CAT > EN: Barcelona, La Troba Kung-Fu

The recent attack in Barcelona reminded me of a song that I learnt about in Catalan class in college.

I’ve translated the song into English, and I’ve “shown my working”, so to speak — there’s a literal translation, which hews as closely to the original Catalan as I can stand, and there’s a less literal translation, which departs from the Catalan in literal meaning, but hopefully expresses the figurative meaning better. They’re not that different, but one shows the structure of Catalan better, and the other is more readable.

Even though I’ve written about Catalan a bit, I don’t have a strong grasp of the language, and this translation is consequently a bit shaky. It’s worth remembering that I usually do these translations as a way to learn a language or about language. This isn’t a literary translation, and you can’t really sing the words to the tune.

This song is Barcelona, by La Troba Kung-Fu. Enjoy it.

Thanks to Elena for helping out with the translation.

Catalan:

Sento una veu dins meu,
que no sé si és mora o és gitana.
Sento una veu dins meu,
que no sé si és jueva o catalana.
Sento una veu que és trista
però que olora amb pólvora feta de vida.

Literal Translation:

I feel a voice within me,
that I don’t know if is Moorish or is gypsy.
I feel a voice within me,
that I don’t know if is Jewish or Catalan.
I feel a voice that is sad
But that smells of powder made of life.

Less Literal Translation:

I hear a voice within me,
I don’t know if it’s Moorish or gypsy.
I hear a voice within me,
I don’t know if it’s Jewish or Catalan.
I hear a voice that’s melancholy
But that smells of a perfume full of life.

As a Mediterranean port, Barcelona has been a place of interchange for centuries. The narrator of the song hears a voice with streaks of the various cultural identities that have passed through Barcelona through the ages: Muslim, Gypsy, Jewish, and of course Catalan.

Sorry, “powder” just isn’t a very evocative word, so I had to do something to it.

Catalan:

Sempre vaig Rambla avall
i tombo pel carrer Hospital,
puc remar pel Raval
o bé arribar-me a la Reial.
I a cada cantonada
sento dins la fosca que una veu s'amaga,
sento una veu que plora,
que plora pels carrers de Barcelona.

Literal Translation:

I always go down the Rambla
and turn through Hospital Street.
I can row through the Raval
Or go to the (Plaza) Royal.
And at every street corner
I feel in the dark a voice that hides itself,
I feel a voice that cries,
that cries through the streets of Barcelona.

Less Literal Translation:

I always go down the Rambla
and turn down Hospital Street.
I can wade through the Raval
Or go to the (Plaza) Royal.
And at every street corner
I hear in the dark a voice that’s hiding,
I hear a voice that cries,
that cries through the streets of Barcelona.

La Rambla, Carrer de l’Hospital, El Raval and Plaça Reial are all smack in the city centre, and they’re all tourist hotspots. This Barcelona is the Barcelona that most tourists know.

For the longest time I wondered about “cantonada”, which refers to a street corner. It didn’t seem to relate to any word in any related language I knew. Of course, Canton is the traditional romanisation for the Chinese city of Guangzhou, but that doesn’t seem relevant here. A canton is also a political division in Switzerland, and I suppose there’s a spatial relationship between spaces and corners…

If you’re a fan of flags (perhaps you are a Hello Internet listener?), though, you might know that in vexillology, a canton is the upper left corner or quarter or region of a flag… and there you have the semantic link between Catalan “cantonada”, street corner, and the Swiss political division of a canton.

There’s a lot to be found down this particular rabbit hole, but I’m going to move on. If you’re curious, though, I suggest you look up the etymology of “cant”, as in “decanter” or “canted angle”.

If I knew more about Proto-Indo-European declension, I would be able to tell you if you could etymologically make your way from “canton” to “camera”, but I don’t.

Catalan:

Tiro cap a esquerra i dreta,
sempre per la banda estreta,
no em puc fiar de la vista
si faig el camí del turista.
I sento la veu més dolça, que em diu:
“Vine, perde't pels carrers de Barcelona".
I sento la veu més forta, que em diu:
“Vine, deixa la por, perd la vergonya!".

Literal Translation:

I shoot to the left and right,
Always by the narrow path.
I cannot trust the view
If I do the tourist’s walk.
And I feel the softest voice, that tells me,
“Come, lose yourself in the streets of Barcelona.”
And I feel the loudest voice, that tells me,
“Come, leave fear, lose shame!”

