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Translation is a funky thing. You can try to be literal and lose all the flavor, or you can try to find equivalent idiomatic expressions, or you can recast the whole thing, as if you were writing an original from a similar inspiration — your own words for a similar thought. 

And unless you are brought up bilingual so that you are completely comfortable in both languages, you will always be working from a disadvantage. You can work from crib notes, or take a literal translation and recast it. Many writers these days do something of the sort. Ezra Pound did not read Chinese, but that didn’t stop him from translating Chinese poetry. Scholars may quibble with the results (or laugh outright), but the versions Pound printed are good poetry, whether or not they are good translations. 

Would I rather read a poet’s regeneration or a scholar’s word-for-word? The answer is both. When it comes to poetry in languages I do not read, I’d rather have multiple versions to absorb and take in all the angles to arrive at something triangulated. 

There are languages I have some familiarity with and so, I can usually read Pablo Neruda straight from the trough. And in French or German, I have some dealings with the originals, although I do not speak the languages with anything like fluency. I can read a French newspaper, but cannot always make out the spoken version. (Luckily, when in France, I have learned you don’t really need the fineries of grammar. You can speak French pretty usefully even with no verbs at all. You go to the patisserie and when it is your turn, you just say, “Deux croissants, s’il vous plait,” and you get what you want. No one before you on line has used a verb, either.)

And so, I have come to translate some poetry for myself, from German, from French or Spanish (even an occasional Latin poem), and mostly in self-defense. 

I say “self-defense” because most of the translations I’ve been subjected to sound like musty old Victorian twaddle. The translators seem to love archaic word forms and odd word orders — as if written by Yoda they were. 

Such things offend my ear. 

It’s not that I want them to be prose, but the secret of poetry is in the metaphor and the clever turn of phrase, not in the conventional language of old poetry forms. Take the first two lines of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s Rundgesang. In German:

O Mensch! Gib acht! Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?

Which could be translated, word for word, as:

“O men! Give attention! What says the deep midnight?”

Traditional translations usually go something like:

“O Man! Take heed! What saith deep midnight’s voice indeed?”

or:

“O Man! Attend! What does deep midnight’s voice contend?”

There is the problem with the original. “O Man!” is poetic cliche. It has to go. I suppose you could turn it into idiomatic English as “Hey, y’all, listen up,” but that would be a crime in a different direction. 

If I were to translate this bit, I would just leave off the unnecessary parts and rewrite it as: “It calls to us in the dark. It is deep midnight and the hour speaks:” This sets up a light/dark dichotomy that pays off later in the piece. 

Too many translations, especially of classic Greek or Latin literature are written in this fusty, worn out poeticized and conventional twaddle. It’s amazing anyone waded through the Iliad in the 19th century. Homer’s actual style was immediate and direct. 

Imagine if Robert Frost had written: “Two paths in twain divided were; traverse we may but one.” Who would now bother with it? It is Circe turning men into pigs. 

In other words, I have no issue with completely recasting the originals to make modern, idiomatic sense in a language that I hope remains poetic but without the equipage of outworn convention. 

A stunning example of this approach is Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid, beautiful translations of several bits from The Metamorphoses. In Hughes’ style the stories move quickly and smartly and you turn the pages as in a best-seller. One only wishes Hughes had completed the whole thing, instead of mere sniglets. 

In this way, I have translated (or rewritten, if you hesitate) a good bit of German lieder. So much of it is hyperventilated Romantic sludge, which speaks to the early 19th Century of a generation that was weaned on Young Werther, and undoubtedly expressed the genuine feelings of those who lived through it, but now seem unrealistic and kitschy. 

Yet, there are real things being said and expressed in the poetry of Müller, Hölderlein or Eichendorff. It comes through like a buzz saw in the music of Schubert or Schumann, where the music has an authenticity that the verse sometimes lacks. 

I have tackled whole swaths of lieder verse, including a translation of all of the Winterreise. I found I could be a bit more faithful near the beginning of the cycle, but the deeper in, the more I had to rethink the verse. 

Take the first song, Gute Nacht. The text takes care of itself. A simple translation of the first stanza would be:

But, 24 songs later, the text of Der Leiermann, about a hurdy-gurdy man, is too bland without the devastating music Schubert provides (one of the most desolate and despairing bits of music ever penned), and so I’ve written my variation on it, to stand without the music:

Just this week, I started another project, translating four of the texts that Gustav Mahler set. I have arranged them into a set that belongs together, in four “movements,” rather like a symphony, meant to be taken as a single whole. 

I am offering them here as my apology for the type of translation I most appreciate — at least when others my better do it. 

The main benefit of doing such work (since I have no plans or hope ever to publish my translations — they are simply for the pleasure and knowledge I get from them — is that they force me to pay attention to the poetry and to the words. 

