I have always thought that translating the lyrics of a song is not a good idea. Most of Jobim standards, for example, are translated into english so they can be sung by english-speaking singers, and although the result is quite good ("Ella abraça Jobim" is among my favorite albums), the english lyrics fail to translate all the feeling and the emotions of the originals.
If you have a poem in, let's say, french, and you cannot speak french, you need to translate it, because the poem is everything. If you do not understand the words, you cannot understand the art behind it (set aside Apollinaire's works and some other less orthodox forms of poetry...). But with music is different. If you cannot understand portuguese you can still feel the music of Jobim and love it. A good singer should needs no words.
A few days ago I was doing something that I like to do quite often: listening to as much covers of the same song as I can, one after another. In that case, I chose Bertold Brecht's "Mackie Messer", with music by Kurt Weill, from his "Three-penny opera", a song know as "Mack the Knife" in the english-speaking world. The original is not a jazz tune, but it has become more or less a standard after many different covers by jazz musicians.
My german is not brilliant, but enough to understand the german lyrics if I read them, and they are great (well, it's Bertold Brecht!). I must confess I had never payed attention to the english lyrics, but when I started listening carefully to a few versions, I quickly realized that I was wrong when I thought that lyrics should not be translated. Listening to them, it seemed that every version added something new, and the original Brecht's verses were just a foundation upon which new lyrics could be created, much like Weill's music was used by musicians to arrange different works.
The original english Lyrics, as sung, for example, by Louis Armstrong are more than a mere translation. Ella used those lyrics but changed the following verses:
"Looky here Louie Miller, disappeared dear
after drawing, out his cash.
And MacHeath spends, like a sailor
did our boy do, somethin' rash? "
by this funny part
"Oh, what’s the next chorus?
To this song, now
This is the one, now
I don’t know
But it was a swinging tune
And it’s a hit tune
So we tried to do Mack the Knife
Ah, Louis Miller
Oh, something about cash
Yeah, miller, he was spending that trash
And MacHeath dear, he spends like a sailor
Tell me, tell me, tell me
Could that boy do, something rash"
But to do it even better, she pays homage to those who made the song popular by adding the next verses.
"Oh Bobby Darin, and Louis Armstrong
They made a record, oh but they did
And now Ella, Ella, and her fellas
We’re making a wreck, what a wreck
Of Mack the Knife"
Sinatra's version is not as fresh as Ella's one, but slightly alters this last part.
"Old Satchmo, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darrin
Did this song nice, lady Ella too
They all sang it, with so much feeling
That old blue eyes, he ain’t gonna add nothing new"
I guess he did add something new...
But all these english versions are nothing when compared to Ruben Blades' "Pedro Navaja". I doubt Blades translated from the german original, but instead from some of the above english lyrics, but his lyrics, while more or less retaining the characters, create a new story that is, no doubt, the best among all the other ones previoulsy written. And they fit perfectly into the music!. A completely different tune! Definitely, if there's a song that is worth translating, that is "Mack the Knife". Anyone knows about versions in other different languages?
I've been listening to some Blades' records since then, and I'm really happy I have rediscovered him. Also I have been using some of his tunes to play along, and they are great for improvising. It's not my style of playing, but they are definitely interesting.
One usually tries to look new good music in strage bands from far away countries, and overlooks great songs that have been part of his own culture (everyone in Spain knows "Pedro Navaja") just for the fact that they seem too popular, almost like traditional ones. Most of the music you can listen to right now on the radio is depresingly bad (at least from a strictly musical point of view), but most of the music that was broadcasted some years ago was not. I'll try not to forget this valuable lesson too soon :-)