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Posts Tagged ‘Translation’

The Orator - O Le TulafaleA few months ago I received a call from New Zealand. Philip Saffery from Toitereo Linguists was looking for an Italian translator for a subtitling job. I was thrilled. I had been chasing subtitling work for a while, without any luck. Tell me more, I said. It got more and more interesting. The film was called The Orator – O Le Tulafale, the first ever Samoan feature film, entirely shot in Samoa, with a Samoan cast, by a Samoan director, and in the Samoan language. Nothing short of an historical film. I confess that I did not know much about Samoa, despite the fact that Australia is home to a pretty big community of Samoan expats. Of course Philip, who lived in Polynesia for ages and is fluent in te reo Maori and other Polynesian languages, had already done the English subtitles, so it was essentially an English to Italian job.

Still, you can probably guess that a film about Samoan traditions does present certain challenges for someone who is not very knowledgeable about that culture. Lucky for us, Wikipedia and Google gave me access to a wealth of information, and within a couple of days I had temporarily become some kind of expert on the history, politics and customs. I still remember the essentials, but unfortunately, like many other translators, I do tend to clean up my cache every now and then, to make room for what I need to have handy for my next project.
Working on subtitles was a new experience for me, and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s quite different from translating literature, as the format rules out not only all notes and explanations, but sometimes can also require a compression of the target text to make it readable to the audience in the limited time for which the text appears on the screen. David Bellos points it out in Chapter 12 of his brilliant and entertaining Is That a Fish in Your Ear? where he also tells us that

It has become a convention to regard average filmgoers as capable of reading only about 15 characters per second; and […] no more than 32 alphabetic characters can be displayed in a line. In addition, no more than two lines can be displayed at a time without obscuring significant parts of the image. […] the subtitler has around 64 characters including spaces that must be displayed for a few seconds at most to express the key meanings of a shot or sequence in which characters may speak many more words than that. […] It’s really amazing that it can be done at all.

It really is, but it’s also true that most of the times you work it out pretty naturally if you are a good translator. Luckily, this film does not include fast-paced conversation. It is quite formal in its use of dialogue, which is often very poetic and symbolic, therefore making it a bit easier to subtitle. Counting the syllables of the original Samoan speech and of the English subtitles I was translating from was one way to check that my subtitles weren’t too long. The problem was rather the impossibility of using explanatory notes for Samoan terms and customs that I was not familiar with.

Luckily, the producers had prepared a very insightful press kit to explain some of the cultural elements and traditional Samoan customs to Western journalists and critics. The press kit had a unique role in the process, as it was part of my job to translate that, as well, with all the issues I just pointed out, but on the other hand the explanations it contained helped me navigate the cultural elements of the film. Moreover, knowing that viewers at the Venice Film Festival would have the press kit handy somewhat eased the panic of a translator who can’t use explanatory notes and has no room for paraphrase, either.

Let’s take the complex social structures underlying the Samoan word “matai”:

Matai are titleholders.  They are divided into 2 categories, chiefs  (alii);  orators (tulafale).  Women are divided into two categories, faletua and tausi, faletua i.e. wives of chiefs, tausi i.e. wives of orators. Untitled men (taulele’a )as a group are called ‘aumaga, (singular: taule’ale’a);  untitled women, including women not married to men who hold  matai titles, are honorifically addressed as  le nuu o tama’ita’i (literally the village of the ladies) and are known collectively as aualuma.  Each grouping i.e. Alii & Faipule which are the matai;  faletua and tausi which are the wives of the matai;  the ‘aumaga i.e. the collective of untitled men, the aualuma i.e the collective of untitled women; has a specific role to play in the village governance.

Not particularly hard, I know, but still so radically different from Australian society and even from the most traditional elements of my father’s Southern Italian family, which I though was very complex and honor-based! It is simply not possible to explain any of that in the subtitles. Another Samoan tradition depicted in the movie is the ifoga:

A ritual where the offending party pleads for pardon from the offended party. Three elements sustain ifoga:  a sense of remorse and shame by the perpetrator, accountability by the family and village, and forgiveness by the victim’s family.  Traditionally the culprit(s) kneel covered in fine mats.  Ritual acceptance by the offended party occurs when they approach the ifoga party and pull away the mats. 