We can read through poetry much as we may distractedly hum a favorite tune. But good poetry offers much more, and forcing yourself to go through it word by word, can help you uncover much more. Translating forces concentration. 

And so, I read the German for its sound, parse individual words for their various meanings (for no word in any language has but one simple meaning), read various translations to compare how others have understood the words, reassemble them in my own English and then revise, over and over, until I get something that sounds good to me and — more importantly — makes sense. 

I have to admit that I generally like my own translations better than the ones packaged with the CD as the libretti or lyrics. But that is likely because they match my own particular esthetic — they are tailor made for my ear. Your ear may resonate to a different frequency. 

And so, the first “movement” of my Mahler word-symphony comes from the second of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, words originally written by the composer himself. The main melody of the song became the first theme of his Symphony No. 1. 

The second movement is Mahler’s own crib of Zarathustra’s Rundgesang, or “Zarathustra’s Midnight Song,” as the composer has it. All four of the texts I have translated focus on the twin but opposite facts that life is suffering but also it is joy. 

Third, there is heartbreaking and rueful song by Friedrich Rückert, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, set by Mahler first for voice and piano, but later orchestrated and part of his Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (“Seven songs of Latter Days”). It is surely one of his greatest songs, and can hardly be heard or sung without feeling it was written directly with you in mind. 

Finally, there is Der Abschied (“The Farewell”), the final movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“Songs of the Earth”). In it, Mahler has pieced together two Chinese poems of dubious provenance (themselves translated or rewritten, or perhaps invented in French and German) purportedly by Tang Dynasty poets Meng Haoran and Wang Wei, with three lines added at the end, written by Mahler himself. Der Abschied is Mahler’s summa, and at 30 minutes, is as long as the previous five movements combined. And it ends with the quiet reiteration, over and over, in dying voice, “Ewig… ewig…” (“forever… forever…”) finally so in performance you can never quite tell when it ends, the final “Ewig” as quiet as the silence that follows. 

In the end, I recommend to everyone that they attempt to translate a poem from a different language. Take a Baudelaire, for instance, or a Neruda (avoid Rilke like the plague, unless you wish to end in an asylum), and parse it through, word by word. Read it out loud in the original language to hear the music of it (yes, your French may not be as liquid as the original) and read various translations to see how differently the words are construed. Then arrange a version of your own.

In the end, you will have internalized the poetry and it will never again be a stranger to you. 

Tallulah Rose

Tallulah Rose

I have an interesting “contest” going on with my granddaughter, Tallulah Rose. She is 16 and immersed in music, taking guitar, piano and banjo lessons; she has some genuine talent. When I chauffeur her around on those occasions when I am called on, and am playing some Bach or Beethoven on the car CD, she is apt to say something like, “Classical music is so boring; it all sounds the same.” And, of course, when I hear her listening to pop music on her iPad, my reaction is the mirror: Pop music is so boring; it all sounds the same. So, I scratch my head and wonder.

How can something sound so monotonous to me and not bore her to tears? How can something so varied and glorious as classical music possible sound to her as if it is all the same gluey mush? It is more than a question of taste; we are clearly hearing different things.

Most people are likely to think of this as merely a matter of taste — “I like indie rock, but she likes country,” —  and it is, to some degree — but while someone who likes Taylor Swift may say they don’t like Justin Bieber, they recognize it as merely a different genre of pop, and they wedge into their corner of sound comfort. Is there anything more insular than heavy metal?

But classical music doesn’t seem to function to Tallulah Rose as just one more Billboard magazine chart category, like soul or country-Western or hip hop. Those are all options out there for popular consumption and one chooses the category one feels most simpatico with.

But classical seems to be a different species altogether. It isn’t, for its serious listeners, just one more entertainment option. Its goals are elsewhere.

Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse

Tallulah Rose and I thought we might explore this question. She suggested an exchange. She would choose 10 pieces of pop music for me to listen to and I would choose 10 pieces of classical music for her. Tallulah Rose isn’t one of your ordinary junk-music fans: She has high standards for her music and would consider the bands she has chosen for me to be “art,” or at very least music that no one of any musical sophistication would be embarrassed to be heard listening to. She has excellent taste in her music. She picked for me music by Wilco, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie, among others. I was to listen to her music and write about it, and she was to do the same for my choices.

