La vida es una milonga

(letra obtenida de la grabación)

Todo el mundo está esperando
Mejorar su situación,
Todos viven suspirando
Con razón o sin razón.

Todo el mundo se lamenta
Si en la buena ya no están,
Nadie aguanta la tormenta
Si la contra se le da.

La vida es una milonga
Y hay que saberla bailar,
En la pista está sobrando
El que pierde su compás.

La vida es una milonga
Y hay que saberla bailar,
Porque es triste estar sentado
Mientras bailan los demás

(lyrics taken from the recording)

Everyone lives hoping
To improve their situation.
They all live, yearning,
With or without good reason.

Everyone is complaining
If not yet in a good position.
And no-one tolerates misery
If the opposite is on offer.

Life is a crazy milonga and
You must know how to dance it.
You’re no use on the dancefloor
If you lose the rhythm’s beat.

Life is a crazy milonga and
You must know how to dance it.
Because it’s sad just to sit there
When all the rest are dancing.

1941 Music & Lyrics - jointly Fernando Montoni & Rodolfo Sciammarella
1941 Orquesta - Pedro Láurenz
Singer - Martín Podestá (I now realise why we continue to dance to these old recordings. The high quality of the singers is distinctive in addition to the work of the orchestra and musicians)

This English Translation of "La vida es una milonga" (1941) is from Alan Smith who provided this translation at Tango Amistoso on 18.05.19. Further notes from him are provided below.

The title’s metaphor tells us all we need to know. Life is a crazy rushed pursuit of our personal objectives and consequently this milonga has a sharp/smart and driving rhythm, maintaining its swirling pace throughout the song. It is suggestive of urgency and determination which reflects its theme.

Its theme is socio-economic philosophy describing the universal motivation to improve one’s status/position ie the human condition and the results of that urge. I have said previously that many people assume all tango lyrics are the nostalgia/melancholy for ‘lost love’. That mass attitude should be modified. ‘La vida es una milonga’ is a prime example of the body of tango songs which do not conform to the ‘lost love’ myth of tango. One might assume that the composers of the song and music were artists and that they were also critical of the drive for material gain which can be seen as the subject of the song..

Each line of the song is abrupt, in simple language and yet carries quite profound judgment.It is the language of the street, the cafe, the dancehall. These short and tough lines help maintain the momentum of the piece. The strategy or structure of the poem divides into two distinct halves. The first two verses describe the motivations which lead us to yearn for a better life and the desire to escape hardship. The last two verses change in form and tone,with the metaphor that life has the same urgency as a milonga and that, to survive, you have to participate like everyone else and keep up with the pace of the surrounding activity.

An interesting feature of the phrasing is that all the eight couplets are closed and can stand alone and each one evokes a sensation of Japanese haiku (more correctly senryu) ie short clipped poems e.g. ‘Nadie aguanta la tormenta si la contra se le da’.... ‘No-one accepts misery if the opposite is offered’.

Now to my translation and comments on the verses....................Verses 1 and 2 ....... As above they describe the motivations which lead us to yearn for a better life. In the 2nd couplet of the 1st verse, the word ‘suspirando’ means sighing and also ‘yearning’ ie ’longing for’. The last line ‘with reason or without reason’ I have rendered slightly differently, inserting the word ‘good’. Here the sense is that their yearning may be unnecessary since some are already of high social standing but the urge is still there to acquire even greater wealth and comfort. The 2nd verse has the phrase ‘si en la buena’ which is a contraction and I take it to mean ‘a good position’ or ‘of good standing’, and the word ‘la buena’ had an archaic sense of ‘inheritance’. La tormenta means ‘storm’ and figuratively also means personal or social disturbance, disruption, difficulty, hardship, misery.The last line has another contraction ‘la contra’ which helps the rush of the song and I translate as ‘the opposite’ or ‘the contrary’ but it also balances the verse with la buena versus la contra. In this last line the second point of linguistic interest is ‘se le da’ an impersonal reflexive passive.

Verses 3 & 4 present the principal metaphor, comparing life itself to the rhythm of a milonga song, with its rush and urgency where one is unable to deviate from its rhythm without losing the purpose of and inclusion in social life. The first couplets of both verses 3 and 4 make a repeated refrain that life is a milonga and you have to know how to dance it ie participate. In the third verse’s second couplet ‘sobrar’ means ‘to be too much’, ‘to be in excess’ and thus has an extended sense of ‘to be useless’ as in the sense of the English term ‘supernumerary’. I introduced the word ‘rhythm’ which duplicates ‘beat’ firstly to try to approximate the syllable count of the original line and also to indicate the significance of ‘ SU compás’ ie ‘ its (the milonga’s) beat’. The 2nd couplet of the last verse teaches that if you are sitting out the milonga then you are excluded from the socio-economic whirl of all the other people/dancers. Well, there you have it ...... what a song! ...... all of life in 4 verses or 8 couplets ..... and condensed into just one song.....what more can you ask for..... brief,clipped and straight from the shoulder.........there’s the proof of the value of tango.

As above the poem concentrates on those motivations of collective social life which have existed since time immemorial, trying to better oneself, comparing one’s status to that of others and wanting to move up the social order, the misery of being in poverty, the consequences of failure to keep up with the crowd. Hence the lyrics do have a timeless quality and permanence but it may also be relevant to reflect on the period in which they were written. The year is 1941 ie two years into WW2. Hitherto Argentina’s economy had relied mainly on import/export trade with Great Britain. Clearly this was no longer possible.This encouraged import substitution and the growth of native manufacturing industry. This in turn attracted a population move from rural agriculture to the big city life with its urban social regimes of promotion at work and moving to a bigger house with more facilities, bla bla bla..This encouragement of local manufacturing industry had already started earlier in the Great Depression years when international trade had declined generally, but with WW2 it became essential. Argentine industry soon received a further boost as the Japanese (an Axis power) attack on Pearl Harbour brought the USA into WW2 (on the side of the Allies). The USA now called on all American countries to declare war on the Axis powers and to increase output of war materials for supply to the European Allies ie Great Britain and USSR. Argentina refused and maintained its neutrality. The USA thus imposed trade embargoes and a blockade on Argentina, lasting until 1945, again encouraging a self-sufficient Argentine national manufacturing sector and no doubt increasing the pressure of city life.

Alan (18.05.19)


Late in this exercise, and after writing the translation and the above notes, I suddenly found an online 30 page academic paper titled:-
“Metáforas del saber popular. La filosofía de la vida en el tango”(“Metaphors from popular knowledge. The philosophy of life in the tango song”) an academic paper, supporting my long-held contention that tango is not only the nostalgia for a failed love affair. More work to be done here!!!!