He can talk plainer than that

I love the English language.  I find it versatile and flexible and good for just about anything you want to say.  As long as you want to say it in English, of course.

Something got me started listening to songs in Spanish the other day.  I've been quite a fan of salsa and of the group Mocedades ever since my days in Central America.  That was a long time ago, and I hadn't really expanded my interests to any other Spanish-language songs until maybe 10 years ago when Megan asked me to help her buy a Shakira album.  As I recall, she'd heard some Shakira songs in her Spanish class at school.  So we found Dónde están los ladrones? at a local store and I listened to it with her and that's how I became a somewhat fan.

I say "somewhat" because I like the Shakira of yore, before she dyed her hair blonde and misplaced most of her clothes.  But seriously, even though there are a few songs I like from later in her career, I think Dónde están los ladrones? is, so far, the best of all her albums.  When it comes to her crossover albums, where she sings in English, I can pretty much take her or leave her.  In fact, from what I've read, most people prefer her songs in Spanish to those in English.  That's fine.  But some of them make the untenable claim that she sounds better in Spanish than she does in English.  One person even commented that her songs are better in Spanish  because Spanish is such a beautiful language and English is such an ugly language.

I am all smiles and agreement with the statement about Spanish.  That it is a beautiful language is the opinion that fire cannot melt out of me.  But there is no way I can let the statement that English is an ugly language go unchallenged.  And I believe that, if the individual who made such a misguided statement would rethink their position, they would see that acknowledging the error of their ways and agreeing with me would make the world a better place.

The problem with Shakira singing in English is not that she sounds better in English or that English is an ugly language.  The problem, as I see it, is with the translation.  I shall explain with a rather lengthy example.  Take the song "Whenever, Wherever".  Take it far, far away.  But seriously . . . no, there is no seriously when it comes to this song.  It's just a ludicrous piece and there's an end on't.  Okay, here we go.  The song in Spanish starts with this verse:

Suerte que en el Sur hayas nacido,
Y que burlemos las distancias
Suerte que es haberte conocido,
Y por ti amar tierras extrañas

Yo puedo escalar los Andes,
Solo, por ir a contar tus lunares
Contigo celebro y sufro todo,
Mis alegrías y mis males.

Here's my translation:

Lucky that you were born in the South
that we can laugh at the distance
Lucky it is that I met you
and through you love foreign (or strange) lands

I can climb the Andes
just to go and count your moles
With you I celebrate and suffer all,
my joys and my sorrows.

Now that's a more or less direct translation, but, as you can see, it won't do for song lyrics.  They'd have to be changed about at least a bit or maybe a lot for reasons of rhyme and rhythm.  Here are the corresponding English lyrics that Shakira sings:

Lucky you were born that far away so
We could both make fun of distance
Lucky that I love a foreign land for
The lucky fact of your existence

Baby I would climb the Andes solely
To count the freckles on your body
Never could imagine there were only
Ten million ways to love somebody

I see problems with this "translation" as well.  For one thing, changing "moles" to "freckles" is only the slightest of improvements.  For another, the third and fourth lines don't really mean anything:  those lyrics are horseshoes pitched at the stake of meaning and yet there's not a ringer among them.  And the seventh and eighth lines seem like non sequiturs.  There are funny things about translating.  For instance, sometimes a direct, word-for-word translation gives less of the meaning of the original than a looser translation that nevertheless captures better the overall sense of what's being translated.  I don't pretend to be a songwriter, or a translator, but if I had to turn the Spanish lyrics into English ones, I'd probably do it something like this:

Lucky for me you were born far away
and that we can laugh at the distance
Lucky for me I ever met you, and,
like loving a strange land, lose my resistance

That fourth line ends up being less apt because of the need to rhyme with "distance".  There are other options (persistence, admittance, government assistance, three little kittens who lost their pittance), but this one keeps the reference to foreign lands, which is in the original.  And if I'm going to complain about strange, twisted, or meaningless lyrics, I guess I should remember there are plenty written in English, by native English speakers, that make no sense at all, except possibly to the person who wrote them, and even then I'm not so sure.  Just take a look at "Red Rabbits" by the Shins.  Or "Lucky" by Laura Nyro.  To continue:

I can climb the highest mountain
just to go and count your moles
With you I celebrate and suffer all,
my joys and sorrows, heart and soul.

I personally really dislike the reference to moles.  It just seems weird to count the moles -- or yes, even the freckles -- on someone's body, whether up in the Andes or not.  Perhaps some people enjoy counting moles.  (Also, I admit there's the possibility here for laughs with the reference -- intended?  accidental? -- to the old proverb about making mountains out of molehills, but somehow I don't think that's what the songwriter had in mind.)  To me, counting moles sounds like dermatological drudgery.  But let us suppose that some individuals find romantic pleasure in counting moles and freckles.  What image does that phrase then convey?  To me it conveys that someone would give anything to know someone else so intimately that they would even be familiar with the tiniest details of their lover's body.  So the line about counting moles could be replaced with something that conveys that sense of intimacy without sounding like there's a cancer screening in process.  But let that go.