The ifoga in this film lasts for days, the culprits kneel under the mats and under pouring rain, fighting back sleep until the victim of their bullying comes out to forgive them. Without the press kit, and because of the space and time constraints in subtitling, a Western viewer would have been completely lost in front of this scene. (“Hey, what’s he doing under that mat? He’s the bigger guy, he already kicked the little guy’s butt once, now he’s prostrating himself for days waiting to be excused?! It makes no sense at all!”) I was struck and amazed by the humanity and beauty of this ritual, by the strength that honor and family can exert even on the big bad village bully, by the obvious sincerity that it fosters. I’d love to discuss this ritual at length, but I am not a sociologist and this is not the place. Let me just say that things like that made translating the subtitles of the movie a very enriching experience from a cultural point of view.

Another interesting aspect was that this was, with the exception of a few legal document, my first re-translation. I was not translating from Samoan – which sounds sweet as honey  but, alas, I can’t understand a word of it – but, as I said, from Philip’s translation from Samoan to English . There is an underlying issue of trust in such an undertaking. I did trust Philip, as his resumé is very impressive and the NZFC wouldn’t have picked a random translator for a movie that eventually became New Zealand’s entry in the Academy Awards. Still, here and there, where the English text was a bit obscure, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was because of a cultural gap between Western mindset and Samoan tradition, or if there was a mistake in the translation. Almost invariably, it was the first case, but I still had to take particular care anytime something sounded strange, as I could not go back to the original and work it out myself. Philip was a precious ally, though, and would always have an answer for me.

There were a few linguistic issues, as well, like the use of a word like “banished  in English which, as I understand, was a pretty direct translation of the Samoan. The word, though, translates into Italian differently in different context: “esiliato” in the case of “banished from a village” but “ripudiato” in “banished by one’s family.” Clearly, I had to check that the word did not carry too much symbolic meaning, which would have been lost by “splitting” it into two words in the Italian.

As far Samoan words are concerned, there was the issue of “lavalava” which is basically what most Europeans would call a  “pareo,”  a word that comes from Tahitian. The last thing I wanted to do was to diminish the distinctively Samoan flavour by using a word borrowed from a “close enough” culture. It seemed to be something that careless peddlers of the “exotic” would do and indeed used to do, selling simplistic concepts like “oriental,” “african,” and “aboriginal” to romantic bourgeois Westerners  as if they were monolithic categories. I did go for “lavalava” in the end, and when a guy wearing just that piece of cloth is told to “take off your lavalava” it becomes pretty obvious what a lavalava is.

Also, it all got unexpectedly glamorous when I got offered two tickets for the film’s premiere at the 68th Venice Film Festival. I happened to be in Italy at the time, and I said, why not? Having all those people reading my subtitles was extremely gratifying and quite scary, to tell you the truth. I watched it all with unforgiving attention and I only found five or six things I would have changed, which is really not a lot, for a picky translator. When the audience laughed at jokes that crossed half a world and two languages, I started to relax.

The film earned a standing ovation and a special mention in Venice, and I don’t think my subtitles played much of a  role in this – Tusi Tamasese is a brilliant and poetic storyteller, who managed to pull off a courageous film which is emotional, visually rich and yet understated. It was a privilege and an honour to be involved, even if peripherally, in its success, and I hope viewers in Italy will be able to enjoy it without cringing at my subtitles.

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A couple of weeks ago I was given the Versatile Blogger Award by Rebekka Wellmanns, of In Other Words. What can I say? It’s always nice to get a nice response from people, especially when they work in the same field and can provide an informed feedback. This blog has been through some ups and downs as I tried to maintain it despite a very busy year at work and the birth of my wonderful Eila in March, which sort of rearranged priorities, as I’m sure you’ll understand. So it was deeply satisfying that Rebekka though of me.

Anyway, for the lucky ones who are about to get nominated by me, here are the award rules:

1. Thank the award-giver and link back to them in your post.

2. Share 7 things about yourself.

3. Pass this award along to 15 recently discovered blogs you enjoy reading.

4. Contact your chosen bloggers to let them know about the award.

Let’s move on to the 7 things about me. I know, not that interesting, but, hey, that’s the rule.

1.  I grew up in Savona, Italy, and lived in Bochum (Germany), Lyon (France) and I now live in sunny Brisbane, in the Land Down Under.

