Translating “Por Que Cantamos”

If you speak a second language, you already know that “literal translations” are a myth.  Somewhere in my journey to learn Spanish I acquired the quote “all translations are a compromise between languages.”  As I looked for the source of that quote for this post, it appears that the actual quote is from Benjamin Jowett: “All translation is a compromise – the effort to be literal and the effort to be idiomatic.”

This is exactly the challenge that faced me when I proposed to translate a song I sang with the Coro Makus here in Ushuaia, Argentina for my sabbatical year – a group I joined as a mezzo as a challenge to myself.  While I sing Barbershop music in Pennsylvania, where I live, this is my first time singing in Spanish (although I am fluent in speaking it). 

Coro Makus recently sang a song about democracy to celebrate the Presidential Inauguration which took place in Argentina on December 10, 2023. A recording of that song is available on youtube; the text of the original and translated lyrics are here

The song’s lyrics were written by Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), a famous Uruguayan writer and poet who lived for a time in Buenos Aires, and was in exile in Spain for 12 years while Uruguay was under dictatorship (1973-1985).  This poem speaks longingly of the desire of people for peace and justice, and the hope that allows them to keep singing in the face of violence, pain, and loss.

I volunteered to add subtitles in Spanish, and to translate the subtitles in English.  Unfortunately, many of the translations of this poem available online appear to have been computer-generated, and thus fall into the trap of the merely literal. I quickly realized I needed help with the translation, so I asked two bilingual choir members, Irene Schloss and María José Ugalde, to join me.  Through a Whatsapp chat, the three of us reviewed drafts of translations to create one that achieves a workable compromise between the literal and the idiomatic. 

The beauty of idiom and wordplay is that it allows language to refer to multiple things at once – which means any translation without a footnote (which is, in the end, what this post is – a footnote to our translation) is bound to leave something out.  Take, for example, this line from the first verse:

los aires ya no eran los buenos aires

The original does not capitalize “buenos aires,” but this is clearly wordplay referring to the capital of Argentina, whose name literally means “good air” or “fresh breezes.”  We decided to lean into this wordplay with the following translation:

if the air in Buenos Aires was no longer sweet

A literal translation might be something more like, “If air were no longer fresh,” but that would miss the political nuance of the line entirely.

Other idioms originally went over my head; after all, one does not need to understand words to sing them!  For example:

Si fuimos lejos como un horizonte
si aquí quedaron árboles y cielo

I originally thought this was about actual trees and skies, a comment about beautiful Argentinian landscapes.  Irene and María José understood, however, that this line was actually evoking the “roots and dreams” that those far away on the horizon (e.g., political exiles) had left behind when they fled.  So we eschewed the literal altogether in favor of this:

If we went far away, beyond the horizon

and left our roots and dreams behind

Working on this translation was a fascinating process which allowed me to realize how much of the nuance of this poem I had missed, and helped me appreciate it far more deeply. I am so grateful to my collaborators for taking the time to work with me on this, and hope the translation will be useful to others as well.  The full text of the translation is here.