The chorus in Spanish is thus:

Contigo mi vida,
Quiero vivir la vida.
Y lo que me queda de vida,
Quiero vivir contigo.

Literally translated, it means:

With you, my life,
I want to live life.
And all that remains of my life,
I want to live with you.

A nice sentiment, if a repetitious one.  Here's the English song version:

Whenever, wherever
We're meant to be together
I'll be there and you'll be near
And that's the deal my dear

Okay, doesn't the phrase "that's the deal my dear" sound sort of like a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum?  Like, "This is how it's going to be if you want to be with me", instead of the "I want to be with you for the rest of my life" sentiment in the original Spanish.

But now comes the really crazy part.  The Spanish:

Suerte que es tener labios sinceros,
Para besarte con más ganas
Suerte que mis pechos sean pequeños,
Y no los confudas con montañas

The literal translation:

It's lucky to have sincere lips,
to kiss you with more desire
Lucky that my breasts are small,
and that you don't confuse them with mountains.

And the English song version:

Lucky that my lips not only mumble
They spill kisses like a fountain
Lucky that my breasts are small and humble
So you don't confuse them with mountains

Hmmm. . . .  First things first.  You'll see how they had to totally change the lines about lips -- and consequently lost the original meaning -- to get the end words to rhyme with the lines about breasts.  But "mumble" is not a felicitous word to use in a love song, even if it does rhyme with "humble".  Mumbling lips are more often a sign of insecurity or discontent.  On the other hand, the line about the lips spilling kisses like a fountain is quite a beautiful image and right there gives the lie to the person who said English was an ugly language.  But now, the real problem:  no one -- but no one -- is ever going to confuse anyone's breasts with actual mountains.  Not nobody, not nohow!  Not even if she were a quadruple D cup size would that happen.  No matter how you say the lines comparing breast size to mountains, no matter what language you say it in, it just sounds stupid.  Sooo many rejoinders to those lines enter my mind, but in the interests of space and modesty, I will not share them.


Is Spanish a beautiful language?  Yes.  There are myriad examples.  Here and here and here are a few.

Is English a beautiful language?  Yes.  Again, there are myriad examples; here and here (scroll down to the last poem, called "English Sparrows") are a couple.

I acknowledge that what is beautiful in one language will not always translate into something equally beautiful in another language, not without some license taken, anyhow.  And I acknowledge that what is beautiful to one person may not be beautiful to another.  But English, though it may be the official language of computer technology and air traffic controllers, can be ever so beautiful and romantic as well.  And so I conclude with two more links and a link.  The first is a Shakira song that is lovely and poignant in Spanish, and would probably be the same in English.  The second is an Elton John song that is lovely and poignant in English, and would probably be the same in Spanish.  And for an added treat, the last link is to an old American song telling of frustrated love, and it would probably be untranslatable to any other language.


Shannon said...

I liked this post. I listened to all the songs. I think you should translate poetry. Seriously.

PS the murder song is very funny. you showed it to me in high school, I think.

Jared and Megan said...

I laughed many times reading this. I concur with Shannon. Is that some kind of gig you can just break into? =)

I like the Mocedades. I don't understand why they wore what they wore though (in that video)... unless it was trendy at the time.

I love poetry! Also, one of the things I like about Shakira are her unique word and image choices. I may think breasts being confused with mountains is perhaps a little crass but maybe there *was* a lot of humor in this relationship and that was just another inside joke or something (I think that's a picture of the Tetons, right? So *somebody* was confused!). Anyway, back to my point about interesting images, I like how she talks about counting moles (although I thought your alliteration, dermatological drudgery, was hilarious!) and giving this guy her nose (in the Tu song) because it's just such an unexpected detail and seems all the more real to me for it. Either it's her personality or it has meaning, obviously I don't know.

I don't think I'd heard that Elton John song before. I think I may have heard the Murder, He Says song before, though I'm not sure, and I think it's funny. Betty Hutton is pretty funny and cute (although I think her choice of hairstyle is a little odd).

Janeite42 said...

I will agree that one of the interesting things about Shakira's songs is her unique word and image choices. She is quirky, and that's partly why I like her so much. (For example, in the "Tú" video: does she keep shaving cream in the refrigerator, or is she shaving with whipped cream?) I hadn't thought about the mountains/breasts thing being an inside joke; that would make sense. And yes, those are the Tetons.

"Come Down in Time" is one of my favorite songs ever, although I prefer the cover by Lani Hall. (Yeah, I know, that's almost blasphemy.) And I think Betty Hutton wore her hair that way because a) it's the 1940s and b) she was on a radio program and wasn't worried about how she looked. Dinah Shore did a less frenetic (and less humorous) version of "Murder, He Says" that I also like.