2. At age 15 I decided I was going to be a rock star. At age 17 I decided I was going to be a novelist. After some ill-advised experimenting, I realised there were a lot of already written novels that I could re-write,  and I decided to be a translator, in order to avoid accusation of plagiarism. I still play and make music, when I get the chance, and occasionally produce secret and disappointing writing experiments.

3. I love cooking and I’m pretty darn good at it.

4. One of the things that make me think I’m cut out to be a translator is that I constantly feel like I exist somewhere in between languages and cultures, but also in between social groups, political ideology, music genres, etc.

5. The ooh-is-that-a-kindle-no-way-I-love-how-paper-feels-and-the-smell-of-a-new-book crowd is really starting to get on my nerves (not to mention that despite the chopping of trees, the printing process, and the emissions needed to ship “real” books, they probably think I am the degenerate yuppy).

6. I have a wonderful daughter called Eila who gives me more joy than all other things combined.

7. I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.

Now, I need to list 15 of my favourite, recently discovered blogs. And the winners are:

No Peanuts! for Translators

There’s Something About Translation

TLUC Blog

LiberIdea

Terminologia etc.

A Walk in the Words

La stanza del traduttore

Transubstantiation

Language Hat

DC Blog

Una Vita Vagabonda

In Other Words

Three Percent

Translate This!

All right, then. Time to tell these people I like them. Stay tuned.

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Google Street View CarIn the last fifteen years technology has radically transformed the way in which translators work. Translators used to spend most of their time browsing through heavy paper dictionaries and glossaries, lose their eyesight in the small lines of a definition to look for an idiomatic phrase, and planned regular trips to the local library to research the most puzzling references.

In the 1990s dictionaries started to be published on CD. You wrote the word, it popped up. You wrote the key word of the idiom you were looking for, and there it was, highlighted in a split second. It sounds normal, today, but it must have seemed like magic, at first. This relatively recent development truly boosted translators’ productivity, while reducing anxiety, depression and frustration – not a mean feat. And that was just the beginning. When the Internet became affordable for the average translator working from home, it opened up spaces where one could research huge directories, at speeds never imagined before. Yahoo!’s directories where huge and searchable. Could it get any better than that? Of course it could. Enter Google. Fast-forward to thirteen years later, and Google is the main tool I use in my work as a translator.

If most translators would probably confirm that they use Google more than any other tool, and if the average person can easily understand why that is, fewer people would guess that Street View is a precious tool in our trade.

Google Street View is nothing short of awesome. Many people use it to show their friends where they have been on holiday, or the street where they grew up. Others like to get a feel of an area before booking a hotel or venturing out to a late-night concert. Those with a lot of spare time simply get virtually lost through the streets of an unknown foreign city. It’s a precious tool for everyday life and a bonanza for the chronically curious.

As I said, not many people would assume that Street View is an amazing tool for literary translators. When I encounter a reference to some place in a text, I immediately Google it, check out if it exists, check the Wikipedia entry for it, find a few pictures, maybe a tourism website. Tourist websites and photo galleries, though, are pretty much limited to the main attractions – not to mention that you’ll find countless pictures of Paris, but a small town in rural Texas, well… that’s another story. With this kind of tool, the translator can easily get a very precise idea of the most obscure place where a story is set.

Stewart Beach Park, Galveston, TXWhile translating Galveston, the amazing debut by Nic Pizzolatto, I truly got lost through the dingy streets of that Texan island, I “walked” along the seaside to see what the characters where seeing. Ok, the businesses and addresses he wrote about were not really there (although countless others, of the same kind, were) but I got the feeling, the atmosphere of Galveston island. Needless to say, one can of course translate without having the vaguest idea of what a place looks like, and writers used to set their stories in exotic places without having been there, and without having seen a single picture of them. And that’s probably one of the greatest skill an author needs, the ability to imagine how a place looks, smells, sounds, feels like.

Still, being able to get at least a visual impression can make all the difference when we have to establish which one of two quasi-synonyms we need to use, and allows us to visualise the events a lot better, which certainly helps to dissipate any doubts about the setting, and therefore to produce and accurate and meaningful translation.

O Toole's Pub, Chicago, ILIn his brilliant novel Everything Matters! Ron Currie, Jr. mentions heaps of bars, restaurants and shops. Much to my surprise, that time I discovered that they all exist in the real world. Whether you are a translator or just a reader, being able to stand in front of the Chicago pub where your main character is getting drunk with his drug-addled amputee friend certainly adds to the experience, and – quite simply – an enhanced reading experience will result in a better performance by the translator.

