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Italian (Italiano), Italy (Italia), Jazz

“Sparring Partner” (Paolo Conte)

Sparring Partner,  Live at the Arena di Verona in 2005 (Youtube)


“Sparring Partner”
Paolo Conte
Paolo Conte (1984)

È un macaco senza storia,
dice lei di lui,
che gli manca la memoria
infondo ai guanti bui
ma il suo sguardo è una veranda,
tempo al tempo e lo vedrai,
che si addentra nella giungla,
no, non incontrarlo mai

Ho guardato in fondo al gioco
tutto qui?… ma – sai –
sono un vecchio sparring partner
e non ho visto mai
una calma più tigrata,
più segreta di così,
prendi il primo pullmann, via…
tutto il reso è già poesia

Avrà più di quarant’anni
e certi applausi ormai
son dovuti per amore,
non incontrarlo mai
stava lì nel suo sorriso
a guardar passare i tram,
vecchia pista da elefanti
stesa sopra al macadàm…

“Sparring Partner” (English Translation, ORS 2010)

He’s a macaque without a story
she says of him
that he’s losing his memory
at the bottom of dark gloves
but his look is a veranda
with patience and you will see him
that he’s entering the jungle
no, to never be encountered again

I watched from the back of the game
all those who…but well, you know
I am an old sparring partner
and I have never seen
a calm more tiger-like
as secret as that
you take the first Pullman bus to…
everything else is just poetry

 It’s got to be more than 40 years
and by now some applause
is due for love
never to be encountered
I stood there watching in your smile
the passing of the tram
old track of the elephant
stretched over the tarmac


  1. il macaco – macaque genus, from Portuguese macaco (monkey), which comes from the Bantu world makaku.  .  
  2. il guanto – glove; from Frankish root want; related to Spanish guante, French gant, Catalan guant, English gauntlet
  3. buio – dark, gloomy; possibly from Latin burrus (red) or burra (cow with red mouth, muzzle, shaggy wool garment), through Old French bure/burel (dark brown cloth), therefore related to bureau (desk “covering”).  
  4. la veranda – veranda, from Portuguese varanda (balcony, terrace); related to Spanish baranda (railing)
  5. la giungla – from Hindi jangal (desert, forest)
  6. incontrare – to encounter, meet, run into (someone); from Latin incontra (in front/against); related to French : à l’encontre de (against); Spanish encontrar (to find), encontrarse (to meet, run/bump into someone); Portuguese encontrar (to find), encontrar-se (to run into)
  7. il gioco – game; from Latin jocus/iocus (joke, sport); related to English jocular (comical, funny), juggle; related to other words for “game”: French jeu; Spanish juego; Portuguese jogo; Romanian joc.  
  8. il pullmann – a bus, specifically the “Pullmann sleeping car” named after American inventor George Mortimer Pullmann (1831-1897)
  9. già – “already, before”, from Latin iam and Iambe, a woman in Greek mythology; related to iambos, the metrical foot or unit in poetry based on syllables; Italian già but also can be used in a number of situations to express  “before, just, enough, again, ever, yet, etc”; related to French déjà, Spanish ya, Portuguese
  10. ormai – by now
  11. steso/stesa – lying down, prostrate; from verb stendere (to stretch or spread out), from Latin extendere (ex– out; tendere –stretch); related to Italian estendere, English extend, French tendre/étendre, Spanish tender/extender, Portuguese estender
  12. la pista – track, runway, trail, slope; related to English/German/Dutch piste, French piste, Spanish/Portuguese pista.  
  13. il macadàm – tarmac (trade name of tarmacadam), named from Scottish inventor John L. McAdam (1756-1836).  Refers to airplane runway.   

 Grammar and Phrases

1.  mancare/mancarsi (di) – to miss, to lack

              One inevitable topic of conversation for foreign language learners living immersed in another culture is that missing home, captured quaintly by the Portuguese concept of saudade.  In some languages, like Italian and French, the idea of “I miss something”, is less of a direct SVO, but rather an indirect suffering at the lack of that something, rendering something like “something is missing to me”, using a reflexive pronoun to refer to the sufferer.  This grammatical is not limited to emotional yearning for a loved one or something nostalgic, but can be used more widely to refer to the general discomfort in something’s absence.
               In this song, Paolo Canto says “gli manca la memoria”, which is literally “to him, it is missing the memory” (OSV).  In typical English, we would say “he is losing his memory” or something similar.  

