the lovely assonance in the Spanish original comes through…just a bit. Lamentably, the word “heart” has no useful synonyms that share this vowel…except perhaps “soul.”

So now I have arrived at “Petals fall from the flower of pain, sowing woes in my soul,” still lacking beauty and flow in English. Many tangos use the word “flor,” which literally is “flower,” but I prefer the monosyllabic “bloom.” And “pain,” while accurate, does not flow into the phrase like “sorrow” would. The two words are not exactly equivalent, but again, they are related concepts.

So: “Petals fall from the bloom of sorrow.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Is there any way to bring more of the vowel in “woe” and “sow?” Going back to deshojarse, we could use the word “torn,” which has a similar vowel sound. So, “Petals are torn from the bloom of sorrow, sowing woes in my heart.” But there’s that passive voice again: “Petals are torn.” What if I just eliminate that unnecessary “are”—it’s not really contributing any new information to the sentence anyway, it’s the verbal equivalent of empty calories. Then, to make the verb agree, I can eliminate another unnecessary syllable: the “ing” in “sowing.”

And so, the final product of my translation and tinkering:
Petals torn from the bloom of sorrow sow woes in my soul.
This is different from the Spanish original. We don’t get the sense in English (as we do in Spanish) that the bloom or flower essentially self-destructs. And this translation implies that the petals actively aim to sow woes, while in the original the implication is that the sowing of woes is rather an unintended side effect of the flower’s suicide.
Perhaps the most literal translation would be close to Google’s, “The flower of pain self-defoliates, sowing grief in my heart.” You are free to pick that line if you are a slave to literal meanings…but I feel that my line captures the entire mood just a tad bit better.


6 thoughts on “The Poetics of Word Choice

  1. Wow, thank you for capturing the musicality that exists in the sound of a language and its poetry and lyrics! I definitely like your translation better. I will admit that “sorrow sow woes” does trip up my ear/tongue just a bit, but it does have a better flow and stay more faithful to the meaning than the other options. Boy, the translator’s job is a tough one! Makes me realize how lucky I am to know Spanish fairly well and to be able to pick up on some of the nuances you talk about; music and poetry truly are inexhaustible beauties. Thanks again!

    Posted by Joy in Motion | 07.13.2011, 12:05 AM
    • You’re very welcome! I agree that “…sorrow sow woes…” is a bit of a tongue twister, but it was rather intentional, since “La flor del dolor se desoja,” is too, isn’t it? Actually, I think that the confusion in the English is more of an orthographic trick, since so many w’s, s’s, and o’s clustered together are uncommon in our written language, there may be a bit of a blip in the translation (ha ha!) from visual input to linguistic output in our brains.

      Posted by poesiadegotan | 07.13.2011, 2:08 AM
      • I really do love reading that line in Spanish – “la flor del dolor se deshoja”…

        La flór
        Del dolór
        Se deshója

        I love how the first and second match each other in length and with the sound of the accented vowel, and the third has a similar effect – a bit more hidden – where the same length and accented vowel can be pulled out from in between the extra syllables before and after. My non-technical way of describing what I’m reading/hearing. So poetic – I love it! And this definitely is nearly impossible to capture in English *frown*.

        I don’t experience this as much of a tongue-twister like the English version, although I have a slight lisp with certain sounds and in this case the English hits right on that where the Spanish does not. But you’re right, those uncommon cluster of sounds do tend to trip us up. Must be one of those minefields that translators have to navigate around. Amazing, the unique musicality of each language!

        Posted by Joy in Motion | 07.13.2011, 4:25 PM
  2. deshojar, right. A fav verb of Russian poetry and, you imply, unmatched in English? The first example which occurred to me was a line about old belfries shedding flocks of black birds, like the smoke fading into the wind. But it’s probably too modern to have an accepted English translation. So I went rummaging for Peter Tempest’s little tome of Esenin’s translations as the next best thing. Here it is: “… I have no idea what causes such pain.// Is it the wind // Over empty wastelands whistling// Or alcohol denuding // Like an autumn grove, my brain?” Yep “denuding” my $^&%#@! What, really, happens with the foliage in America as the winter creeps closer and the winds blow?
    “My head a-flapping its ears // Like a winged bird flying // To stay put on its neck-foot // Is beyond its might!”

    Posted by Dm | 07.13.2011, 4:48 AM
    • Once again, Russian poetry seems to be a better approximation to the Spanish :).
      To me, “to denude” is even worse than “to defoliate.” Deshojar would be completely intelligible to any Spanish speaker, regardless of educational level—everyone knows what an hoja is, especially in the context of the lyric, and the prefix des– is likewise standard and understandable; “defoliate” would be understandable to a reasonably literate English speaker; but I confess that I would have had to look up “denude,” and I don’t consider myself illiterate, exactly ;).
      And in America, the autumn leaves simply fall…hence the colloquial name of “fall” for that season.

      Posted by poesiadegotan | 07.13.2011, 5:09 AM


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The sound files on this site are included for illustrative purposes only. Those wishing to obtain high quality versions for their personal collections should purchase commercially available copies. If you can't get to a record store in Buenos Aires, a great many tangos are available, song by song, in meticulously digitized versions from http://www.tangotunes.com/ and others can be found on the iTunes music store or Amazon (transfer quality varies widely). Though he no longer has inventory available, Michael Lavocah's superb http://milonga.co.uk/ can help you determine which CDs might be best to buy used.
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