Italian Language Blog

Fabrizio De André – Giovanna d’Arco Posted by on Aug 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

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Fabrizio De André – (born: Genova, 18 febbraio 1940 – passed away: Milano, 11 gennaio 1999) was one of our most important and revered cantautori italiani (Italian singer songwriters). I recently heard for the first time his version of Leonard Cohen’s song  Joan of Arc. I know only too well how difficult it is to translate successfully from English to Italian and vice versa, especially when the text in question is poetry or a song, and it pays testimony to De André’s skill as a songwriter/poet that he makes such a beautiful job of it in his version. See if you can spot the major changes made by De André in order to give the song fluidity and rhythm in Italian.

Here is Giovanna d’Arco performed by De André.

Giovanna d’Arco

Attraverso il buio Giovanna d’Arco
precedeva le fiamme cavalcando,
nessuna luna per la sua  corazza ed il manto,
nessun uomo nella sua fumosa notte al suo fianco.
Della guerra sono stanca ormai,
al lavoro di un tempo tornerei,
a un vestito da sposa o a qualcosa di bianco
per nascondere questa mia vocazione al trionfo ed al pianto.

Son parole le tue che volevo ascoltare,
ti ho spiata ogni giorno cavalcare
e a sentirti così ora so cosa voglio:
vincere un’eroina così fredda, abbracciarne l’orgoglio.
E chi sei tu? lei disse divertendosi al gioco,
chi sei tu che mi parli così senza riguardo?
Veramente stai parlando col fuoco
e amo la tua solitudine, amo il tuo sguardo.

E se tu sei il fuoco raffreddati un poco,
le tue mani ora avranno da tenere qualcosa,
e tacendo gli si arrampicò dentro
ad offrirgli il suo modo migliore di essere sposa.
E nel profondo del suo cuore rovente
lui prese ad avvolgere Giovanna d’Arco,
e là in alto e davanti alla gente
lui appese le ceneri inutili del suo abito bianco.

E fu dal profondo del suo cuore rovente
che lui prese Giovanna e la colpì nel segno
e lei capì chiaramente
che se lui era il fuoco lei doveva essere il legno.

N.B. The following lines which are part of the original song by Cohen are not sung in this version by De André

Ho visto la smorfia del suo dolore,
ho visto la gloria nel suo sguardo raggiante
anche io vorrei luce ed amore
ma se arriva deve essere sempre così crudele e accecante?


The original lyrics by Leonard Cohen

Joan of Arc

Now the flames they followed Joan of Arc
As she came riding through the dark;
No moon to keep her armor bright,
No man to get her through this very smoky night.
She said, I’m tired of the war,
I want the kind of work I had before,
A wedding dress or something white
To wear upon my swollen appetite.

Well, I’m glad to hear you talk this way,
You know I’ve watched you riding every day
And something in me yearns to win
Such a cold and lonesome heroine.
And who are you? she sternly spoke
To the one beneath the smoke.
Why, I’m fire, he replied,
And I love your solitude, I love your pride.

Then fire, make your body cold,
I’m going to give you mine to hold,
Saying this she climbed inside
To be his one, to be his only bride.
And deep into his fiery heart
He took the dust of Joan of Arc,
And high above the wedding guests
He hung the ashes of her wedding dress.

It was deep into his fiery heart
He took the dust of Joan of Arc,
And then she clearly understood
If he was fire, oh then she must be wood.
I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
I saw the glory in her eye.
Myself I long for love and light,
But must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?


Which version do you prefer?

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  1. Aidan:

    An absolutely beautiful rendition of a Leonard Cohen classic.

  2. John:

    Why am I no longer recieving the full text of your posts as email?

    Where has my choice gone?

    • Serena:

      @John Ciao John, Have you changed your e-mail address lately? I just had to approve your comment, which only happens with new posters or previous posters who have changed e-mail address. This may be the answer, but I don’t normally deal with these issues. Perhaps you have to resubscribe with your new address? If you continue to have problems let me know and I’ll pass it on to our tech department.

