Hearing the sound of a language is an ability lost once you turn mechanical waves into intelligible words. Your brain stops hearing sound and starts hearing meaning.
Eu queria poder ouvir o som da minha língua como música. Ouvir as notas e as nuances sem o julgamento que vem com a compreensão de palavras. Se entendêssemos a língua dos pássaros, estaríamos imunes à sua melodia?
Not knowing a language is also a talent. It means never getting to meaning, but staying with music.
How long does it take to recognize Portuguese in such an American movie? How long does it take to recognize Bowie in such a Brazilian song?
Seu Jorge said he received a call and did not understand a word from the other end. It was filmmaker Wes Anderson inviting him to make versions of David Bowie songs and perform them as a character in Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I had a similar experience when I heard him play “Life on Mars” in the beginning of the movie: I could not understand the words. I had that feeling of hearing Portuguese I often have on the train, when I only catch a few sounds and intonations from English or Spanish speakers.
In Brazil, I once heard a cover band play a song in Portuguese that sounded both familiar and strange. It took me a while to realize it was actually “Starman.” I had probably heard that version of the song even before I knew who Bowie was — it was released the same year I was born. But this was the first time I noticed it. And I hated it.
Seu Jorge created his versions of “Rebel Rebel,” “Changes,” “Lady Stardust,” “Five Years,” and many others. But he plays the 1988 version of “Starman,” originally recorded by Nenhum de Nós. Is it necessary to translate again what has already been translated?
I’ve been listening to Seu Jorge’s Life Aquatic recordings, waiting for the point where I’ll be able to sing the Portuguese lyrics.
Things I can’t translate to you: Deu formiga no mel, marimbondo e cupim, que que eu vou fazer de mim? Não vou misturar cachaça e café só pra te agradar A sua chama está ardendo de saudade Já conheço seu dorso E o seu beijo amargo de jiló
Things I will:
The fool fears the night, how will the night fear fire? The make-up will come apart for your fear to show So come here, give me your tongue Protect your eyes against the salt If it will go with jeans, that I don’t know
Bowie said: “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs in Portuguese, I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with.” Did Bowie, or even Anderson, know what Seu Jorge sang?
Seu Jorge did not translate words, he translated music.
He turned a Bowie song into Brazilian music.
How does one begin to translate oneself?
I have translated my writing in Portuguese into English before. It feels like writing again. It seems that having the words already laid out in one language would be a shortcut to the final text, but it feels more like a detour. The original meaning had to bend to the curves of this one language and now I am trying to bend it back and then into yet another shape.
When I was a child, I used to play a computer game in which a Brazilian comics character talked to me out of the screen. I could make her talk in different languages, too. What struck me was that her voice was different when she talked in French or in English. I did not grasp the concept of voice acting. That’s how I came to believe you become someone else in a different language.
In ways, I have become someone else. I am a person with no ownership over language. I feel that all I say is borrowed.
The year David Bowie died, Seu Jorge went on a tour with his Life Aquatic album. I sat on the fifth row at the first of two consecutive Chicago concerts, head uncovered among a crowd of red beanies.
The two men sitting next to me were surprised when I told them his lyrics were not the same as Bowie’s. They had never thought about that. They took translation for granted.
Visiting Brazil after two years, my friends told me I have a foreign accent.
I keep asking: “sabe?” — “you know?”
My intonation is different.
I am ineloquent. Words and expressions come to me in English and I know I can’t just translate them literally. I open my mouth but nothing comes out.
One time my jaw locked while I spoke, as if my bones were rejecting my own language.
Seu Jorge spoke in a clear but labored, heavy-accented English. I could hear Rio through his sentences. I envied that, the crystalized identity that persisted even under translation.
“I didn’t speak a word of English. I still don’t, but I am trying to communicate here,” he said. And he perfectly succeeded: at every interlude, he told stories about the songs, about the movie, about his life. In those interludes, he addressed every English speaker in the concert hall. During the songs, it felt as if he addresses only me.
My ears still welcome Portuguese.
After 3 years of English-living, I moved to Berlin.
My German is good enough to: order black coffee, make change, converse with the man behind the döner counter who tells me my name is beautiful.
Other than that, all I hear is music.
-- Carolina Faller Moura is a writer and artist from Brazil, living in Berlin. She earned her MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received the 2016 MFAW Writing Fellowship Award. She is the founder and editor of Homonym Journal, an online publication focused on multi-lingual and translation-minded art & writing.