The poetry of Djavan's songs
Updated: Nov 19, 2022
One of the greatest poets in Brazilian music, Djavan Caetano Viana was born in 1949 in Maceió, capital of the state of Alagoas, in the northeast of Brazil. He moved to Rio in 1973.
I remember listening to Flor de Lis (Fleur de Lis), one of his first hits, on the radio in 1975. I liked it very much even then, when I was too young to know what the end of a love affair felt like. Djavan uses the metaphor of a dying garden to describe the aftermath of the break-up. These lines, which I find very evocative, sounded nonsensical to a lot of people: do pé que brotou maria/nem margarida nasceu, or "on the plant where maria grew, not even daisy blossomed." I thought the play on women's names and names of flowers was inventive and fit well with the imagery Djavan was creating. My love for his poetry started at that time.
The melody of Flor de Lis is great too. Even though the song is about a lost love, it is quite the colorful samba.
Serrado, another terrific samba released in 1978, is about missing one's home: the serrado (sometimes spelled cerrado), which is the Brazilian savanna. Djavan sings se o Senhor me for louvado/eu vou voltar pro meu serrado, or "if it is God's will, I will return to my serrado."
My admiration of Djavan as a songwriter has only grown over the years. His gorgeous lyrics have become more playful and more profound at the same time, his melodies more sophisticated and jazzy. Some of my favorites include Esquinas (Corners), Oceano (Ocean), Lilás (Lilac), Meu Bem Querer (My Loving), Pétala (Petal), Sina (Fate), and Açaí (the berry), all available online on video and streaming platforms.
I love Açaí especially because it is all about a mood. There are hardly any complete sentences in the lyrics. Mostly, we hear words and phrases that evoke places, images, emotions: Solidão/de manhã/poeira tomando assento/rajada de vento/som de assombração/coração/sangrando toda palavra sã--roughly "Loneliness/in the morn/a settling down of dust/winds that gust/groaning of ghosts/heart/bleeding every blessed word." Assombração means apparition, so I thought "ghost" would work, especially when paired with "groan" to echo the vowel sound. Sã means sane or healthy, but I chose the more poetic "blessed" instead. Alas, I wasn't able to replicate all the rhymes. Read the lines again and notice the repetition of letters and sounds, including words embedded in other words: som de assombração, sangrando toda palavra sã. There are more gems in the remainder of the song. I will translate the entire lyrics in the future.
For this post, I translated three songs from two of Djavan's 1980s albums, Seduzir (Seduce) and Luz (Light). His later albums are outstanding too, but these songs are special to me because they make up the soundtrack of my youth, and I am thrilled to share them with you.
The first two songs, Seduzir (Seduce) and Faltando um Pedaço (Missing a Piece), seek to define: Love is... To sing is... To love is... They remind me of poems by Emily Dickinson that proffer definitions: "Renunciation is a piercing virtue," "Hope is the thing with feathers," "Prayer is the little implement/Through which men reach," "Exultation is the going/Of an island soul to sea." Another point of intersection is the use of "island" (ilha) as a metaphor, which appears in one of the songs below.
In my translations I have attempted to replicate and highlight the skills that make Djavan one of the most talented, creative poets in Brazilian music. This time I am sharing a literal version and then what I call a literary version of the lyrics. You may ask, is translating pop song lyrics literary translation? When it comes to the poets of Brazilian music--Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, Djavan--yes, it is. A comparison between the two versions may uncover some of the processes that go into literary translation, especially the care that goes into selecting the best word or phrase to convey meaning, mood, and artistry.
Seduzir (Seduce), to me, is a marvel. There is such an economy of words, such precision, such a delightful juxtaposition of words that sound almost identical but point to rich, diverse meanings. The first stanza starts with amar é mover o dom and the second with cantar é perder o tom. Dom means gift, as in talent or knack. Tom usually means tone, but the expression perder o tom means to lose one's senses or one's mind. In my translation, I wanted to use as few words as possible to mirror Djavan's spare phrasing: dom/tom. I feel I was successful in conveying the meaning with the phrases "pull the gift" and "go adrift" while keeping the lines short and recreating the rhyme.
A note on the noun fundo: I avoided using its most obvious translation, bottom, because I felt it might carry a negative connotation. I thought "depth" and "depths" would express its more positive meanings.
I am happy with my translation of the first two stanzas, less happy with my translation of the third because I wasn't able to maintain the rhyme scheme, although the last two lines in my translation rhyme. Still, I hope that for the most part I have captured the beauty of Djavan's lyrics and that you will enjoy reading them as you listen to the song.
In Faltando Um Pedaço (Missing a Piece), Djavan regales us with yet more metaphors and similes for love. Some may be entirely unexpected to you as they were to me. I had to ponder the comparison between the arrival of love and the escape from an island, but I am glad for the invitation to engage with this image and try to decipher its meaning.
I am also intrigued by the reference to the pregnant daughter. In Portuguese, we say o que não mata engorda, or what doesn't kill you will fatten you, which is similar to "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Djavan may be telling us here that love can feel like a misfortune such as the displeasure (desgosto) of having an unmarried daughter who's now pregnant--it may both kill and fatten, or "bring as much heft as death" in my translation. I added the word "defiled" to produce a near rhyme and to hint at the kind of pain this daughter may be causing. Please keep in mind that this song was written around 1980 and that a daughter becoming pregnant outside of wedlock was and still is a source of disappointment and shame among various communities in Brazil, as it is in many parts of the world.
I am delighted at the two internal rhymes in this song: laço and passo in the first stanza and fio and cio in the next-to-last stanza. I couldn't reproduce the internal rhyme in the first case but was successful in the second. Notice how fio and cio also rhyme with desafio and rios in a previous stanza and how -ilha is used repeatedly as the rhyme in the first two stanzas. I was able to come up with near rhymes in some cases, full rhymes in others. Notice too how I paraphrase certain lines to make them more poetic in English and add a few words here and there to keep line length comparable without altering the meaning.
As in all of Djavan's ballads, the melody here is beautiful, and so is the arrangement. Listen to it as you read the lyrics and translation.
In the energetic, jazzy Samurai, Djavan again explores the pain and pleasure of being in love. The one-word lines in this song, all ending in a moaning -ai and rhyming from beginning to end, give the song a satisfying unity. The choice of the word "samurai" at the end is unexpected and equally rewarding.
The "oh" I chose to stand for ai didn't work as the rhyme to be repeated throughout, but I did create other rhymes in each stanza. I changed the order of lines and took liberties with word order and phrasing here and there to create rhymes.
Notice the internal rhyme in traz uma praga/e me afaga a pele and the echo effect in se não mata, fere and me afaga a pele. I tried to capture some of this playfulness with "if it doesn't slay, it stings" and "grazes my skin." One note on praga: it can be translated as "plague" or as "curse." My instinct was to go with "plague," which I used in its verb form because it fit the rhythm of the line better.
You may wonder where "sir" in the last stanza comes from. Notice that in ser o serviçal do samurai, ser is inside serviçal. You now know this is not by chance, as Djavan chooses his words very carefully, amazing wordsmith that he is. I chose "sir" because it sounds exactly like the syllable "ser-" in "servant:" be a servant to sir/the samurai.
This was so much fun to translate!
The beat in Samurai is playful and lighthearted, in nice contrast to the perils of love described in the lyrics. This reinforces the theme of the duality of love: it hurts, it brings joy. The original recording of this song, available online, features Stevie Wonder on harmonica. Enjoy!
Check out Djavan's website: https://djavan.com.br. You can choose to browse it in English or in Portuguese. The buttons to toggle between languages are at the bottom of the homepage.
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