20 April 2009


The Brazilian band Os Mutantes created two versions of their song "Baby," one in Portuguese in 1968 and the other in English in 1971. Until today, I always assumed that the English version was a close translation of the Portuguese, just slightly different stylistically. Reading the lyrics to the English version alongside a translation of the Portuguese version (from the Luaka Bop website) gives a different impression:

Baby (1971)
click here to listen on YouTube

You know,
you must take a new look at the new land
The swimming pool and
the teeth of your friend
The dirt in my hand
You know,
you must take a look at me

Baby, baby
I know that’s the way

You know,
you must try the new ice-cream flavor
Do me a favor,
look at me closer
Join us and go far
And hear the new sound of my bossa nova

Baby, baby
It’s been a long time

You know, it’s time now to learn Portuguese
It’s time now to learn what I know
And what I don’t know
I know, with me everything is fine
It’s time now to make up your mind
We live in the biggest city of South America
Look here, read what I wrote on my shirt:
Baby, baby
I love you
Baby (1968), translated
click here to listen on YouTube

You need to learn of swimming pools
Of margarine, of Caroline, of gasoline
You need to learn of me

Baby, Baby
I know you do

You need to eat an ice cream cone
At the corner diner, to hang out with us
To see me up close
To hear Roberto Carlos’ new song

Baby, baby
It’s been so long

You need to learn English
And learn what I know
And what I don’t know

With me, skies are blue
With you all is cool
We live in the best city
In South America
You need to... you need to...
I don’t know, read it on my shirt
Baby, baby
I love you

Although I have no idea how this song comes across in Portuguese, in English the 1968 version is distinctly more emotional, more adolescent. The 1971 version sounds surreal and whimsical, the 1968 version more exasperated and simple. The tiny, tiny difference between "We live in the biggest city of South America" and "We live in the best city in South America" is a perfect example. Living in the biggest city in South America is chance, a randomish factoid, but living in the best city is full of possibilities, suggests a world or a life that's fresh and almost perfect. (For more thoughts on this song, see the interesting discussion in the comments of this post.)

Here is the English translation (from notbored.org) of the lyrics to "Panis et Circenses," one of my favorite Mutantes songs, and an example (in my opinion) of the band's more political side. Click here to watch a video of the band performing this song (YouTube).

I wanted to sing a song illuminated by the sun
I raised the sails to the wind
I freed the tigers and the lions in the yard
But the people in the dining hall
Are busy being born and dying

I demanded that a dagger of pure luminous steel be made
To kill my love and I killed her
At five o'clock on Central Avenue
But the people in the dining hall
Are busy being born and dying

I demanded that leaves of dreams be planted in the Garden of the Sun
The leaves know how to seek the sun
And the roots seek, seek
But the people in the dining hall
These people in the dining hall
But the people in the dining hall
Are busy being born and dying


Jason said...

It always strikes me as funny how hip it is (and was) to use fragments of English.

Oktober said...

This is amazing. These are two completely different songs, and it's not simply a matter of translation.

From what I gather, Caetano Veloso wrote the song "Baby," which first appeared on Gal Costa's 1968 album Baby. Both Costa and Veloso perform the song as a sort of acoustic serenade. Os Mutantes collaborated with Veloso and Costa (along with others) on the 1968 album Tropicalia: ou Panis et Circenses.

Here is Allmusic's article which, of course, I found only after figuring all of this out, and which explains the history much better.

I don't completely agree with Allmusic's analysis, though.
The Mutants' 1968 Portugese version has a sound and rhythm in the vein of The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, and The Kinks--"Heroin" mixed with "Crimson and Clover".

Three years later, the song had been through the rock tumbler and had come out polished yet watered down. Arnaldo Baptista's passionate, nearly whispered vocals were replaced with Rita Lee's lounge singer sultriness, and the song became a crisp bossa nova serenade in English.

The drop-out counter culture essence of the 1968 version (also the original Veloso version) seems to lie in the passage:

"You need to... you need to...
I don’t know, read it on my shirt."

Which I don't interpret as being inherently linked to the final chorus, but which were, in fact, changed into:

"Look here, read what I wrote on my shirt:
Baby, baby
I love you"

It's strange, though, that when they perform it in Portugese now, they sing the same lyrics as the original, but retain the bossa nova sound of the 1971 song, as if their brilliant, edgy, disaffectedly anthemic 1968 cover of a somewhat dull, traditional song never existed.

the curator said...

Thank you for the extra research, Oktober. I agree with your assessment of the original Veloso/Costa version, dull and traditional. After comparing the original and Os Mutantes' 1968 version, the lyrics seem to be identical, which makes me wonder how Veloso and Costa could have missed the greatest aspect of their own song.

On the other hand, I notice that the video you linked is a performance from 1994, so maybe there was more youthful spirit in their version when it was new. Some other things about that performance make me think that they are not giving it their best effort (not least of which is Costa's false start at the beginning).

After listening a few times, I can begin to see how the original version could at one time in history have been interpreted in nearly the same spirit as the 1971 Mutantes version, which if nothing else is a notch above how loungey and boring it sounds to us now. (And for the record, I do really like the 1971 version and don't particularly consider it to be inferior to the 1968 except if it's thought of as a different version of the same song, when it is, as you pointed out, a completely different song.)

Nevertheless, you have mastered all the adjectives in your description of the 1968 version as "brilliant, edgy, disaffectedly anthemic." And the example you mention from the song was one that struck me as well.

nonsensers said...

I just found out about this blog 6 years after it was posted. Anyway, don't know if anybody is gonna read this, but both songs are very emotional. Panis et Circenses were composed by legends such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil and Baby were composed by Caetano Veloso and given to Gal Costa(another legend in Brazil).

Both of them were the mentors (alongside Maestro Rogério Duprat) of a brazilian artistical movement called Tropicalia and all of this was happening during Brazil dictatorial government(1964-1985). So both songs are kind of a protest, in some ways, since Caetano and Gilberto Gil were two of the many artists who stood up against that government and were eventually exiled.

the curator said...

Thanks for your excellent comment, nonsensers!