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Old Italian Songs: Wonderful to Hear, Hard to Explain

by John Aquino on 03/18/19

My family on both sides is Italian, but we didn't speak Italian in the house because of the American melting pot" concept that ran through much of the 20th century and lingering prejudice against Italian-Americans. And yet, I did spend some of my youth listening to old Italian songs--on records, performed at parties, and sung at weddings. Those who have seen the movie The Godfather have heard the Neapolitan song "C'e la luna mezzo mare" sung by the mother of the bride in the opening wedding scene, and the song has been a frequent part of Italian-American wedding receptions. But translating or explaining or even singing these songs to certain audiences can be difficult because they tend to be, for want of a better word, earthy.


My Mom used to sing a song when she was cooking, and I learned it from her.

We', Marie, We', Marie,
Quanto sonno giu perso per te.
Fammi dormi, una notte abbreciata cue te.

When my wife and I were in Italy on a pilgrimage and an Italian bishops was with us, after dinner, he suggested we sing songs. Eager to show off, I started to sing, We', Marie." The bishop blushed, stammered, said, "I cannot sing that," and walked away. That was probably because the Italian lyrics, sung by a man outside of a sleeping woman's window,  mean, roughly, "What long restless nights you have cost me./Let me sleep with my arms wrapped tight around you." 

"C'e la luna," which was written 92 years ago, is even earthier. The Italian lyrics are 

C'e la luna mezzo mare
Mamma mia maritari
Figlia mia, a cu te dari,
Mamma mia pensaci tu.
Si ci dugnu lu babberi
Iddu va, Iddu veni
' U rassolu manu teni.
Si ci pigghia la fantasia
Mi rasulia la figlia mia."
"Oh, Mama, me voglio marita.
Oh, cump a, quand bella baccala"

It's sung to a sprightly tarantella. But the lyrics translate as a dialogue between a daughter and her mother:

"There's a moon in the middle of the sea.
Mother, I must get married."
"Daughter, whom should I get for you?"
"Mother, that's up to you."
"If I give you to the barber,
He will come and go,
Go and come,
Carrying a razor in his hand.
And if it strikes his fantasy.
One day, he'll razor you."
"Oh, Mama, I want to get married.
Oh Godfather, bring on the wonderful codfish [for the wedding]."

And then the mother goes on to describe similar ends if the daughter marries the carpenter, the shoemaker, the farmer, the butcher, the fisherman, and the gardener. The outcomes sound violent, but there's sexual meaning behind each profession--the butcher has a sausage in his hand, the gardener has a cucumber, etc.

In reworking the lyrics into English, songwriters took great liberties for the American market. A version that was popular in the 1930s and 1940s was titled "Oh, Ma-Ma (The Butcher Boy)" and went like this:

"Hey, Marie,
I gotta da lamb chop,
Hey, Marie, 
I gotta da pork chop,
Hey, Marie,
Marie,
Ya wanta marry me?"
"Oh, Ma-Ma!
Oh, catcha dat man-a for me.
Oh, Ma-Ma!
How happy I will be!
Oh, Ma-Ma!
I will cheery-beery be.
Oh, Ma-Ma!
It's-a the butcher boy for me."

Its pigeon-English is insulting for Italian-Americans, but it's not surprising they went simplistic given the sexual innuendo of the original. And the best they could do was "cheery-beery"?

When I was growing up, I'd hear Al Martino sing his recording of the song, titled "Lazy Mary,"which was popular then. He sings first in Italian and then, he says, he will sing the next verse in "British," with, again, lyrics that have nothing to do with the original but are insulting to Italians in a different way:
Lazy Mary,
You better get up.
She answers back, 
I am not able.
Lazy Mary,
You better get up,
We need the sheets for the table.

The singer/bandleader Louis Prima came closer to the original in his English lyrics, although he only mentions the butcher boy who has a cannoli in his hand and the musician who carries a trumpet.

The original lyrics for "Ce la luna" reflect a culture that was bawdy and rough with women. There's no disguising it. Come to think of it, it was an appropriate song to begin The Godfather. 

Italian lyrics, even non-earthy, non-violent ones, are also just difficult to translate. "Ce' la luna" isn't really in Italian. It's in the Neapolitan dialect with some Sicilian mixed in. I remember asking my sister Jean, who studied and studied and learned to speak Italian very well, about Dean Martin's recording of "Volare," which means "to fly." He sings some of it in Italian and the rest in English. Where the Italian lyrics go, "Nel blu, dipinto di blu/E che dici di stare lasu," Martin translates it as, "No wonder my happy heart sings,/Your love has given them wings." Even I, with my poor Italian, couldn't find any similarity between the two lyrics. Jean said that the song is about the singer being transported into the skies with his love and that earlier in the song the Italian lyrics go, "I think a dream like this never comes back,/You paint me with your hands and your face is blue,/Then suddenly I was kidnapped by the wind/And began to fly in the infinite sky." And so, the last lines, beginning "Nel blu" translate as "In blue, painted blue, [I am] happy to be there [with you]." The English lyric writers didn't try to translate this ethereal concept and instead went with lines like, "Let's fly way up to the clouds,/Away from the maddening crowds." A lot was lost. 

But that's usually the way it is with translations. Something is always lost.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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