              Here is “I miss you” in various languages:
                            Italian: (tu) me manchi
                            French: tu me manques
                           Spanish: te extraño; te echo de menos/en falta; Te añoro
                            Portuguese: sinto a tua falta; tenho saudades tuas/de você
                           German: du fehlst mir; ich vermisse ich
                           Dutch : ik mis je
                           Japanese : あなたがいなくて寂しい (anata ga inakute samishii;(あなたに)会いたい (anata ni aitai)

2.  ” Tempo al tempo” : Little by little over time

              There are many other ways and variations to say “little by little” in reference to the gradual changing of something over time.  

              Italian: (a) poco a poco; a mano a mano (man mano); piano piano
              French: petit à petit; peu à peu
              Spanish : poco a poco
               Portuguese : pouco a pouco
              German : nach und nach
              Japanese : 少しずつ (sukoshi zutsu)

3.   Preposition + Articles

              In Italian, like in other Romance languages, you will find many examples of prepositional article contractions.  These contractions or “mergers” occur strategically when there is harmony between the sound of a preposition and the positioned noun’s article following that preposition.  Here are some examples from this song:

              in fondo ai guanti bui (a + i -> ai);  tempo al tempo (a + il à al); si addentra nella giungla (en + la à nella);  stava lì nel suo sorriso (en + il à nel); vecchia pista da elefanti (de + a à da)

              Such written and formalized contractions exist only as the standard for what would occur naturally: that is, sounds that go well together between separate words, will eventually themselves blended and linked together.  In French, liaison is the linking between words, and elision is the omission or simplification of sounds.   

4.  No vs. Non:  While “no” answers a question negatively (negation of a question), “non” negates any verb.  Frequently, these negators are combined, as in this example: no, non incontrarlo mai (No, to not encounter it never). 

 5.  Never (Mai)
There are two main examples in this song where the singer refers to “never” doing something: 1) no, non incontrarlo mai (No, to never encounter it), and 2) non ho visto mai una calma più tigrata, più segreta di così (I have never seen a calm so tiger-like, so secret as that).  On Ripe Ideas, I have written further about negating in reference to past experiences here. 


 6.  Supposition with Future tense
The future tense in Italian can be used just to fix a plan (something “will” happen), but also to simply forecast a possibility (something “will probably” happen; something “should” happen).  This latter usage, as in the example avrà più di quarant’anni (literally, “it will have more than 4o years”), is used to suggest the probability of the fact that 40 years have passed.  In normal English, we might say “it has got to be more than 40 years”.  Similar patterns exist in other languages using either the Future or Conditional tense, rather than employing a specific adverb (such as “probably”) to make supposition.

7.  Using the Infinitive with Sensorial Experience: “stava a guardar passar i tram”
In the example in this song: stava lì nel suo sorriso a guardar passare i tram (literally, I was there in your smile to watch to pass the tram), or “I stood there watching the tram passing in your smile), the complexity is that the speaker is visually observing an action scene, and then directly linking the world of that observation (guardare shortened to guardar) with that of the action (passare).  In some languages like English and Portuguese, however, the common way to express this relationship involves the tendency to demarcate these realities, often squeezing an Object between the actions.  

              I saw her pass(ing) by.
              Italian : Io la vidi passare.
              French : Je la vis passer. 
              Spanish : Yo la vi pasar.
              Portuguese : Eu vi ela passar
             German : Ich sah sie gehen.  
             Japanese: 私は彼女が通り過ぎるのを見ました。(watashi ha anata ga tooritsugiru no wo mimashita).            

Guitar Chords:
Video is a half-step lower:
Intro: Em Bm Am Bm (2x) Em Bm C Bm C Am D
Verse: G Em C7 G G7/9
              C   B7  Em  D  A7 A9 A7 A9
                G    B7  G   G7/9  (2x)
                C  B7   A7  D  G   B7 G  B7 –> Intro


2 thoughts on ““Sparring Partner” (Paolo Conte)

  1. This english translation is unfortunately a bit wrong, but that’s forgivable as this song is very abstruse even for Italian native people…
    And the japanese transliteration is wrong: it’s not “anata” but “kanojo”.

    Posted by Mathieu | November 13, 2011, 4:22 pm
  2. Dear Mathieu,

    Thank you so much for checking out my site and leaving a comment.

    Regarding the English translation, let me clarify that it is not the intention of this site to make accurate or artistic translations, but rather to guide learners in the direction of the original lyrics. Please check out the other pages (“About” and “On Foreign Language Learning and Music”) for a better explanation of what my goals are.

    Thank you for pointing out the slip in the Japanese transliteration!



    Posted by orangeroomstudios | November 13, 2011, 10:35 pm

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