Monday, October 18, 2010

Dances with Corn

Language learners, asked point blank what a word means--or worse, challenged, even gently, on a definition--will exhibit a reflexive twitch of doubt. Maybe it doesn't mean what I think it does. Plenty of words have regionally specific connotations. Plenty of definitions become mangled beyond recognition.

My daughter and her friend share a recorder lesson. One of their current pieces is a tango, "El choclo." When I picked them up on Thursday, their teacher asked me what choclo meant. Like any good Spanish-speaker who learned her Spanish in Ecuador, I said, "It means corn on the cob, an ear of corn." Hilarity. Is corn on the cob the stuff of tangos? Of course not. I had to be wrong. Granted, there's plenty of room for double entendre in the title, but the kids are young. We sashayed around the room in a wholly imaginary tango; we chortled about the steamy implications of freshly buttered corn. And like a good translator and professor, I ran home to my dictionaries. Looking things up is one of the pleasures of scholarship and of teaching in general.

Anyone moderately knowledgeable about the tango would have known, as I did not, that "El choclo" is famous. Borges, for instance, mentions it in his "A History of the Tango" (included in On Argentina, edited by Alfred Mac Adam). But I started with the word, rather than the song. My Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado offered the expected "mazorca de maíz no maduro aún" as well as, from Mexico, the idiom meter el choclo, meaning "cometer un desatino"--to blunder or, perhaps more idiomatically, to put one's foot in it. My beloved Collins Spanish Dictionary, bought when I was an undergraduate, lists "ear of (tender) maize," which I find particularly delightful, but precedes that with "clog; sandal; overshoe" and follows with, among other meanings, "(Arg) difficulty, trouble; annoyance; burden, task." That seemed likely enough: the burden of lost love, the annoyance of rivalry--all the anguish and passion customarily associated with the tango.

When I turned to the tango itself, I found plenty of possibilities. Historians, essayists, bloggers--they've all had a go. "El choclo" has inspired multiple lyricists, translators, dancers, even filmmakers. I found several supposed origins for the title, including a reference to a golden haired pimp (hair as yellow as corn) and to the composer's favorite ingredient in a stew. Later lyrics don't seem to mention choclo after the title. But based on this first verse, from the early lyrics by Angel Villoldo, our little corn dance wasn't so far off:

Hay choclos que tienen

las espigas de oro,

que son las que adoro

con tierna pasión.

There are corncobs whose kernels
are perfectly golden
they're the ones I adore
with true tender passion.

Not a great translation, but it's my first attempt. The initial rhythm is good, but then it falls apart, and there's no rhyme anywhere. I wanted to keep tender (tierna), thinking of corn on the cob, but true is in there just to add a beat.

Still, it's a happy ending. I like to get my money's worth from my kids' lessons: I want to learn something, too. And the word means what I thought it did, but now it means something more to me as well.

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