Anyone else out there using Street View to check out the locations of the story they are translating?

P.S. interestingly, I have found Google Street View much more useful in my job than the surprising but still dreadful Google Translate.

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Dear all,

once again, sorry about the long absence. With a 6-month-old baby girl and a 6-week trip to Italy so that Nonno, Nonna and Zia could finally meet her I did not manage to find the discipline to update at all. After all, work/life balance is a hot concept right now, is it not? In any case, I assume most of you survived. In case you’re still hanging around here, I finally give you a .pdf of  my presentation at the recent AAL Conference about Literature and Translation. It’s called Translation as Re-creation and you can read it here. Enjoy, and stay tuned.

Carissimi,

ancora una volta mi devo scusare per la lunga assenza. Tra una bimba di sei mesi e un viaggio in Italia di sei settimane di modo che il nonno, la nonna e la zia potessero finalmente conoscerla, non sono riuscito a trovare la disciplina di aggiornare il blog. Ma dopotutto il concetto di equilibro fra vita e lavoro è parecchio in voga, ultimamente, no? In ogni caso immagino che siate sopravvissuti quasi tutti. Nel caso in cui siate ancora in giro per questo blog, finalmente vi presento il testo che ho presentato alla recente conferenza dell’AAL alla Monash University di Melbourne. Si è parlato di letteratura e traduzione, e il titolo della mia relazione era Translation as Re-creation. Potete leggerla qui. Buona lettura, e restate sintonizzati.

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I just came back from the conference organised by the Australasian Association for Literature at Monash University, Caulfield, and I thought some people might like a quick report. This year the theme was Literature and Translation, and I decided to submit an abstract, to see whether my slightly academic foray at the Sydney Symposium was just a fluke or not. Surprisingly (as I am just a humble practitioner, and not a university-based scholar), my abstract was accepted and I presented a paper titled Translation as Re-creation, which I will probably publish on this blog in the coming weeks.

The conference was impeccably organised, the hosts were lovely, and there was an abundance of interesting ideas going around the H building of the Caulfield campus. First of all, we had the privilege of listening to a fantastic keynote speech by comparative literature star David Damrosch, author of What is World Literature? and a major player shaping the future of his field of studies. His unassuming, modest attitude is really refreshing, if we consider that he studied at Yale and is Chair of Comparative Literature at Harvard. He is able to illustrate the complexities of world literature with surprising zest, brilliantly conveying his evident passion and love for literature. He can talk about The Epic of Gilgamesh, throw in a reference to Aztec texts, and then proceed to put on a playful but impeccable Russian accent when reading out the fictional author Vladimir Brusiloff’s lines from “The Clicking of Cuthbert”, a short story by P. G. Wodehouse.  Hard to follow that, let me tell you.

Unfortunately, for the rest of the conference we had five or six parallel sessions running at any given time, so I missed out on a number of promising papers.

The first session I attended was titled The Translation Process. I very much enjoyed Marc Orlando‘s reflections on his French translation of Mau Moko, an English/Maori book about the art of face tattooing in Polynesian history, imbued with a political activism which proved challenging in the translation process (yes, intents have to be translated too). His use of music (four different arrangements of La valse d’Amelie) to show how the same work can be arranged differently depending on intents, context, and audience also echoes one of the points I made in my own paper, namely “if anyone performing a cover or a rendition of a classical piece is considered a musician, why should the translator not be considered a writer?” Moreover, I appreciated his very pragmatic and contemporary approach to the problem of foreignisation (i.e. “leaving the author alone and moving the reader towards the author”) and domestication (“leaving the reader alone and moving the author towards the reader”) that leads to the identification of the translator’s space, a no-man land in between the two poles, where the author and the reader should meet. Again, I made a similar point in my paper in Sydney when warning about the excessive adherence to theoretical poles. After him the flamboyant Royall Tyler delivered an illuminating lecture on translating medieval Japanese epics, complete with a popular rendition of traditional japanese music and poetry.

On the Censorship and Ideology panel, Belinda Calderone illustrated how translations of 16th and 17th century Italian and French fables in Victorian England sanitized and censored the text to the point of incoherence and inconsistency, eliminating themes like violence, abuse, rape, and murder while trying to turn what were essentially folk tales into children stories. Feng Cui, in absentia, contributed an interesting paper about the role of state-sponsored translations shaped the literary discourse in communist China to serve the shifting political agenda from the late 1940s until the Cultural Revolution and beyond.

