Bass Solos and Job Satisfaction

Before getting into today’s post, I want to quickly share a link. A short while back, one of my posts (Translation’s Identity Crisis) was translated into Spanish and posted on the Júramelo blog as ‘La crisis de identidad de la traducción‘.

It’s brilliant to be able to read yourself in another language and it’s a great initiative – using translation to share articles about translation should be the norm. So, if you fancy reading a bit of JALTraducción for a change, head on over!

Anyway, as for today, I have something that probably counts as slightly off-topic but I still feel it is well worth sharing.

The story starts last week when I travelled down to Birmingham to attend a clinic with Mr Big bassist Billy Sheehan. Chances are that the majority of you have never heard of Billy but he is widely regarded as one of the greatest rock bassists of all time having played for and with a number of legendary acts over the course of a career spanning more than 40 years.

That night, Billy was giving a kind of bass masterclass and, even though I don’t play bass, the opportunity to meet and listen to one of my musical heroes talk about his extraordinary career was too good to turn down (essentially, clinics like this are a bit like a small-scale conference for music geeks – you get to listen to an expert in their field demonstrate some of their skills and share their experiences before launching into questions about their industry and generally talking about geeky things with other like-minded individuals).

As impressive as the playing was and as entertaining as Billy’s anecdotes were, however, the thing that really stood out for me was the fact that Billy is clearly still deeply in love with what he does. He spoke with such enthusiasm for all things music and, when fielding a question about how he passes his spare time, he was honest in saying that music is pretty much his entire life – when he’s not on the road or recording, he enjoys nothing more than to listen to music and discover new tracks and artists.

Speaking about endorsements, he explained how he is never paid to endorse gear but rather lends his support to the instruments, amps etc. that he genuinely enjoys using. Ultimately, beyond money, success and recognition, an overwhelming love for music has defined his career path.

While Billy also had the talent and good fortune to turn his passion into a hugely successful career, after around 6,000 gigs this is a man who clearly still loves what he does.

Job Satisfaction - Victoria Stanway

Job Satisfaction – Victoria Stanway

Beyond the world of music, meanwhile, there are indications that more and more people are looking to take control of their careers and follow their passion in the workplace in general.

In the UK, self-employment is higher than at any point over the past 40 years, with this rise predominately down to fewer people leaving self-employment than in the past, and talk of ‘monetising your passion‘ crops up with increasing regularity these days.

And for me, it seems that this desire to work in an area that you love is something that is strongly reflected within translation. Judging by the translators I know and interact with on social media, the vast majority genuinely enjoy what they do. Despite the gripes of long hours and potentially low pay that regularly crop up in discussion, people love the task at the heart of our profession to the point of rendering these drawbacks almost irrelevant.

I consider myself lucky to do something that I genuinely enjoy and I believe that’s the way it should be. Reading and writing about translation (and translating itself, of course) dominate my daily life and I can’t imagine it being any other way.

Ultimately, if Billy’s example is anything to go by, then beyond the obvious requirement of a considerable dose of talent, an overwhelming passion for what you do has a fundamental role to play in the longevity and success of your career.

Agree? Disagree? Do you love what you do or try to keep work separate from your own, private interests? Leave a comment and let me know.

Translation as Music

In the past I’ve written about my love for metaphor within translation (on two separate occasions no less) and this post roughly picks up from there. Previously, I’ve taken a look at the metaphors that have been formed over the years in an attempt to shed light upon the (supposedly impossible) task that we, as translators, tackle on a daily basis. This time around, meanwhile, I aim to delve deeper into one particular connection that is frequently made – that of translation and music.

As a keen musician when I’m not translating, this link is something I love to explore (I wrote a post looking at applications of translation within music a while back) and first off here are a few famous examples of the two being drawn together:

“Poetry translation is like playing a piano sonata on a trombone.” – Nataly Kelly

“A translation is no translation, he said, unless it will give you the music of a poem along with the words of it.” – John Millington Synge

“Music, ‘the universal language’, is what poetic writing aims to be.” – Suzanne Jill Levine

“All writers aim to be musicians.” – the narrator in Infante’s Inferno by Cabrera Infante

Yet rather than aiming to merely recount occasions when a link has been made between translation and music, this post intends to take a preliminary look at a new potential means of viewing the relationship between the two. While translation is so often considered a secondary, derivative task, there is an interesting thread to follow within musical metaphor making that may help us to challenge this subordination.

If such a strong link exists between translation and music, then why not see translation as a cover version of a track? Covers share the same status as a translation: they are an interpretation, a reading of anoriginal. Just like translation, the fact that they cannot stake a claim to utter originality is also without doubt, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot equal, or even surpass, this original.

