That Stupid Ars Poetica Stuck in My Head

Maybe sometimes the best we can hope for is that the songs stuck in our heads are not complete garbage. I recently blew the dust off some Brazilian discs I hadn’t played for a year or two, including this. In an effort to exorcize it from my skull (and just for kicks!) here’s my English translation of Guardanapos de Papel, the song presently stuck in my head.

Paper Napkins
Milton Nascimento

In my city there are poets, poets
Who come without drums and trumpets, trumpets
Always appearing when least expected, protected
Among books and shoes in dusty trunks

They leave secret places in the air, the air
Where they live with their mates, their mates
Their mates and ghosts of many colors, of colors, of colors
That paint eyes; that ask you not to cry

Their illusions are shared, parted, parted
Among the dead and injuries and injuries injuries
They exist in words, confused, fused, fused
By their sad slow steps through the roads and avenues

They don’t need glories or medals, medals, medals
They content themselves with crumbs, with crumbs
Crumbs of songs and tricks with verses, dispersed, dispersed
Blinded by the search for sunken treasures

Doing four hundred thousand projects, projects, projects
Never to be retired, tired, tired
None of this matters when they write, they write, they write
What they do not know and what some say they shouldn’t

They walk the streets the poets, poets, poets
As if they were comets, comets, comets
In a strange sky of idiot stars and others and others
Whose silent glow clothes their paths

In my city there are pens, pens, pens
Emptying themselves in thousands, thousands
Thousands of tortured words and confused, confused
Inconclusive flies on paper napkins

They walk the streets writing and seeing and seeing
They come and we go saying, saying
They are true poets who spy and leave and leave
They never tire to speak of what they swear they never distort

They look to heaven the poets, poets, poets
As if they were telescopes, telescopes
Lunatics launched into space and the entire world, entire, entire
As if they were looking to later return to Rio de Janeiro

* * *

The lyrics work much better in Portuguese. Repetition that may seem obsessive and odd here is actually quite lyrical and integrated in the original. Some cognates helped preserve the original effect (e.g., “confused”-“fused”). And I came up with a few things on my own that mimic Nascimento’s word play. “Retired”-“tired” is mine. It captures the idea and the play, but is not a literal translation. Some spots I could only render (for now) inelegantly: “shared”-“parted” captures the sense of the original but not the sound. And the “versos”-“dispersos” rhyme in the original is much easier on the ear than “verses”-“dispersed.” A few parts gave me particular trouble. Thinking it might help, I checked the Spanish version (the last track on the same disc). It was totally different except for certain key lines. There was no counterpart to the phrase that bothered me. I obviously wouldn’t feel as free as Nascimento did to completely rewrite. Yet maybe I was being far too literal and exacting. I do like the idea of translation as a creative endeavor. I remember seeing dramatically different translations of the same Petrarch verses side by side in an English class once upon a time…

8 thoughts on “That Stupid Ars Poetica Stuck in My Head”

  1. S.P., I don’t have speakers connected to my computer(sacrificed them so my disabled daughter could listen to her beloved e-sheep — all day — every day). So I’m sad about not being able to hear the sample. Could you tell me please something about the tone and nature of the musical accompaniment?

    Also, I couldn’t resist the urge to substitute “bloggers” for “poets.” Ha ha!

    Reading this poem reminds me of my time in the English dept. at the U of A, where poetry was treated as serious business, indeed.

    Are we allowed to discuss the song’s content? Funny that you said, “Maybe sometimes the best we can hope for is that the songs stuck in our heads are not complete garbage” about a song that, while not being itself garbage, intimates something about the trash content (including those fly-bespotted paper napkins) of the singer’s city.

    I like these lyrics tremendously. Thank you very much for translating them for us.

  2. Patricia: I’m glad you liked the lyrics! The accompaniment is spare, highlighting Nascimento’s distinctive (plaintive) voice. Subtle guitar and strings. Piano that mostly stays under Nascimento’s voice, but swells warmly at points.

    Sure! Discuss the content! The garbage thing is interesting. I also see the inconclusive flies as the tortured words themselves scribbled on the napkins.

  3. Yes, I got the flies/words connection too and I like the image. Quite the barb.

    Maybe I should have said “refuse” rather than “garbage.”

    Nascimento’s remarking upon these kinds of poets and their poetry raises many interesting questions for me. One is about “place” and how it affects one’s writing. The “poets” these lyrics describe suffer from displacement — that is, they’re not really rooted by anything except injuries, ghosts, sadness, etc. which IMO are all antithetical to “rootedness.” Does that last line “As if they were looking to later return to Rio de Janeiro” suggest to you that these people are lost, that they have no sense of “home” and so their language is sadly adrift, like refuse blowing about?

    Cordiero: Sez u!

  4. Cordiero: Thanks for commenting. I will grant that Portuguese is generally more logical, economical, and sonorous than English. Yet there is something limiting about that. Being cumbersome is part of the glory of English. A product of the confluence of different linguistic traditions, English offers a rich pallet for literary art. For example, I think Shakespeare would have only been possible in English.

  5. Thank you for this.

    “Portuguese is generally more logical, economical, and sonorous than English.”

    I have lived in Brazil for more than a few years, and Portuguese, is not that, but more dancing aroung the tree.

    And my Brazili

  6. Thank you for this.

    “Portuguese is generally more logical, economical, and sonorous than English.”

    I don´t have the capacity to make such sweeping statements, unfortunately.

    I have lived in Brazil for many years, and Portuguêse, is not that, in my unsweeped opinion. I find the language dances around the tree, rather than aims for the bullseye.

    My Brazilian friends, warm with mass, when discussing English literature or listening to English music say, “Please, tell me again the words that we just heard, of this artist.” I tell them the words translated, into Portuguêse. They, patient, but excited, say, in their perfect English “No, repeat it in English. I want to feel the words in your tongue, slowly and naturally.”

    After many years of listening to Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinícius de Moraes or Nascimento, my Brazilian friends are sensitized to the feel of the cidade maravílhosa, to the rítmo of the street, one onda after another.

    Unlike and with them, I still find the culture, slowly absorbed, romantic, metaphorical and winked.

  7. I wanted to thank you again for this.

    I stumbled across these recently, and maybe you hadn´t. They are gems.

    The first is the Brazilian legend- probably better to say a legend from Brazil – Tom Jobim with Frank Sinatra (two legends in one),


    and then with Andy Williams,

    My, that Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams – and Jobim – could sing. (Whom do you like better, Jobim with Frank or Andy?)

    This as well is sublime, a performance by Stan Getz and João Gilberto,

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