This is a translation I've wanted to do for a long time, but I always ran into some kind of block or another. Finally, tonight, thanks to a persistent insomnia, I sat down (or more accurately I sat up in bed) and worked one out. This song is L'estaca by Lluís Llach. It is a song with a storied history. Lluís Llach is a cantautor, a singer-songwriter, from Girona, Catalonia. He first came to fame during the Franco dictatorship, when the regional languages of Spain were banned from public life - except, for some reason, in music. Catalan songs thus became, intentionally or otherwise, a medium for protest against the Spanish State, and Catalan cantautors became the focal point for such political protest.
L'estaca was approved by the Spanish censors in 1968 (on the eighth submission) and became a popular hit. The following year, the authorities finally caught on and banned the song, but it was too late. In December 1969, Lluís Llach gave a performance at the Palau de la Mùsica Catalana where he was unable to sing L'estaca due to the ban - so the audience sang it instead. The song spread across Europe and, after being set to new lyrics by Jacek Kaczmarski, became the unofficial anthem of Solidarność in Poland. More recently, it was the anthem of the Tunisian Revolution in 2010-11.
The Catalan Wikipedia has much more complete information on Lluís Llach and L'estaca than the English Wikipedia does, and that's where I'm getting much of this information. I'm taking the liberty of sprinkling it here because information on Llach in English is relatively scarce. The Siset mentioned in the song is Narcís Llansa i Tubau, a barber and former ERC councillor whom Llach met in his youth, and whose republican and Catalanist ideals influenced Llach's own political development.
I was first introduced to this song during Speaking Freely classes at NYU, where I heard the most famous version of the song, which has just two verses. While researching this translation I noticed that there is actually a third verse on Lluís Llach's own website — so I translated that, too. It's much too important to leave out.
L'avi Siset em parlava
De bon matí al portal
Mentre el sol esperàvem
I els carros vèiem passar
Siset, que no veus l'estaca
On estem tots lligats?
Si no podem desfer-nos-en
Mai no podrem caminar!
Si estirem tots ella caurà
I molt de temps no pot durar
Segur que tomba, tomba, tomba
Ben corcada deu ser ja
Si jo l'estiro fort per aquí
I tu l'estires fort per allà
Segur que tomba, tomba, tomba
I ens podrem alliberar.
Però Siset, fa molt temps jaSi estirem...
Les mans s'em van escorxant.
I quan la força se me'n va
Ella és més ample i més gran.
Ben cert que està podrida
Però es que, Siset, pesa tant
Que a cops la força m'oblida
Torna'm a dir el teu cant
L'avi Siset ja no diu res
Mal vent que se l'emportà
Ell qui sap cap a quin indret
I jo a sota el portal
I mentre passen els nous vailets
Estiro el coll per cantar
El darrer cant d'en Siset
El darrer que em va ensenyar.
On paper, this should have been easy to translate - simple words, powerful imagery — but it wasn't. I usually tend to favour a more literal translation, especially for a first pass, because that preserves the turns of phrase, the syntax, and the way the brain twists to make connections, but when I tried it here everything turned flat and lifeless. That's the reason I sat on it for so long. At some point I realised that it wasn't the words, it was the imagery. I had to find the imagery. L'estaca is, in spirit, a folk song. Precision is not the point; connection is.
When I did that, things started to fall into place.
Old man Siset spoke to me
Before dawns, in the doorway
While we waited for the sun
And watched the carts pass us by.
Siset, can't you see the stake
To which we have all been bound?
Unless we undo ourselves from it
We shall never walk free!
If we all pull together, it will fall
And it can't stand much longer
Surely it must tumble, tumble, tumble
It must be so rotten now
If I pull hard over here
And you pull hard over there
Surely it must tumble, tumble, tumble
And we shall at last be free.
But Siset, it's been so long nowIf we all pull together...
My hands have been scoured so much
And when my strength slips from me
The stake grows bigger and stronger
I know for sure that it's rotten
But Siset, it weighs so much...
Sometimes my strength forgets me —
Sing me your song once again...
Old man Siset speaks no more
An ill wind bore him away
Only he knows to where —
And me, still in the doorway.
And as the young kids pass me by
I lift up my voice to sing
The final song of Siset
The last song that he taught me.
The strange thing that happened was that after the first pass, I noticed that the English translation had a certain unintended rhythm to it. The stress pattern was (and still is) a little off, but without meaning to, I had produced a translation that was seven-ish syllables to a line. Once I noticed that, I cut down some lines and lengthened others, making the progression of the song more even. What's interesting here is that the number of syllables in the Catalan and in the English are very, very similar — that's not true for many language pairs.
Some challenges: conveying the imperfect aspect of "parlava". The most precise English translation would have been "Old man Siset used to speak to me," but that really slowed the line down, so I left it and used "before dawns" to indicate that the talking was a regular, ongoing occurrence. The first translation of "fort" that sprang to mind was "strongly", probably because of the link with the word "força" (force, strength), but I really needed a monosyllabic word there, and it's surprising that it took me so long to think of "pull hard" as an alternative to "pull strongly". Most other translations I've seen opt for "to fall" rather than "to tumble" for "tombar", but there conversely I really wanted a bisyllabic word — a monosyllabic word interrupts the falling; it breaks the fall, as it were. In any case "tumble" and "tombar" share an etymology (Old French "tomber").
"Escorxar" and "scour", as far as I'm aware, do not share an etymology, but "flay", "peel" and other candidates just don't sound as good. There is something about the /sk_r/ combination of sounds that drives home the sensation of something cutting into flesh (scratch, screech, scare, scorn, scrape...) And finally — "I lift up my voice to sing" is a tricky one. The verb Llach used was "estirar", to pull - the same verb that he used to refer to pulling the stake. Clearly the repeated use of "estirar" is significant, but "I pull my voice" just does not work. In the end, I opted for "I lift up my voice" because "lift up", by itself, has a connotation of physical effort, and yet when applied to singing it has a quality of offering, as in worship, or of being outside of oneself.
Here's the three-verse version of L'estaca. Enjoy.