translating tango popular lyricsPoints Illustrated

1. Dealing with the simple poem.

2. Lyrics and poetry: the differences.

Alfredo LePera

Most translations attempted on this site are from outstanding examples of the poet's craft. But how do we cope with other work, the simple poems that anyone commissioned for an extended translation of an author's work would have to face? We can't generate what isn't in the text — supposing we had the gifts to do so — but we should do a honest job in conveying their appeal to a native reader.

A case in point are the period tangos still played — rather shamelessly so — throughout Latin America. As poems they are rather unassuming — simple to the point of sentimentality — but ask any Latin, who may well care nothing for poetry, and she will immediately recite the words with all the brio, vibrancy and phrasing of their remembered appeal. Lyrics, in short, are things different from poetry, and though composers have often set good poems to music, and operas until Verdi's time were based on solid text, few lyrics today are worth reading simply as poems: they live in and through the music.

Mi Buenos Aires Querido

But suppose we want to read something in English that doesn't set our teeth on edge, but which conveys through literary devices what is augmented or conjured up by the music? Here is the original text of a famous tango, with the first few lines of a contemporary translation:

Mi Buenos Aires querido,
cuando yo te vuelva a ver,
no habra más penas ni olvido.

El farolito de la calle en que nací
fue el centinela de mis promesas de amor,
bajo su inquieta lucecita yo la vi
a mi pebeta luminosa como un sol.

Hoy que la suerte quiere que te vuelva a ver,
cuidad porteña de mi único querer,
oigo la queja de un bandoneón,
dentro del peche pide rienda el corazón.

Mi Buenos Aires, tierra florida
donde mi vida terminaré.
Bajo tu amparo no hay desengaños,
vuelan los años, se olvida el dolor.

En caravana los recuerdos pasan
como una estela dulce de emoción,
quiero que sepas que al evocarte
se van las penas del corazón.

Las ventanitas de mis calles de arrabal,
donde sonríe una muchachita en flor;
quiero de nuevo yo volver a contemplar
aquellos ojos que acarician al mirar.

En la cortada más maleva una canción.
dice su ruego de coraje y de pasión;
una promesa y un suspirar
borró una lágrima de pena aquel cantar.

Mi Buenos Aires querido. . .
cuando yo te vuelva a ver. . .
no habra más penas ni olvido. . .

Lyrics: Alfredo LePera (1934)
Music: Carlos Gardel

My dear Buenos Aires,
When I see you again
There will be no more pity
Nor forgetting.

The little lamp in the street where
I was born
Was the sentry of my promises of love;
Under its little still light I saw her,
My pebeta shining in the sun.

Translator: unstated but probably Daniel Aguilar Grigera.

Literal Translation

The published translation is very pleasing if wandering a little from the sense. Pebeta, a girl, is bright like the sun, and inquieta means restless or worried rather than 'little still'. More importantly, the translation misses the lilt of the original, which is simple but pretty. A literal translation is:

My Buenos Aires, dear,
when I see you again
there will be no more sorrow nor forgetfulness.

The little light in the street in which I was born
was the sentinel of my promises of love,
beneath its restless light I saw her
my little girl bright like a sun.

Today let luck wish that I come back to see you,
port city of my only love,
I hear the complaint of an accordion,
inside the breast the heart asks for rein.

My Buenos Aires, flowering land
where my life will end
beneath your protection there are no disillusions,
let the years return, one forgets the pain.

Recollections pass in a crowd
like a sweet trail of emotion,
I want you to know that in their evoking
goes away the sorrows of the heart.

The little windows of my streets of the suburb
where smiled a little girl in bloom;
I want again to turn round and gaze at
those eyes that caress your looking (at her).

In the most fighting cul-de-sacs a song
says its prayer of courage and passion;
a promise and a sigh
such singing erased a tear of sorrow.

My Buenos Aires, dear. . .
when I see you again. . .
there will be no more sorrow nor forgetfulness. . .

First Draft

So: direct and simple, with some of the lilting quality of the original. We start with a free translation, not bothering with rhyme:

When, my dearest Buenos Aires,
that day I shall see you again
no more shall be hurt or forgetting.

The little lamp in the street that bore me
watched over my promises of love.
It shed its thin light on my heart's one
who was bright to me as the sun.

If my luck turns I will come back to see you;
you are my haven, my only, my port.
An accordion I hear is complaining,
the breast holds its reins to the heart.

City with the rich colour of flowers
it is here that I wish life to end.
In your arms there are no more illusions,
let the years come back: there's no pain.

In crowds the memories are passing,
the emotions trail out and are sweet.
I want you to know just to remember
all pain is lost from the heart.

In the streets, from my little suburban
windows a little girl saw me and bloomed.
When shall I see in those eyes the gladness
again smiling and caressing my gaze?

In the fiercest of back-streets a courage
and passion is begged by a song:
just a sigh and simply-held promise
will rub out the tears at the wrong.

When, my dearest Buenos Aires,
that day I shall see you again
no more shall be hurt or forgetting. . .

Second Draft

This first draft is still rough, but has the work taken a promising turn?

Not really. The Grigera version may be inexact but it speaks more 'from the heart', i.e. seems fresher, with a more individual and natural tone. Rather than polish up the draft as some period imitation of Ruben Darío, therefore, we should probably use a freer style where each line has its own voice and autonomy. That doesn't mean we have to ditch the melody, but interweave it more with the prose sense, trusting in the unadorned words and then letting those words surrender to the overall movement:

One day, my dear Buenos Aires,
that day when I see you again,
no more will be pain or forgetting.

There, in the street where it heard
my uncertain promises of love,
the lamp looked down on my loved one,
bright to me as the sun.

Today I'd return, if luck let me,
to my port and my only love.
How sadly I hear the accordion
tug at the reins of the heart

Here, Buenos Aires, with flowers
I could wish my life have its end:
In your arms could be no disappointments,
no regret at the years come again.

In crowds the memories are passing,
long trails of them, sweet with emotion.
I want you to know in remembering
the pains go away from the heart.

In those streets, from suburban windows
a little girl saw me and flowered:
when again shall I see that gladness,
and eyes smiling and gazing at me?

In the most fighting of back-streets a song
begs for our courage and love;
surely a sigh and a promise will
wipe out the tears at the wrong.

One day, my dear Buenos Aires,
that day when I see you again,
no more will be pain or forgetting. . .

Notes and References

1. Daniel Aguilar Grigera, What Tango Says: Qué Dice El Tango (Aguilar Gadella Editores, 2004), 15-17.
2. Alfredo Lepera. NNA. Short biography.
3. LibroCanto. NNA. LePera and Gardel's songs for the guitar.

The final version is included in Diversions, a free pdf collection of translations published by Ocaso Press.


Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.