On this blog I have often talked about literary translation. I have briefly talked about translating movie dialogues and subtitles. Still, despite my abiding passion for music, I just realised that I still haven’t talked about translation in music.
Sure, it’s not very common, especially because most of the times people just write new lyrics over the original melody. Also – let me stress this, since you’re reading the English version of this post – it’s mostly a matter of translating British or American songs into languages like Italian, seldom the other way around. You might know that Stand by Me, a beautiful love song, in Italian became Pregherò, a mystical delirium about a blind girl seeing God through faith. In La casa del sole (The House of the Rising Sun) the “sin and misery” of a gambling man’s son in New Orleans disappear, and we’re left with a rather dull love song. Italy’s star rocker Vasco Rossi recently wrote his own lyrics to Radiohead’s Creep and produced Ad ogni costo, and he did the same with Celebrate, by An Emotional Fish where the line “this party’s over” sounded like “gli spari sopra”, which became the title of the song. Old-timer Jimmy Fontana did a similar thing when he turned the words “my, my, my Delilah” into “mai, mai, mai ti lascio”.
Simply put, the new versions were almost never translations of the original. And even if translating poetry requires a rare mastery, in order to carry the images and sounds to the target language while constrained in the cage of metrics, it seems that most people couldn’t be bothered to even make an effort.
A notable exception is Fabrizio De André, in my opinion the best – by far – poet/singer/songwriter that Italy ever had. De André not only wrote some of the best verses of all time in Italian, but also left us some of the best translations of lyrics in popular music. In his early years he translated many songs by French chansonnier Georges Brassens, while in the 70’s he approached some of Leonard Cohen’s songs, like Joan of Arc, Nancy, and Suzanne.
I’d like to focus on Suzanne, for now, as I think that De André simply came up with pretty much the best possible translation of Cohen’s lyrics. There is only one passage where he strays from the original meaning and imagery, but that is a deliberate decision not to have Jesus “sink like a stone”.
Here are Cohen’s original lyrics:
Suzanne takes you down/to her place near the river/you can hear the boats go by/you can spend the night beside her/And you know that she’s half crazy/but that’s why you want to be there/and she feeds you tea and oranges/that come all the way from China/And just when you mean to tell her/that you have no love to give her/she gets you on her wavelength/and she lets the river answer/that you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her/and you want to travel blind/and you know that she can trust you/for you’ve touched her perfect body/with your mind.
And Jesus was a sailor/when he walked upon the water/and he spent a long time watching/from his lonely wooden tower/and when he knew for certain/only drowning men could see him/he said All men will be sailors then/until the sea shall free them/but he himself was broken/long before the sky would open/forsaken, almost human/he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him/you want to travel blind/and you think maybe you’ll trust him/for he’s touched your perfect body/with his mind
Now Suzanne takes your hand/and she leads you to the river/she is wearing rags and feathers/from Salvation Army counters/And the sun pours down like honey/on our lady of the harbour/And she shows you where to look/among the garbage and the flowers/There are heroes in the seaweed/there are children in the morning/they are leaning out for love/they will lean that way forever/while Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her/you want to travel blind/and you know that you can trust her/for she’s touched your perfect body/with her mind
Now for Fabrizio De André’s translation:
Nel suo posto in riva al fiume/Suzanne ti ha voluto accanto,/e ora ascolti andar le barche/e ora puoi dormirle al fianco,/si lo sai che lei è pazza/ma per questo sei con lei./E ti offre il tè e le arance/che ha portato dalla Cina/e proprio mentre stai per dirle/che non hai amore da offrirle,/lei è già sulla tua onda/e fa che il fiume ti risponda/che da sempre siete amanti.
E tu vuoi viaggiarle insieme/vuoi viaggiarle insieme ciecamente,/perché sai che le hai toccato il corpo,/il suo corpo perfetto con la mente.
E Gesù fu marinaio/finché camminò sull’acqua,/e restò per molto tempo/a guardare solitario/dalla sua torre di legno,/e poi quando fu sicuro/che soltanto agli annegati/fosse dato di vederlo,/disse: “Siate marinai/finché il mare vi libererà”./E lui stesso fu spezzato,/ma più umano, abbandonato,/nella nostra mente lui non naufragò.
E tu vuoi viaggiargli insieme/vuoi viaggiargli insieme ciecamente,/forse avrai fiducia in lui/perché ti ha toccato il corpo con la mente.
E Suzanne ti dà la mano,/ti accompagna lungo il fiume,/porta addosso stracci e piume,/presi in qualche dormitorio,/il sole scende come miele/su di lei donna del porto/che ti indica i colori/fra la spazzatura e i fiori,/scopri eroi fra le alghe marce/e bambini nel mattino,/che si sporgono all’amore/e così faranno sempre;/e Suzanne regge lo specchio.
E tu vuoi viaggiarle insieme/vuoi viaggiarle insieme ciecamente,/perché sai che ti ha toccato il corpo,/il tuo corpo perfetto con la mente.
I read the translation over and over again, and at most I can think of changing very few minor details…
Photo: Oggi ascolto “Suzanne”, by Andrea D’Ippolito (CC – Flickr).