Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Not-Totally-Out-of-Place Post About Language

I downloaded some music from with a gift card I got for Christmas, including Shakira's "La Tortura", which I loved when I first heard it but never acquired. Much to my dismay, I managed to get the "Spanglish" version, which I didn't even know existed. About four lines are translated from Spanish to English, and I can't fathom why because it sounded great in Spanish and the English translation is... well, it's dumb (sometimes you don't need SAT vocabulary to make a point).

Here's what I mean. The original Spanish of the chorus:
[Alejandro Sanz, the dude collaborating on the song:]
Yo sé que no he sido un santo
Pero lo puedo arreglar, amor

No sólo de pan vive el hombre
Y no de excusas vivo yo

Sólo de errores se aprende
Y hoy sé que es tuyo mi corazón

Mejor te guardas todo eso
A otro perro con ese hueso
Y nos decimos adios

Which translates, literally, to (Dad, jump in if I foul something up):
I know I haven't been a saint,
But I can make it better, love

Man doesn't live on bread alone,
And I don't live by excuses.

We only learn through mistakes
And I know your heart is mine

You'd better save all of that.
To another dog with that bone,
And we say goodbye
Which has already lost a lot. The Spanglish version forces this all into a meter and in the process further butchers it into:
(Dude, still Spanish)

You say you love me like no other,
But you can't live on bread alone

(Dude, still in Spanish)

Don't even try it, don't even bother
I won't take it, I don't want it, I don't buy it, so long.

I have always liked Shakira's stuff much better in Spanish, probably because it's her first language and she's good with it. More over, Spanish really does lose a lot of magic in translation. Unfortunately, because people have this silly thing about understanding the music they listen to, things like the above happen, or this line from "Suerte":
La felicidad tiene tu nombre y tu piel (Happiness has your name and your skin)
which I've always loved, becomes this line in "Whenever, Wherever":
Tell me one more time that you'll live lost in my eyes
Cliche high school love note, anyone? Because I know what both version are saying, I can be picky about nuance and poetry, whereas a non-Spanish speaker just hears a catchy pop tune.

Now, this is where I get to my point: Language is, from my nerdy perspective, the most powerful single force on Earth in its ability to change the circumstances under which everything else happens, and to even change the meaning of what is happening, what will happen, and occasionally what has already happened. There's a reason we like to quote other people: someone else has already taken our ideas and feelings and finessed them into a few smooth words for us.

There's also a reason people get bent out of shape over single phrases or words in documents and things like (here's the part where I remind you all I'm obsessively Catholic) the new English translation of the Mass, which has already been in the works for years and which isn't expected to be ready until 2010. This is why it makes a difference to some people if we call God "He", and the chasm between attitudes in saying we "worship" saints or we "venerate" them. Where communication is concerned, including and especially communication about and to God, everything hinges on our language.

Which is, more or less, what I spend eight hours a day trying to communicate to my middle schoolers. Their language (example: "This is boring") tells me I've yet to really make my point, but daggonnit, there's still two quarters left, and I've got some good music to inspire me.

1 comment:

Andie said...

A thought from my brother's revered godfather via e-mail:

A point: Few people understand opera either musically or literally; however, if you listen to the words as written and the music as played it is incredibly don't necessarily have to translate music to enjoy it...just because the Gypsy Kings or Brasil 66 do something in Spanish that I don't understand does not mean that I cannot or will not enjoy it. Best to enjoy the original piece than an adulterated one!!!!!

I, incidentally, agree heartily.