In Translating Style and VoiceLeah Gerber faced the complex issue of aging translations with a detailed study of Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive in its various English translation, opening up room for debate. Why do translations age? Should we re-translate a work from the 1920s to make it sound more contemporary and ensure the work will still be read? And has the original aged with the translation? If not, can we find a translation strategy that will enable the text to stand the test of time without making Emil sound like a modern boy? After her, Suzie Gibson delivered a nice reading of the countless adaptations of James’s The Turn of the Screw, followed by Andrew Read‘s excellent presentation which looked at Pullman’s Northern Lights and its French and German translations as well as stage and film adaptation, in order to analyse the consequences of the translator’s choices on the work. In the original, Lyra, the main character, speaks a distinctive working class sociolect that is rendered very effectively with non-standard spelling and grammar. All translations (and, to a certain extent, the film adaptation) flatten this out, assigning Lyra much more correct speech patterns that not only change the perception of the character, but actually influence the perception of  the relationships between characters. Once again, that’s another point I made elsewhere, and it’s hard to overstate how crucial this can be for the outcome of a translation.

On Tuesday, the panel Cross-fertilisation and transmission sounded very promising, and was quite interesting, too. Emily Finley’s paper focused on the issue of translating the Hegelian term Aufheben (a word connoting simultaneous destruction and preservation). How to translate it: suppress? Abolish? Remove? The odd sublate? Or maybe, as someone from the audience suggested, with take care ofChris Danta‘s paper was very insightful but very much removed from translation issues. When he used the word translation he did not mean what we commonly understand it to mean. I am pretty sure that anyone who is active in literary scholarship would have found the paper very well-written, and I could definitely see its originality. It’s just that it was quite out of my domain as a translator. The panel also included Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover, who analysed Bakhtin’s model of parody as a means of transmission (and translation) of cultural forms, underlining how translation itself can lead to the establishment of new literary genres in national spaces where they previously absent.

Then, tension beginning to rise in anticipation of my presentation, it was time for Creation and creativity (I). Curiously enough, as I was on Creation and creativity (II) just after lunch, I was quite disappointed by two of the speakers on this panel. It actually started very well, with Joel Scott and his very compelling arguments about “difference” in writing and translating. Joel had some interesting ideas on the role of difference, including language difference, in literature. I would have loved to hear more about the possible translation process he envisions for Susana Chàvez Silverman’s bilingual writing, and less about the socio-political, post-colonial implications of difference, but all in all it was a very enjoyable paper and I found myself nodding in approval at several of Joel’s statements. The next presenter, Luke Johnson, focused instead on how authors recognise themselves in their work and in the translating text, with and very thought-provoking psychological parallels with infants learning to recognise themselves in a mirror. It was mostly very theoretical, though, and not really concerned with translation. Plus, he totally lost me when he likened the translator to someone taking a picture. Anyone who has ever translated a paragraph should know it takes a bit longer than a click. Maybe if he replaced that with a hyper-realist painter. That’s more like it, I’d say. After him, H.J. van Leeuwen circled around the issue of translation with fairly textbook quotes and a lot of philosophical reflection. I could see he was certainly competent in his field, and despite his initial disclaimer “I’m not a translator” I couldn’t help but thinking it was mostly a lot of philosophical fluff. Please note, I’m not slamming anyone, here. Even the two last speakers clearly knew what they were doing. It’s just that neither of the papers was dealing with the translation process in an engaging way. I am extremely interested in translation theories and studies  but only as long as the theory is there to inform the practice, shed light on it. When translation as a whole, instead, becomes one of many examples to use in a discourse that is not concerned with translation, my interest starts to waver, unless I am listening to a David Damrosch.

