You say potato, I say pomme de terre

By: Michael Stevenson

As I listen more to French singers performing songs they’ve translated from English, I’m becoming fascinated by the inherent complexities of that process. Even in a proper translation, a song’s rhyme and poetic qualities may suffer.

In a poor translation, a song’s meaning can be completely lost. “It’s like searching for the best path through the forest which must satisfy several conflicting criteria,” says Russian translator Stanislov Korotyginit,  “It must be the shortest path, the nicest and the safest. And you have to meet the wolf on the way.”

Cole Porter

Imagine translating the lyrics of Cole Porter. Porter’s iconic cleverness is sometimes found in his rhyme, other times with his vernacular and idioms. When Porter writes, “heaven knows, anything goes” (simple rhyme, right?) Porter expects that we understand both these expressions. A literal translation wouldn’t work. Heaven knows what? Anything goes…where? (The classic Monty Python “Anything Goes” sketch is an example of hearing the lyrics “anything goes” with fresh ears.)

Kurt Vonnegut wrote that in bad translations, “jokes are commonly the first things to go.” Vonnegut was referring to translating the Gospels, but I’m sure his theory applies to music as well. Porter wrote lyrics often with his tongue firmly in cheek. His music performed without his lyrical cleverness and randy wordplay would be like being served a Crème brûlée in a hot dog roll.

“You’re a rose,
You’re Inferno’s Dante.
You’re the nose
On the great Durante.”

On Ne Va Nulle Part … Or Are You?

The French singer Francis Cabrel  recorded a terrific LP of Bob Dylan covers entitled Vise le Ciel.  Listening to French versions of these Dylan classics, I realize even Dylan’s song titles would make for a difficult translation. Cabrel translates the song title “A Simple Twist of Fate” as “Un Simple Coup du Sort.” Google, however, translates it “Un Simple Torsion du Destin.” Which is correct? Listen to Cabrel’s  “On Ne Va Nulle Part” (“You Ain’t Goin Nowhere”) and you know Dylan is in good hands.

Sometimes the sound of the word is most important to its meaning. In “Like a Rolling Stone” Dylan cries, “Ah, how does it feeeel?”  Cabrel didn’t translate this song, but if he did, would he sing “Ah, Comment vous sentez-vous?” Which word would get the emotionally punctuation that Dylan’s “feel” gets? If  vous gets the punch, then the meaning is lost.

Gershwin wrote “You say potato, I say puh-tot-oh,”  first deciding to “call the whole thing off,”  then finally concluding “better call the calling-off, off.” How would one translate that silly yet complex idea into French? Heaven knows.

“The Sound Comes With the Word”

In the YouTube clip below, one of my favorite young singers, Brazil’s Mallu Magalhães talks a bit about the translating process, and about how important the sounds of the words are. Of course, with her beautiful Brazilian accent she could be explaining the complexities of the Brazil tax code and I grin and nod “Yes Mallu, let’s call the whole thing off.”

How important is it to understand what the singer is expressing lyrically? There are songs I’ve loved containing words I’ve never understood. “Dulaman” is a great Celtic worksong performed in the Irish Gaelic language by the band Altan. This track was stuck on my Toyota’s cd player for years before I learned what the song was about. I imagined the lyric was about a lad and his sweetheart. In actual fact, Dúlamán is about seaweed.

Here’s another beautiful song in the bossa nova tradition, performed by Mallu Magalhães. I don’t have a clue what this song’s about. I doubt it is about seaweed, but I don’t much care. I love it.

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