As cover versions often go on to seal their place in a different style and era, translations too can breathe new life into a text and come to represent something beyond their source. This value is subjective of course, but the possibility seems undeniable.

One nice example that demonstrates the potential existence of a superior cover/translation is the 1967 Bob Dylan track All Along the Watchtower. While Dylan’s original recording is a classic in its own right, the song is almost overwhelmingly identified with the version Jimi Hendrix recorded for Electric Ladyland (below) just six months after Dylan’s track was released. Hendrix’s cover went on to become a Top 20 single in 1968 and was ranked 47th in Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’, making it by far the more successful of the two.

Indeed, when describing his reaction to hearing Hendrix’s version, Dylan himself said: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there.”

Furthermore, Dylan subsequently took to basing his own performances of the song on Hendrix’s version, something he openly admits: “[Hendrix] probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” Now, when listening back to later live performances of the track, it is clear how much Dylan’s own take on the song has been influenced by Hendrix’s cover.

When considered in the context of translation, this example calls to mind the famous quote by Salman Rushdie: “It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.”

In overturning the dominant view of translation as a secondary task that struggles in vain to live up to an immovable original, this metaphor serves to provide a stronger image of the task at hand and the profession as a whole. While it still reflects the inescapable fact that a translation is not an original production, the image of translation as a cover version demonstrates the power that translation can nevertheless wield and the immense value that it offers. Ultimately, alternative meaning and originality complement each other – neither makes up a whole on its own.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Are there any other musical metaphors you’ve come across? To finish of with, here’s a fitting quote from Paul Blackburn that takes us back to Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:

In your view, what is a translator?
A man who brings it all back home. In short, a madman.

Translating music: just jokes and gibberish?

After a busy few weeks, it’s finally time for another blog. I was trying to think of a topic covering a large area that I have completely overlooked so far and the one that came to mind was music.

In some ways it’s an obvious choice, it’s a passion of mine and a topic that fits in well with the other hugely general areas I’ve covered so far. (TV, film, books…) Yet, as I’ve chosen to look at music in popular culture in this post, problems arise in even finding a link to translation.

Unlike poetry, which is considered by many academics as the pinnacle of translation, the elite task of the translator, with the need to convey meaning alongside replicating rhyme, meter, assonance, alliteration, etc. (a topic for another day) or opera, where translation also plays a key role, there is obviously no real demand for the translation of lyrics in pop music aside from a curiosity on the part of the listener to discover what the lyrics mean. But there must be more to it than just being a good way to learn foreign languages?

Music clearly has a huge impact on cultures, indeed there are few better examples of the ideological power of music than the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. It tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a 70s folk singer from Detroit who, at least partially due to the prejudices against Latin American culture at the time, failed to sell any records in his homeland while unknowingly becoming the hero of the entire South African nation, selling over half a million copies of his album as his lyrics gave hope of change to a nation under Apartheid. An impressive link between music and culture, no doubt, but there is still a common language here and therefore no suggestion of music’s role across linguistic borders.

Here in England there is relatively little demand for non-anglophone music. With the amount of music available, the global domination of the English language and the lack of enthusiasm for learning foreign languages, the expected norm is that the English listener will have no knowledge or desire to work out the meaning of lyrics. This is demonstrated by the advertising technique used by Specsavers a few years ago where they took one of the few foreign tracks recognisable to an English audience – Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ – and by playing upon the viewer’s lack of linguistic knowledge, probably understanding the meaning of the title and no more, changed the meaning of the lyrics to advertise their brand and add a little humour.

(The song’s status as one of the only recognisable non-English tracks in England is further exemplified by its usage in this 90s advert for Heineken with a very young-looking Stephen Fry)

And it is these games that seem to be the extent of language’s influence when it comes to popular music. In Italy, where there is more of a desire to listen to English music but still a relatively low understanding of the language, the potential for play is high and one well-known example in particular is well worth sharing. (Skip to about 1:40 if you just want the song and not a little test of your Italian)

In 1972 Adriano Celetano released the single ‘Prisencolinensinainciusol’, a track made up of pure gibberish (except the words ‘all right’) but which, by copying phonetic patterns of American English, is made to sound to an Italian audience like meaningful English sung with an accent. It’s fascinating to listen to for an English speaker and shows the full extent to which language can be manipulated.

Furthermore, it once again shows that it is a kind of non-translation or false translation – rather than the genuine transference of meaning – that is commonplace when popular music tackles the issue of language, with comprehension not important or even preferred.

All in all, these examples serve to demonstrate that when music crosses linguistic borders, language can often become little more than a tool to be manipulated.