What T-Rose chose for me:

1. Jesus, Etc. by Wilco
2. Australia by The Shins
3. Hannah Hunt by Vampire Weekend
4. Ragged Wood by Fleet Foxes
5. Wake Up by Arcade Fire
6. Young Folks by Peter Bjorn & John
7. Little Black Submarines by The Black Keys
8. This Charming Man by The Smiths
9. Missed the Boat by Modest Mouse
10. Dance Yrself Clean by LCD Sound System
Bonus track: Title and Registration by Death Cab for Cutie

In choosing music for her, I felt it only fair that I not bury her under the Bruckner Fifth or the Mahler Third, but try to find pieces of reasonable length, and I chose several movements instead of whole concertos or symphonies. Her music for me tends to run between 3 and 5 minutes. Here is my list for her (She snuck in an extra for me, so I added one extra Mahler track for her):

1. Gabrieli — Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2 for brass choirs
2. Bach — Prelude and Fugue in c-minor from WTC Book 1
3. Mozart — First movement of the Piano Concerto No. 20 in d-minor
4. Beethoven — Third movement from the “Tempest” sonata, Op. 31, no. 2
5. Chopin — Mazurka Op. 30, no. 4
6. Brahms — Finale of the Fourth Symphony
7. Mahler — Two songs: Wer hat das Liedlein erdacht? from Das Knaben Wunderhorn and Ging heut Morgen ubers Feld from Songs of a Wayfarer
8. Rachmaninoff — Finale from Piano Concerto No. 3
9. Villa Lobos — First movement from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5
10. Copland — Fanfare for the Common Man

I have listened four times through to all of T-Rose’s music and I can say that none of them is musically unsophisticated, but neither can I say, outside the LCD Sound System’s Dance yrslf Clean, which actually does something with the music,  that they engage my deepest sympathies. Again, I am convinced that my music and hers simply are not attempting the same thing.

For a start, her music’s appeal depends greatly on the lyrics. Even when I read rock criticism in, say Rolling Stone, the criticism is less about the music qua music, and more about the quality of the words. The sentiment expressed is expressed verbally, not musically. (More on lyrics later).

Second, the parts of music that seem most treasured by the rock and pop listener is a consistent beat, often aggressively propulsive. Following that, it is a melody — although in contemporary pop music, melody sounds more like chant than tune — prosody is so slipshod that the same melodic note can sustain a single syllable or three or four, if that is what the words demand.

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

For my classically oriented ear, the unrelenting rhythm is monotonous; I keep hoping it will lead to something, but it doesn’t. For my ear, harmony is paramount. I am always aware of it, shifting from major to minor, or to a Phrygian mode or the endless unresolved but constantly yearning dissonances of atonal or serial music. I am always aware — more than the melody at the top of the orchestral heap — of the bass line. I remember Brahms saying when he got a new piece of music to look at, he’d cover up the top staves and look at the bass line. That way, he said, he could tell if the music was good or not. When I listen to popular music, the bass line is generally undistinguished, often repetitive, and rather more in the way of a continuo — a second reinforcement of the beat slammed out by the drums and cymbals.

When I say her music and mine are not doing the same thing, I mean, in part, that the music part of her music is meant to be a place to drop her head into for a few minutes, to grok on a pulse, while the verbal part is there to express, often elliptically, the concerns of a young mind. At worst, in the kind of pop music T-Rose wouldn’t be caught dead listening to, those concerns are numbingly conventional, but even the more sophisticated lyrics speak to the exaggerated optimism or cynicism of adolescence, the need to be appreciated as wise and knowing, even when those of us who have been through it already, now recognize those attitudes as pose.

angry young men

Slight digression: The question of pose is most obvious in the many band photos used for PR or for CD covers. The musicians look so serious and world-wise: You can’t put anything over on them. But you can run through hundreds of photos and they all seem to be the same people: surly faces, collars drawn up, hands in their pockets standing in a warehouse district street to prove their working-class origins. One can’t help recognize the same memes from the Angry Young Men of England in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s as if every band has seen photos of John Osborne and wants to be Richard Burton from Look Back in Anger or Tom Courtney from Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The straight-jacket of the meme is limiting.

Vampire Weekend: More hands in pockets

Vampire Weekend: More hands in pockets

Back to the main issue: The music of rock and pop seems meant to create a pervasive mood throughout the length of a song — and except for a few experiments, all this music falls into the 3 to 5 minute song form.

Classical music, on the other hand, revels in contrast: The tempos keep changing, vigorous first themes alternate with quiet second themes. An established key center is disrupted by a series of wrenching modulations only to be reaffirmed. Instead of a single simple emotion, there is a constant development of emotions. When I find T-Rose’s music boring, what I mean is it doesn’t grow — but then, it’s not meant to. And one of the things she finds boring in my music is that it never settles down into something she can depend on, to give her that one single, clear emotion she wants from her tune.

