Tango can only exist at points of contact, points of intersection, at points of connection. Man and woman, DJ and dancers, singer and orchestra, composer and lyricist, lyrics and listener. Outside of Argentina, there are many excellent dancers who connect to their partners on the floor at the milongas, to the cadence and melody of the music, but many still encounter a point of disconnection at the lyrics. Even for those who speak Spanish, teasing out the complexities of poetic syntax and the obscure mid-twentieth century urban slang of Buenos Aires is a formidable task.
The purpose of this blog is to help those who are interested find the last point of connection, between lyrics and listener. I speak Spanish, and I have studied tango music and lyrics in Buenos Aires, so the lyrics of the tangos that I present here are those that have directly moved something in me through their poetry. Your point of connection, dear English-speaking reader, will have to be indirect. I am your mediator, your translator.
A translator also works at points of connection: those between two languages. As Edith Grossman (award winning translator of a 2003 edition of Don Quixote) has said,
“Languages trail immense, individual histories behind them, and no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly. They can be linked by translation, as a photograph can link movement and stasis.”
Sometimes, though, those of us who work with languages academically or otherwise forget that many people simply don’t know this. Though the cliché “lost in translation” floats around in the collective unconscious, its rival is also alive and well: the idea that translation is a simple process of decoding.
In this view, translators are like cryptographers: they are simply individuals who have studied some secret system for rendering meaning in one language by deciphering material in another—this is the system by which Indiana Jones can instantly read the secret symbols chiseled on long-lost ruins. This is, of course, a mere piece of fantasy, to be filed away with other phenomena like telepathy and precognition.
In reality, just as the quote suggests, translators are like photographers. Photographers take subjects that exist in the world—an Arizona sunset, a Sudanese child, a snow covered Manhattan street, graffiti on a wall in Buenos Aires—and record a visual impression of that subject on their film. The subjects that translators work with are texts, and they record linguistic impressions of texts in one language in the words of another. But (as Ms. Grossman also said) we must remember that
“it is disingenuous to assume that either translation or photography, or acting for that matter, are representational in any narrow sense of the term. Fidelity is our noble purpose, but it does not have much, if anything, to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable.”
A solitary word in one language corresponds to a set of possible words (sometimes linguists call these “glosses”) in another. Thus, the Spanish word alegria has a set of possible glosses in English that includes words like joy, happiness, jubilation, elation, or delight. We can say with a high degree of certainty that words like depression, dog, detergent, laptop, garbage can, and sadness are not in that set—unless of course we are talking about a Pekinese or a brand of laundry soap called Alegria.
The texts that translators work with are usually composed of many words, arranged together so that they make sense (or sometimes, not) within the complex and unique syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic structure of their original language. Thus, in a simple poem of a hundred words, the translator has a hundred sets of glosses to deal with, a hundred choices to make. She or he must then arrange the words he has chosen until they fit the syntax of the target language.
Like the craft of the photographer, all these choices and shifts amount to manipulations. They affect a reader’s interpretation of the original text, just as a photograph affects a viewer’s opinion of the original subject. “It looks so much bigger/prettier/smaller/nicer in the pictures!” is a tourist’s cliché when they finally get to the place they’ve been dreaming about from postcards and internet photo streams. And so, dear English-speaking reader, if you ever learn Spanish you may return to my translations and protest, “But that’s not what that song says!” And you may be right—you may hear and feel something different from what I heard and felt in any tango. So I would invite you to sit down and try to translate it for yourself. The task, you will find, is harder than you ever imagined.
Until then, I invite you to explore my translations, with words from the tango poet José María Suñé:
“Come see what I bring
to this marriage of words and melody:
it’s the song that inspired me…”
Emphasis, needless to say, is mine.