Thursday, November 01, 2007

gimme translation

It Is Not Mean... responds to and elaborates upon a comment I had left on his blog (also see Jeremy Stuart's comment on De Saussure):

Because "I don't speak no languages" there is very little I can say to the art and science of translation. The mechanist in me doesn't understand why there isn't simply a "right" translation and an everything-else-is-wrong translation. How is it that there is so much "wiggle room" going from one language to another?

I don't think one has to speak several languages to understand how translation works. Simply watch a Chinese or Japanese film with subtitles, and then the same film dubbed into the language of your choice. It's kind of like watching the same play with two different sets of actors, only a lot worse. Not only are the words not the same, but the myriad tiny-yet-essential inflections (accent, volume, timing, etc.), the actors' personal styles and their cultural backgrounds are, literally, erased. There is nothing to be gained, artistically speaking.*

SJZ also wonders, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, if poetry would be easier to translate, "because they usually have less words." To me, that is precisely what makes translating poetry impossible. In film, the actor's performance has to be re-created. How can you re-create a poem? What do you do with rhyme and meter? Well, I don't know much about poetry, so let's take song lyrics.

At the moment, I'm working my way through six CDs' worth of Congolese music, some of which include translations in the liner notes. The music is generally great, but the lyrics always seem stupid on paper. Generally speaking, even lyrics that haven't been translated generally look stupid, written down (e.g. any number of instances of Kelefa Sanneh quoting rap lyrics in the New York Times).

In the case of the Congolese music, I wish I could speak lingala, not only to be able to understand the lyrics as they are sung, but also because I would have greater insight into the culture and thought system they come from. I always get the impression that the deeper meanings of seemingly simple lyrics escape me, much in the same way many of the culturally-embedded references rappers do. So, one is not just translating words and their own characteristics (sound, rhythm, syntax, etc.), but also a whole cultural world.

Turning to jazz, SJZ asks: "Do methodologies in music also lose their snap?" I have been listening a lot to Josh Sinton's very good album altogether...all at once. Josh wrote an excellent essay on Steve Lacy's music for Darcy's blog, in which he made some comments relevant to SJZ's question:
When musicians talk about what they learned from music of the recent past, they talk about abstract concepts like ‘freedom’ and ‘finding your personal voice.’ When they talk about music of the more distant past (pre-’65), they talk more often about concrete things like songs and harmonic approaches. I don’t have a beef with any of this, I just thought it might be interesting to turn this status quo on its head. Why not talk about concrete contributions of the recent past? That is, why not use the songs and improvising strategies of this ‘era?’ You don’t need Julius Hemphill to play “Dogon A.D.” to make it a great song, it IS a great song. The same can be said for the music of Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, John Carter, Marion Brown, Jimmy Giuffre, Misha Mengelberg, Steve Lacy, etc. While I admit some compositions may be knottier, thornier, or more ephemeral, that doesn’t disqualify them from being performable. Just because their strategies differ radically from improvising strategies on “All the Things You Are” doesn’t make them useless.
* The exception that proves the rule is the guy who dubs Columbo into French. He does a better Columbo than Peter Falk, and is probably largely responsible for the series' enduring popularity in France.