Another thing: For her music, as I said, the words are paramount. The music behind the words seems to function more like the music in a film: to underline the sentiment, but not to express it directly. Something interesting to hear while the “real” action is happening in the words. For my music — at least for the big 19th century pieces that make up the bulk of the repertoire — the music attempts to make an argument from start to finish, like the slow shift from c-minor to C major in Beethoven’s Fifth, or the chapters of Mahler’s Third, “What the fields tell me,” “What the birds tell me,” “What love tells me.” It works like an opera, telling a story — musically — from start to finish. To hear its meaning, you have to be aurally sensitive to changes in harmony, in orchestration, in dynamics, in the ways the themes change and grow. The way you hear the E-flat arpeggiated tune at the beginning of the Eroica changes from a closed-off, harmony-denying drop to its D-flat in the third bar to that bright, victorious arpeggio in the recap and coda, where the same tune ends on the upper B-flat dominant that seems to rise above all the violence and disaster of the previously heard music. Classical music is about development; pop music seems to be about stasis.

Arcade Fire: yet again -- hands in pockets

Arcade Fire: yet again — hands in pockets

I write as if I think classical music is superior to pop music — and I would be lying if I didn’t fess up to that prejudice — but that is not what I’m writing about here. Rather than argue that one music is superior, I’m saying their goals are so different, so at odds, that it is almost silly to compare them at all. One might as well compare apples to double-entry bookkeeping.

But I wanted to note something interesting about the words in the music T-Rose gave me.

The conventions of prosody have shifted dramatically. In the “old days” — as recently as the Beatles — words were written as poetry and scanned with regular meter, and carefully crafted to fit the tunes. In this, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were no different from Oscar Hammerstein II. Think of such lyrics as, “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.” Every accented word drops on every accented note, with the weaker beats hitting off-beats in the tune. A comfortable fit. The same with “Some enchanted evening,” or “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair.”

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night…” or “You should see Polythene Pam, she’s so good lookin’ she looks like a man.”

Even the Rolling Stones followed the conventions: “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes; I have to turn my head until the darkness goes.”

This is what Robert Frost would call playing tennis with a net.

Playing with the net can bring delightful surprise and pleasure. Think of, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows, anything goes.”

Words and music: Hand in glove.

But listen to the songs T-Rose gave me, and something different is happening: First, the words don’t scan; they are more like snippets of prose. Some words have a strong beat, others fit in the space between, no matter how many or how few syllables. They just cram into whatever space is left for them.

Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie

The song is designed around a short, repeated pattern of notes that are memorable, or are meant to be memorable. The words fill in the interstices and the music is a mortar between the word-bricks. (This method would seem to derive from the blues, with its statement and licks, but they no longer follow the 12-bar harmonic pattern of the blues).

“You’ll be damned to pining through the windowpanes,/ You know you’d trade your life for any ordinary Joe’s,/ Well do it now or grow old,/ Your nightmares only need a year or two to unfold.”

There’s no regular rhythm to the words. But over and over in these songs, I do hear a pattern, and it is a surprising “revenant” from the past: It is the pattern of Medieval English verse — the four-beat line split in half with a caesura, or pause. Like The Seafarer or Piers Ploughman, the lines come with heavy stresses counted, but unstressed syllables come willy-nilly, and always that pause in the middle.

“I looked on my left side (pause) as the lady me taught
and was aware of a woman (pause) worthily clothed.”

Think of the line by Pope: To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Then try these lines from Ragged Wood, by Fleet Foxes:

“Come down from the mountain (pause) you have been gone too long
The spring is upon us (pause) follow my ornate song.”

If Norwegian Wood had been written by Wilco, no doubt its words would be something like: “I got a girl (pause) She had me.”

(I doubt this is in any way a conscious or even unconscious DNA reappearing in pop music from the distant past, but rather that there is something meaningful in such a line that means it can reappear like convergent evolution that makes a marsupial Dingo look like a canine. Anyway, I’m sure I’m over-analyzing that habit.)

The pattern occurs in song after song that T-Rose gave me. With this one variation. In some songs, the two-beat (pause) two-beat is followed by a closing three-beat line. The Black Keys’ Little Black Submarine:

“I should’ve seen it glow (pause) But everybody knows
That a broken heart is blind” (three beats).

(In conventional prosody, “I should’ve seen it glow” would scan at three beats — “I SHOULD have SEEN it GLOW” — but with the music under it, it has only two beats: “I SHOULD’ve seen it GLOW.”)

It’s a whole different prosody; a whole nother esthetic.

I have listened yet again to the songs on T-Rose’s list, and I can hear many interesting bits in them. I even came to think very highly of the music in Dance yrself Clean — it actually goes somewhere. But overall, I’m stuck where I began: Popular and rock music — even indie music — is too simple musically, too repetitive, too harnessed in its beat, and written with lyrics created under an esthetic that I am simply too old to be simpatico with. I can respect it, but I cannot enjoy it.

I think the same for Tallulah Rose: I believe, on her part, she has already given up on Bach and Copland. I have not heard anything from her about it.