The last panel, which included yours truly – yeah, no chance to relax until the very end – was, fortunately for me, a quite different story. Emiko Okayama, translator and scholar, used her very attentive research to show how different translations and subsequent adaptations of the Chinese vernacular novel Suikoden into Japanese not only ended up generating an original Japanese work (Nansō Satomi Hakkenden) but, again, gave rise to a new genre in Japanese literature. The other speaker, Nataša Karanfilović, conducted a thorough research to expose what I called “the dark side of re-creation”, showing how a score of gross mistakes in the translation of Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story not only obliterated countless cultural references, but made for an incoherent text whose poor reception basically sabotaged White’s appeal on the Serbian market, where no other novels of his have been translated after this fiasco. As for yours truly, waiting for a polished version of the paper (and especially waiting for its not-yet-existent Italian translation) I will share my abstract in the hope of enticing readers:

Translation as Re-creation

Is the translator a writer? Technically speaking, it would seem obvious. Yet, the perception is often very different. If performing a cover, or a rendition of a classical piece, makes one a musician, why should not the translator be considered a writer? One might say that translators are not creative writers but, of course, even that is not true, as any translation constantly requires linguistically and culturally creative solutions. Too many people, even in the publishing industry, have the perception that texts exist as unchanging entities, and that the language they are written in is but a patina that can be almost mechanically scrubbed away and replaced. What are the dangers of this misconception? Translators are writers who creatively manipulate the linguistic and cultural elements of a text to produce a new, original text, of which they are legally recognised as the authors. What’s more, the very act of translating into a different language inevitably influences the tone and style of the narration, even the voices of the characters. This paper will move from these issues to explore the idea of translation as re-creation, in both its senses of “creating anew” and “refreshment of strength and spirits” or “diversion,” focusing on the regenerative powers of translation on texts and languages, as well as on translators and readers.

Then we had the privilege to go back to the main lecture theatre to listen to Rita Wilson, Brian Nelson and David Damrosch discussing translation and world literature, another fantastic set of speakers for a great finale.

Unfortunately, there were many papers I missed which I would have loved to listen to. Laura Olcelli’s paper about “geographical and linguistic disorientation”, Felix Siddel’s presentation about Buzzati and “translation as a catalyst in a literary career”, Maria Cristina Seccia’s paper Translating Caterina Edwards: the overlap of two cultures, Luigi Gussago’s presentation about Cesare De Marchi and many more.

The good thing, though, it’s that this conference had the precise aim of “educating” the academy about the importance of translation, and judging by the amount of academics present (I was probably the only one who was not and never had been affiliated to a university) it looks like it certainly did it what it wanted to do. Translation seems to be oddly fashionable in academic circles at the moment, and I urge all translators to strike the hammer while the iron is hot and contribute whatever they can contribute so we can finally give literary translation its rightful place in literary and cultural studies.

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A little update…

Yes, I am still alive. After the Sydney symposium, I came back to Brisbane to start working on a 370-page book that has to be translated by the end of November. Hence, I am doing 60+ hours a week, I am still teaching, and as you can imagine  it’s hard to find time for anything else. The classes are almost finished, though, so I should resume posting regularly as of next weekend. Please stay tuned, and make the most of this opportunity: maybe you missed out on some older posts! Cheers

Un piccolo aggiornamento…

Sì, sono ancora vivo. Dopo il simposio di Sydney sono tornato a Brisbane e mi sono messo subito a tradurre un libro di 370 pagine che devo consegnare per la fine di novembre. Di conseguenza sto lavorando più di 60 ore a settimana, sto ancora insegnando, e come potrete immaginare è difficilissimo trovare il tempo per qualsiasi altra cosa. I corsi di italiano tuttavia sono quasi finiti, quindi dovrei riprendere a scrivere regolarmente su questo blog a partire dal prossimo weekend. Non andate via, e approfittate dell’occasione: forse vi siete persi qualche vecchio post! Grazie.

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Oggi ascolto "Suzanne"On this blog I have often talked about literary translation. I have briefly talked about translating movie dialogues and subtitles. Still, despite my abiding passion for music, I just realised that I still haven’t talked about translation in music.

Sure, it’s not very common, especially because most of the times people just write new lyrics over the original melody. Also – let me stress this, since you’re reading the English version of this post – it’s mostly a matter of translating British or American songs into languages like Italian, seldom the other way around. You might know that Stand by Me, a beautiful love song, in Italian became Pregherò, a mystical delirium about a blind girl seeing God through faith. In La casa del sole (The House of the Rising Sun) the “sin and misery” of a gambling man’s son in New Orleans disappear, and we’re left with a rather dull love song. Italy’s star rocker Vasco Rossi recently wrote his own lyrics to Radiohead’s Creep and produced Ad ogni costo, and he did the same with Celebrate, by An Emotional Fish where the line “this party’s over” sounded like “gli spari sopra”, which became the title of the song. Old-timer Jimmy Fontana did a similar thing when he turned the words “my, my, my Delilah” into “mai, mai, mai ti lascio”.

