Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Lost in translation: the girl from Ipanema

I recently made the acquaintance of yargb, yet another really great blog. That is, Yet Another Really Great Blog.

It's a group blog (which makes me a bit envious, since it means each blogger can take it easy sometimes) composed of some of the most articulate and well-known commenters around the blogosphere.

This post at yargb--about the fate of the real Girl from Ipanema--caught my eye (via Dymphna at Gates of Vienna). Her fifteen minutes of fame were all too brief (the Girl's, that is, not Dymphna's).

But I'm bringing up the song for another reason. A couple of days ago we had a discussion about poetry, and whether its recent incarnation speaks to most people these days. As the back-and-forth in the comments section got going, quite a few people ventured the idea that song lyrics have taken over where poetry left off about fifty years ago.

Well, I happen to know a little bit about the lyrics of "The Girl from Ipanema." Even though I don't speak Portuguese myself, I am close to someone who does, and he once gave me a recitation and translation of the original Portuguese lyrics to the song. And I have to say I was blown away, not only by their loveliness (you could recite the phone book in Portuguese to me and I'd think it was lovely), but by the depth of the Portuguese version compared to the relative shallowness of the English translation-which-is-not-a-
translation (can't resist those water metaphors).

It turns out that the author of the Portuguese words to the song, Vinicius de Moraes, was a man who quite handily bridged the poetry/lyrics gap. He was a well-known poet and popular lyricist, as well as a diplomat (!) who was at one time vice-consul to Los Angeles (no, I kid you not, so if things had worked out differently we might have had "The Girl from Santa Monica").

Here are all the words: first, the familiar English version most of us know; then, the original Portuguese lyrics; and lastly, a literal translation into English of those Portuguese lyrics. I wish the popular English version had followed them more closely--but then, if it had, would it have been as popular?

Tall and tan
and young and lovely
the girl from Ipanema
goes walking
and when she passes
each one she passes
goes ahhh

When she walks
she's like a samba
that swings so cool
and sways so gently
that when she passes
each one she passes
goes ahhh

Oh, but he watches so sadly
How can he tell her he loves her
Yes, he would give his heart gladly
but each day when she walks to the sea
she looks straight ahead not at he

Tall and tan
and young and lovely
the girl from Ipanema
goes walking
and when she passes
he smiles but she doesn't see
she just doesn't see

Olha que coisa mais linda,
mais cheia de graça
É ela menina
que vem que passa
Num doce balanço
caminho do mar

Moça do corpo dourado
do sol de Ipanema
O seu balançado
é mais que um poema
É a coisa mais linda
que eu já vi passar

Ah, porque estou tão sozinho
Ah, porque tudo e tão triste
Ah, a beleza que existe
A beleza que não é só minha
que também passa sozinha

Ah, se ela soubesse
que quando ela passa
O mundo sorrindo
se enche de graça
E fica mais lindo
por causa do amor

Look at this thing, most lovely
most graceful
It's her, the girl
that comes, that passes
with a sweet swinging
walking to the sea

Girl of the golden body
from the sun of Ipanema
Your swaying
is more than a poem
It's a thing more beautiful
than I have ever seen pass by

Ah, why am I so alone
Ah, why is everything so sad
The beauty that exists
The beauty that is not mine alone
that also passes by on its own

Ah, if she only knew
that when she passes
the world smiles
fills itself with grace
and remains more beautiful
because of love

There's more: here's a discussion comparing the legend of the writing of this song to the supposedly true story of its origins (I have no way to evaluate the veracity of any of this).

And here's an interesting comparison of the two versions, along with a link to the Getz/Gilberto rendition.


At 3:08 PM, October 26, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neo. I love your write brilliantly and we, your readers, eagerly await each daily treat as is borne out by your commenters. I'm thankful your son was successful with his gentle persuasion. I came to you via RogerLSimon when you were profiled & identify with your surprise & unhappiness at dinner parties et al occasions where Bush vilification & "Republicans are stupid & evil" (and other more insidious comments) flow as freely as the merlot and chardonnay. It has bothered me greatly. Reading on your blog that others suffer the same types of circumstances has helped (misery enjoys company? It's actually therapeutic!). Unlike you, I come to this similar place from a more Conservative background, however, being in the arts, I am constantly surrounded by friends (also family) who are mostly liberal and vocal about all of this in a most upsetting & insulting way. But the subject at hand...your title caught my eye, as I had just sung "Ipanema," (as it might be written on a song list for musicians)this past weekend at a jazz gig (I usually sing it as one of the Latin tunes). I have always loved it no matter how many hundreds of times I've sung it (in English) over the last 25 years or so. The story from musicians, and I'm not positive that it's completely true (only mostly true), is that Joao Gilberto, the Brazilian guitarist/singer who was married to Astrud, was working in his home with Stan Getz for the Bossa album. She wasn't a trained singer, but was around and apparently was humming or singing the tune...they decided to add her to the recording and it was so charming...Getz loved her sound...well, the rest is history...but it seems her singing was not all that Stan Getz admired about the lovely Astrud...stories go that Joao was furious about a rumored affair and he & Getz never recorded together again, but I do believe they did a famous Carnegie Hall appearance a year later. Still, as to whether it would have been as successful with the original lyric translation (I agree it is exquisite. Portuguese is indeed a musical&poetic language), I think it would have been popular no matter what. It was the perfect marriage of music & rhythm, sound of the guitar & sax, the arrangement, and of course, the lovely voice of Astrud Gilberto.

At 6:48 PM, October 26, 2005, Blogger ambisinistral said...


Wow, those really are beautiful lyrics. Thanks for pointing out this post to me. And thanks for the last link -- I've bookmarked her in my little collection of samba type blogs.