      A presto, serena

  3. Vince:

    Salve Serena:

    This is complicated.

    As a song to be sung, I prefer Cohen’s later duet versions sung with female accompaniment. Cohen changed many words in the later version to make the song more melodic and conversationally personal.

    As a poem to be read, I much prefer the English. In addition to the meaning and the meter, there is the sound. The Italian is smooth sounding like a sharp knife moving through butter. Six out of eight lines in the first stanza end in the letter ‘o’. This is too soft.

    Part of the meaning of the English is in the harshness of sound of the words. Arc, dark, night, bright, war – it tears at the ear.

    Listen to the raggedness of Cohen’s
    voice and the smoothness of the Italian version. Yes, the emotion is in both voices; but it is an emotion independent of meaning. You would feel the emotion in De Andre’s voice even if you knew no Italian.

    The English carries emotion reinforced by the harshness of the sound and not just in the tone of voice.

    I have been a fan of Leonard Cohen and Adriano Celentano for over 40 years.

    I’d like to hear Cohen sing an English translation of ‘Sempre un motivo’.


    • Serena:

      @Vince Ciao Vince,
      That’s a very interesting analysis.
      How you percieve the two songs could depend upon which version you hear first. In my case it was Giovanna d’Arco by De André, and I have to say that although I used to be a Cohen fans years ago this is the version which I prefer.
      Yes, you’re right, you can hear the emotion in both voices, but another difficulty is that unless you can listen to both versions let’s say ‘fluently’, i.e. without having to mentally translate, then probably the one in your mother tongue will hold more power for you.
      For me, De Andrés modification at the end of the first verse is a stroke of genius:

      a un vestito da sposa o a qualcosa di bianco
      per nascondere questa mia vocazione al trionfo ed al pianto.

      to a wedding dress or something white
      to hide this, my vocation to the triumph and the tears

      To Italian ears Cohen’s ‘A wedding dress or something white To wear upon my swollen appetite’ doesn’t make much sense, and sounds a bit ugly. But perhaps that’s your point anyway, and it really highlights some important differences in cultural attitudes towards sentiment and emotion.

      Alla prossima, Geoff (il marito di Serena)

  4. Vince:

    Ciao Geoff:

    I think you hit the nail on the head!

    Cohen is dark; his words often come with a coating of acid; he even wears black and cultivates this image.

    “To Italian ears Cohen’s ‘A wedding dress or something white To wear upon my swollen appetite’ doesn’t make much sense, and sounds a bit ugly.

    Yes, yes, and yes.

    When I first came to Italy, 1963, everywhere there were posters, on buildings and kiosks, of a small child with a bloated belly and a one word headline: “BASTA”. I saw thousands of these posters. I still see them sometimes in my dreams.

    “Swollen appetite” is, I believe, the most powerful image in the poem. It brings to mind that starving child. That appetite which swells and will eventually kill the child. The child looks fat and full of food but the opposite is true. To juxtapose this image with the hope imbued with the wedding dress, the promise of marriage, and the issue of offspring – that is ugly!

    What the Italian translation has done is put a wonderful simile on the Mona Lisa. (To me at least.)

    I think I like Cohen’s work because his dark side reminds me that I’m alive and that I will not always be.

    I had to translate the poem, X Agusto, and I knew that Giovanni Pascoli’s father was murdered when he was a child. I can’t imagine that poem having near the impact for me in an English translation. It could well be that the first impression of a poem has a big advantage in becoming the favorite.

    In a way, while poems can be translated, I agree with Archibald MacLeish, that poems should be, not mean.

    Thank you. I appreciate your insights. I believe that a poem or a novel only truly exists when it is being ‘played’ in a reader’s mind. It is different each reading, for each person, and even for the same person, over time.


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