Brazil: In Search of a New Girl from Ipanema

The Girl from Ipanema“The Girl from Ipanema” is the most famous Brazilian song in the world. It has been covered by dozens of singers and countless versions have appeared in several languages. Probably the best-known English version is by Astrud Gilberto in which the Brazilian singer’s husky voice is offset by Stan Getz’s super smooth musical accompaniment.

Frank Sinatra also made a famous cover version using the same English version. If you understand Portuguese you will see immediately that these lyrics, written by Norman Gimbel, bear little direct connection. Even the very first word—“tall”—shows poetic license since there is no reference to the girl’s height in the song.

Other parts such as: “When she walks, she’s like a samba/That swings so cool and sways so gentle/That when she passes, each one she passes goes—ooh” simply do not exist in the original Portuguese.

According to fellow Brazzil columnist and musical expert, Joe Lopes, Gimbel did not speak Portuguese but he knew Tom Jobim. Since Jobim, who wrote the music, and Vinicius de Moraes, who wrote the lyrics, had both lived and worked in the US, their English must have been pretty good.

Presumably they both approved of the version by Gimbel who, incidentally, wrote several well-known songs, including the Roberta Flack hit “Killing Me Softly With His Song”, which also has rather idiosyncratic lyrics. In any case, Gimbel’s is the version that swept the world when the song was first released in 1962.

Personally I think it was Getz’s musical arrangement and Astrud Gilberto’s sexy voice, which made this song so striking and captivating. I have never liked Gimbel’s lyrics although I do not blame him for not using a more literal translation.

At the risk of offending some Brazilian readers, I also feel the original lyrics in Portuguese are pretty banal even though Vinicius de Moraes was a celebrated poet.

A version, which is more faithful to the Portuguese lyrics was produced by someone called Jason Brazile.

As you will see, the lyrics are clumsy and stilted and the literal translation does not convey any of the movement or sensuality of the Gimbel version.

I think it’s time we had a new English version. Any Brazzil readers willing to try and produce one?

Olha que coisa mais linda,
mais cheia de graça
É ela menina
que vem que passa
Num doce balanço
caminho do mar

Moça do corpo dourado
do sol de Ipanema
O seu balançado
é mais que um poema
É a coisa mais linda
que eu já vi passar

Ah, porque estou tão sozinho
Ah, porque tudo e tão triste
Ah, a beleza que existe
A beleza que não é só minha
que também passa sozinha

Ah, se ela soubesse
que quando ela passa
O mundo sorrindo
se enche de graça
E fica mais lindo
por causa do amor

Look at this thing, most lovely
most graceful
It’s her, the girl
that comes, that passes
with a sweet swinging
walking to the sea

Girl of the golden body
from the sun of Ipanema
Your swaying
is more than a poem
It’s a thing more beautiful
than I have ever seen pass by

Ah, why am I so alone
Ah, why is everything so sad
The beauty that exists
The beauty that is not mine alone
that also passes by on its own

Ah, if she only knew
that when she passes
the world smiles
fills itself with grace
and remains more beautiful
because of love

Caymmi and Amado—Magicians of Bahia

It would be interesting to know how many Brazilian songs have been translated into English. I imagine there are not many. Many foreigners find Brazilian Portuguese to be an attractive language and prefer to listen to the original even though they may not know what the song is about.

A song like “The Girl from Ipanema” could be a world success because it was universal in its theme—a middle-aged man admiring an unattainable young girl. However, there are many other singers whose music requires a deeper cultural knowledge from the listener.

One example is Dorival Caymmi who was born in Bahia in 1914 and started composing when he was 19. He is one of Brazil’s greatest songwriters and musicians and it is fair to say he has influenced every singer and writer of note over the last 50 to 60 years.

Caymmi was a musical equivalent of the novelist Jorge Amado. They both took Bahia as their main theme and their works were inspired by the mixture of cultures and the history of that state, which probably has the strongest cultural identity in Brazil.

However, whereas Amado’s books could be translated, Caymmi’s lyrics are almost impossible to put into English. Songs like “São Salvador” and “Maracangalha”, for example, would sound like children’s nursery rhymes if translated in a literal fashion and convey nothing of their cultural richness.

One of my favorite Caymmi songs is “Oração de Mãe Menininha”. There have been many versions of this, including a joint effort by Gal Costa and Maria Bethania, but the version by D. Ivone Lara is spectacular.

Listen to it and you will be swept off to a beach in Bahia, studded with palm trees and a big yellow moon shining on the sea. If anyone can turn these lyrics into a comprehensible English version then the worldwide success of “A Garota de Ipanema” could be repeated.

Oração de Mãe Menininha

Ai, minha mãe
Minha Mãe Menininha
Ai, minha mãe
Menininha do Gantois
Ai, minha mãe
Minha Mãe Menininha
Ai, minha mãe
Menininha do Gantois
A estrela mais linda, hein?
Tá no Gantois
E o sol mais brilhante, hein?
Tá no Gantois
A beleza do mundo, hein?
Tá no Gantois
E a mão da doçura, hein?
Tá no Gantois
O consolo da gente, ai?
Tá no Gantois
E a Oxum mais bonita, hein?
Tá no Gantois
Olorum quem mandou
Essa filha de Oxum
Tomar conta da gente
E de tudo cuidar
Olorum quem mandou ê ô
Ora iê iê ô
Ora iê iê ô
Ora iê iê ô
Ai, minha mãe
Minha Mãe Menininha
Ai, minha mãe
Menininha do Gantois…

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações— www.celt.com.br —which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2004

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