Simply put, the new versions were almost never translations of the original. And even if translating poetry requires a rare mastery, in order to carry the images and sounds to the target language while constrained in the cage of metrics, it seems that most people couldn’t be bothered to even make an effort.

A notable exception is Fabrizio De André, in my opinion the best – by far – poet/singer/songwriter that Italy ever had. De André not only wrote some of the best verses of all time in Italian, but also left us some of the best translations of lyrics in popular music. In his early years he translated many songs by French chansonnier Georges Brassens, while in the 70’s he approached some of Leonard Cohen’s songs, like Joan of Arc, Nancy, and Suzanne.

I’d like to focus on Suzanne, for now, as I think that De André simply came up with pretty much the best possible translation of Cohen’s lyrics. There is only one passage where he strays from the original meaning and imagery, but that is a deliberate decision not to have Jesus “sink like a stone”.

Here are Cohen’s original lyrics:

Suzanne takes you down/to her place near the river/you can hear the boats go by/you can spend the night beside her/And you know that she’s half crazy/but that’s why you want to be there/and she feeds you tea and oranges/that come all the way from China/And just when you mean to tell her/that you have no love to give her/she gets you on her wavelength/and she lets the river answer/that you’ve always been her lover

And you want to travel with her/and you want to travel blind/and you know that she can trust you/for you’ve touched her perfect body/with your mind.

And Jesus was a sailor/when he walked upon the water/and he spent a long time watching/from his lonely wooden tower/and when he knew for certain/only drowning men could see him/he said All men will be sailors then/until the sea shall free them/but he himself was broken/long before the sky would open/forsaken, almost human/he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him/you want to travel blind/and you think maybe you’ll trust him/for he’s touched your perfect body/with his mind

Now Suzanne takes your hand/and she leads you to the river/she is wearing rags and feathers/from Salvation Army counters/And the sun pours down like honey/on our lady of the harbour/And she shows you where to look/among the garbage and the flowers/There are heroes in the seaweed/there are children in the morning/they are leaning out for love/they will lean that way forever/while Suzanne holds the mirror

And you want to travel with her/you want to travel blind/and you know that you can trust her/for she’s touched your perfect body/with her mind

Now for Fabrizio De André’s translation:

Nel suo posto in riva al fiume/Suzanne ti ha voluto accanto,/e ora ascolti andar le barche/e ora puoi dormirle al fianco,/si lo sai che lei è pazza/ma per questo sei con lei./E ti offre il tè e le arance/che ha portato dalla Cina/e proprio mentre stai per dirle/che non hai amore da offrirle,/lei è già sulla tua onda/e fa che il fiume ti risponda/che da sempre siete amanti.

E tu vuoi viaggiarle insieme/vuoi viaggiarle insieme ciecamente,/perché sai che le hai toccato il corpo,/il suo corpo perfetto con la mente.

E Gesù fu marinaio/finché camminò sull’acqua,/e restò per molto tempo/a guardare solitario/dalla sua torre di legno,/e poi quando fu sicuro/che soltanto agli annegati/fosse dato di vederlo,/disse: “Siate marinai/finché il mare vi libererà”./E lui stesso fu spezzato,/ma più umano, abbandonato,/nella nostra mente lui non naufragò.

E tu vuoi viaggiargli insieme/vuoi viaggiargli insieme ciecamente,/forse avrai fiducia in lui/perché ti ha toccato il corpo con la mente.

E Suzanne ti dà la mano,/ti accompagna lungo il fiume,/porta addosso stracci e piume,/presi in qualche dormitorio,/il sole scende come miele/su di lei donna del porto/che ti indica i colori/fra la spazzatura e i fiori,/scopri eroi fra le alghe marce/e bambini nel mattino,/che si sporgono all’amore/e così faranno sempre;/e Suzanne regge lo specchio.

E tu vuoi viaggiarle insieme/vuoi viaggiarle insieme ciecamente,/perché sai che ti ha toccato il corpo,/il tuo corpo perfetto con la mente.

I read the translation over and over again, and at most I can think of changing very few minor details…

Photo: Oggi ascolto “Suzanne”, by Andrea D’Ippolito (CC – Flickr).

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