One of my favorite songs of all time was written by the late Chilean poet Violeta Parra and made famous by the now-also-late belovèd Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa, who was affectionately known as “la negra”. This song makes me incredibly homesick: homesick for Chile, homesick for Latin America, and homesick for smells and sounds I can only, maybe, find in dreams. It even makes me homesick for places I’ve never actually been. (Honey, I think we call that last one “longing.”)
Over the years, I’ve played “Volver a los 17” a few times for people —usually lovers at that point in the relationship when they show you theirs and you show them yours (I’m talking music, people, music!) — who don’t speak Spanish. Invariably I end up feeling tongue-tied and rather inept at the prospect of simultaneously translating its rapidly flowing metaphors, and certainly not without detracting from the melody and the kick-your-heels-up Chilean folk-dance (“la cueca”) rhythm, which the song springs into every time the chorus comes around.
So usually I just end up mumbling something about how it’s about going back to being 17, and then I sigh and drift off to a nebulous place of homesickness and longing for the length of the song.
But, back to now…
Finally and actually having given its translation a whirl, if you were my lover today and it was my turn to show you mine I’d tell you that yes, it’s a song about going back for yourself at 17. But also it’s about the moment —so fragile and powerful at once— and about how an instant can change everything. Also I’d tell you that while the whole thing is about love, it’s not about the shiny and brand spanking new ‘oooh baby I’m so in love with you’ kind of love that seems to get all the airwaves’ coverage, but rather the giant and gnarly kind that we actually end up living, the kind that includes the shiny bits, sure, but no less of the heartache-y dark stretches between the shine. Also? I’d tell you that there are many words and turns of phrase whose beauty get lost in translation, if they can be translated at all.
I tried to translate the poem in a way that allows you to read in English to the meter of the Spanish verse, so you can, if roughly, actually sing along. A few times I favored that kind of flow and meaning over literal accuracy. I press “publish” with a bow of apology to Violeta Parra for what is lost in translation.
One last thing… I chose this YouTube version of the song not for its recording quality but because of the gorgeous energy of these five belovèd Latin American singers: Mercedes Sosa, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento and Gal Costaand. There are many heart-melty moments –many!– but my favorite might be when Caetano softly reaches for a high note and finds his voice cracking (at about minute 1:35 or so).
Volver a los 17 (Violeta Parra)
Returning to being seventeen
after living through a century
is like deciphering signs
without advantage of wisdom
to be suddenly once again
as fragile as one second
to feel things as intensely
as a child in front of God,
that’s what it feels like for me
in this fertile instant
Gathering moss so the stone rolls
like a thick ivy on the wall
sprouting and sprouting so it grows
like tender moss covering a stone
like tender moss on a stone ay sí sí sí.
The steps I take all go backwards
while its steps continue advancing
the arch of our alliances
has penetrated my nest
in all its colorful swagger
it’s taken a walk down my veins
and even the hardest of chains
that destiny uses to bind us
is like the finest of diamonds
that lights up my calm soul
What feeling can bring about
knowledge never could,
nor the clearest course of action
nor the grandest of all our thoughts.
Everything is changed by a moment
like an affable magician,
it sweetly steers us away
from bitterness and from violence
only love with its science
turns us into such innocence.
Love is a swirling whirlwind
of primal purity
even the wildest of animals
will whisper and trill its sweetness,
it stops pilgrims in their travels,
it liberates those imprisoned,
love, with the tenderest of touches,
turns the old (wo)man into a child
and only the most loving care
turns bad into pure and sincere.
Eventually the window
was flung open as if by enchantment,
and love entered with its blanket
to give cover like a warm morning
to the sound of its lovely reveille
it made jasmine burst into bloom,
and taking flight like an angel
it hung earrings upon the heavens
and my years of 17
were transformed by the cherubim.
[Translation (c) Heidi Fischbach, 2014]