Less Literal Translation:

I barrel left and right
Always down the road less travelled.
I can’t trust what I see
If I see only the tourists’ sights.
And I hear the gentlest voice telling me,
“Come, lose yourself in the streets of Barcelona.”
And I hear the boldest voice telling me,
“Come, don’t be afraid, don’t be ashamed!”

For the first time in this song, a line is drawn between the touristy Barcelona and the “real” Barcelona.

“Cap” is an interesting word in Catalan. It can be a noun meaning “head” — in fact, it is cognate with English “head”: both words ultimately descend from Proto-Indo-European *káput. PIE *káput became Proto-Germanic *haubadam, then Old English *heofod, and eventually Modern English “head”. The Catalan lineage runs from PIE *káput to Proto-Italic *kaput, to Latin “caput”, and eventually to Catalan “cap”.

Anyway, back to the point — “cap” can be the noun “head”, or it can be a preposition meaning “towards”, or it can be used as a pronoun or adjective that means “nothing” or “none” (to put it simply — maybe one day I’ll dig into this a bit more.) I can see how the prepositional meaning of “towards” might have come about — when you’re going in a certain direction, you’re pointing your head that way — but I have no idea how the “nothing”/“none”/negation meaning came about.

Catalan:

Il-luminat amb boja pèrdua
sempre tombo cap a mar,
allà on tota ciutat comença
i on el cau no han foradat.
I espero que arribi la fosca
per veure si la veu és balladora,
i és que Barcelona s'amaga,
però de nit l'he vist ballar
com una gitana.

Literal Translation:

Illuminated by crazy loss
I always turn towards the sea
There where the whole city begins
And where they have not penetrated the hideout.
And I hope that the darkness arrives
To see if the voice is a dancer
And it’s that Barcelona is hiding
But by night I’ve seen her dance
Like a Gypsy.

Less Literal Translation:

Animated by a maniacal emptiness
I always turn towards the sea
Where the whole city begins
And where tourists can’t disturb the peace
I hope that darkness falls soon
So I can tell if it’s a dancer’s voice I hear
Barcelona is hiding now
But by night I’ve seen her dance
The way a Gypsy dances.

I’m really shaky on this verse, and I’m happy to welcome explanations or alternative translations. I’m especially unsure about the first four lines (which you can probably tell by how different the two translations are).

Catalan “cau” is cognate with English “cave”, both of them being descended from Latin “cavus” (hollow). In Catalan, “cau” has acquired the meaning of a den, refuge or hideout (which you do see in English, too — consider “mancave” or “batcave”).

Catalan:

"Vine cap aquí, vine cap aquí!",
cantonada a cantonada.
"Vine cap aquí, vine cap aquí!",
pels de fora es posa guapa.
"Vine cap aquí, vine cap aquí!",
cantonada a cantonada.
"Vine cap aquí, vine cap aquí!",
jo la busco i ella s'amaga.

Literal Translation:

“Come over here, come over here!”
From street corner to street corner.
“Come over here, come over here!”
For those from outside she makes herself pretty.
“Come over here, come over here!”
From street corner to street corner.
“Come over here, come over here!”
I’m looking for her and she’s hiding.

Less Literal Translation:

“Come over here, over here!”
From corner to street corner.
“Come over here, over here!”
For the tourists she cleans up.
“Come over here, over here!”
From corner to street corner.
“Come over here, over here!”
I’m looking for her but she’s hiding.

That’s the voice the narrator hears inside him/her, if you can’t tell. The narrator wants to find the real Barcelona, not the touristy one, but she seems elusive.

The pun on clean up is fully intended, albeit admittedly not very good. There are many different ways to express that idea — Barcelona dresses up, Barcelona puts on a show, Barcelona puts on a pretty face for outsiders.

Catalan:

Té molta cara,
té poca vergonya,
com camela quan remena, Barcelona.

Literal Translation:

She’s got much face,
She’s got little shame,
Like sweet talk when she stirs, Barcelona.

Less Literal Translation:

She’s got a pretty face,
She’s got no shame,
Just like sweet talk, when she stirs, Barcelona.

I love this song because it captures the complexity of Barcelona so well — it’s a city with a storied history and many faces.

I don’t really know how to end this post, except to say… I guess I want to say that language is a big part of how we transmit ideas and culture. The act of translation is not about translating syntax and words, but about translating ideas and cultures.

This is my small contribution to a world riven by walls and division: an exploration of one thing, language, that has the capacity to connect us to one another.