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.

Games gone global: Connecting board games and translation

The idea for this post was sparked by an advertisement I saw for a toy shop a few weeks ago. To my amazement, there was a ‘top selling’ board game advertised in which the aim of the game was to pick up dog poo… Yes, really. Entitled ‘Doggie Doo’, players take it in turns to feed/walk the dog and if you’re lucky enough you then get the opportunity to scoop up the resultant mess in a race to ‘collect’ three and be crowned champion!

After seeing this, I started to think about board games in different cultures and decided it seemed like an interesting topic to look into. I immediately assumed that this bizarre game must just have been an English one-off – surely this kind of game glorifying such a mundane and downright disgusting part of everyday life couldn’t be hugely successful? What’s next, ‘Tax Return Trouble’ or ‘Lawn Mower Mayhem’? Imagine my surprise when I found that the game is actually a huge international hit!

Developed in Germany (which, in hindsight, feels quite obvious – instilling a keen sense of civic responsibility in children seems very German according to traditional British stereotypes), the game was originally entitled ‘Kackel Dackel’ which, even with very little knowledge of German, sounds like an effective title to the English ear… With other versions including the Dutch ‘Takkie Kakkie’, Spanish ‘Bruno pu-pu’ and Italian ‘Fido Pupù’, the use of rhyme and alliteration in all of the titles is very creative, but that is not the key point I want to explore in this post.

Indeed, one more extremely counter-intuitively German game is Chinese Checkers which actually has nothing to do with either China or checkers. Developed in Germany as ‘Stern-Halma’ (‘stern’ meaning star and thus explaining the shape of the board), the game seemingly adopted its unrelated title purely as a marketing gimmick.

Further to this, another game which you would imagine to have interesting roots is ‘Ludo’. Meaning ‘I play’ in Latin, you could speculate about its origins all day without correctly concluding that it comes from India. A rich source of board games, ‘Ludo’ was developed from the game ‘Pachisi’ dating back to the 6th Century before being brought back to Britain from colonial India and given its new name. In addition, the game is played under the name of ‘Sorry!’ in the USA as it further masks its roots.

Maintaining this focus on India, one further game developed there – and one which has extremely interesting cultural significance – is ‘Snakes and Ladders’. Known as ‘Moksha Patam’ [the ladder to salvation], the game was associated with traditional Hindu philosophy and emphasised the role of fate or karma while also being interpreted as a tool for teaching the effects of good deeds versus bad.

Here, the ladders represent virtues such as generosity, faith, and humility, and the snakes represent vices such as lust, anger, murder, and theft while the number of ladders is also less than the number of snakes as a reminder that a path of good is much more difficult to tread than a path of sins.

Later on, the game made its way to England and was sold as ‘Snakes and Ladders’ before the basic concept was introduced in the United States as ‘Chutes and Ladders’ in 1943. Interestingly, in 1980, Salman Rushdie also used the game as a central metaphor in his book ‘Midnight’s Children’:

All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you hope to climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner, and for every snake a ladder will compensate. But it’s more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent; in the opposition of staircase and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all conceivable oppositions, Alpha against Omega, father against mother.

Clearly, things are not always what they seem when it comes to the origins of board games. While certain games, such as Monopoly, are so globally recognised that the name changes very little between cultures (indeed, the interesting variants of Monopoly are found within cultures; versions range from Catopoly to Yorkshire-opoly in England alone), so many games completely shed their original ties to ensure integration into a new culture. One final example of this could be my childhood favourite ‘Operation’, which was taken to France as ‘Docteur Maboul’ [Crazy Doctor] and Italy as ‘L’allegro chirurgo’ [Amateur surgeon].

Ultimately, this post seems less about translation than it is about cultural differences and the shifts made when moving between cultures. Yet this movement, when considered alongside the fact that games such as ‘Doggie Doo’ seem so natural in each different culture (due to naming, branding, and the aptness of the content) and the way in which their origins and authorship become masked,  ensures that the treatment of board games provides a perfect parallel for much of translation, which arrives at its end-user as a fluent, natural text and hides any notion that translation has taken place.

This ‘domesticating’ method of translation is regularly questioned in the world of literary translation in particular, but would we ever question the way in which we deal with board games? I’m in no way suggesting that board games carry the same cultural weight as literature, but the insight that they can give us into the history of a particular culture is extremely important and the clear way in which they demonstrate this ‘board game maker’s invisibility’ is an excellent indicator of translation’s own invisibility on a larger scale.

So there you have it. And how about you? I’d love to hear about some games from other cultures or any interesting examples I’ve not looked at. Ciao!