I know there are a few different versions of how the song was composed. I found it fascinating that there was an actual Girl From Ipanema. Like I said elswhere, in my mind's eye, she was always the pretty girl sauntering down to the beach and turning heads. It was fascinating to put an actual face to her, and melancholoy to see bad blood years down the road.

BTW, if you like Brazillian music I recommend you give a listen to Monica Salmaso. Particularily her newset CD iaiá. She has a beautiful voice has some extremely interesting instrumental backings.

At 7:13 PM, October 26, 2005, Blogger Jamie Irons said...


It's remarkable how much poetry carries over into your literal translation of the song lyrics.

Poetry is of course famously precisely what is lost in translation, and we accept that cliché uncritically, but I am not at all sure it's entirely true.

I know a fair amount of ancient Greek and have played around with quite clumsy and literal translations of some of the lyric poets, like Sappho, and with Homer. Such efforts almost always seem to have a bit of poetry in them, perhaps in spite of their translator.

I find most moving:

Ah, why am I so alone
Ah, why is everything so sad
The beauty that exists
The beauty that is not mine alone
that also passes by on its own...

Perhaps because of the arresting metonymy of "beauty" used in this way...

Jamie Irons

At 8:08 PM, October 26, 2005, Blogger terrye said...

Thanks for noticing us.

My favorite poet is Edgar Allen Poe.

Years ago I had a chance to hear a reading of Poe by none other than the late Vincent Price.

Vincent Price reading the Raven was one of those things you just do not forget.

At 11:03 PM, October 26, 2005, Blogger Dymphna said...

The story on YARGB was moving, wasn't it?

Your translation, particularly,

Ah, why am I so alone
Ah, why is everything so sad
The beauty that exists
The beauty that is not mine alone
that also passes by on its own...

is the sum of the human condition from the first moment we recognize "not-I" and want to possess it. The person who can move beyond wanting to possess beauty -- the great view from the terrace, the beautiful face, the intensely haunting song -- without also desiring in some way to have it is the person who has moved to serenity...

Some few of us do.

Meanwhile, whether or not the story of the sadness that lies in wait for the girl from Ipanema is the old familiar sorrows that accumulate with the passage of time. Often, I think Shakespeare knew them too well and only pasted on his redemptive endings, as if in a hurry to get past them.

At 1:37 AM, October 27, 2005, Blogger Troy Stephens said...

Thank you for this delightful treat! Having long and tirelessly enjoyed the famous "Getz-Gilberto" album, I've often wondered at the specifics of the Portuguese lyrics to this song (and the rest), which to my ears only roll by as lovely sounds. But I'd not have guessed that there was so much more to be found in the original words. The new translation you provided adds another dimension to my love of this classic -- I've just pasted a copy into the song's "Lyrics" field in my iTunes library for future reference.

A related recent acquisition that I've been enjoying very much is Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd's (instrumental) "Jazz Samba". I've also loved Bebel's two albums so far ("Next to You" is a song she sings in English, but it still leaves me teary-eyed with a lump in my throat). I look forward to looking into ambisinistral's other recommendations. Thanks for the link!

At 10:58 AM, October 27, 2005, Blogger Huan said...

The story of the woman to sing this song, Astrud Gilberto, is lovely and interesting as well.

At 11:33 AM, October 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely post, Neo. There's a story about how Stan Getz made a point of trying to stop Astrud Gilberto receiving any royalties. My friend Gene Lees wrote about that, and many other Getz misdemeanours, in his "Jazzletter". I know he takes a dim view of the English lyrics of Ipanema. He knew Jobim well, and spent time in Rio collaborating with him (he's responsible for the lovely "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars", aka "Corcovado"). BTW, the best version of Jobim's songs I've heard lately is by the Morelenbaum-Sakamoto group. Their CDs "Casa" and "A Day in New York" are gems.

At 3:16 PM, October 27, 2005, Blogger Bookworm said...

That's one of my favorite childhood songs, and the lyrics, whenever I hear them, instantly transport me back to lovely summers on the beach.

Funnily enough, I read this the evening after I'd explained to my children that we don't listen to modern pop music in the house because I, as a mother, simply cannot allow them to hear songs that are "nasty" (they're little). I explained that songs from my youth were about love (most songs), or silliness (Marzy Dotes), or places, or other things. Modern songs, I said, are about violence and hate, and are mean about women, and whine a lot. The lovely Girl from Ipanema just brings home how correct I think I was in describing music from the past.

At 8:57 AM, October 30, 2005, Blogger TmjUtah said...

I have a terrible confession to make.

Good thing it's on a most-likely dead thread, eh?

The melody from "Girl From Ipanema" is the soundtrack to my life.

Waiting to step off the ramp as a young Marine.

Standing in the line at the DMV.

Contemplating a piece of steel on the anvil.

In position over a waterhole on opening day.

Stuck in traffic.

It drives my wife NUTS.

I have no desire to change the situation at all, though.

Da - - da da da
Da - - da da....

At 1:08 PM, October 30, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

American version=Witty, plenty of refrain and repetition, as well as supreme visualization. Catchy. Light

Brazile Version=Philosophical perspective bordering on the sublime, almost melancholy. Color orientated.

A commentary on thedifferences in culture perhaps.

At 9:41 AM, November 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ana beatriz calvante carvalho tavares foi o puta de ipanema sempre

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At 2:26 PM, December 04, 2008, Blogger Dan Goorevitch said...

Oh this is great! I really hate how these songs are ruined by mistranslations although Ipanema is less of a victim than Corcovado or, the worst case, "Estate," whose English lyrics Shirley Horn sang is really butchery. I re-wrote the lyrics of "Estate" with the help of a literal translation (I found it in the CD notes). I'd love to take a crack at "Corcovado." Do you know where I can get a lit. translation? Please? Anyone know?


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