LIKE A POLISH STONE: the issues of translating Bob Dylan into a foreign language

By Filip Łobodziński

This is rather a long piece, but its length is necessary in explaining how Bob Dylan songs can be translated into languages other than English.  The article is based on a university lecture I gave in Polish to my Polish students and I present it here for anyone who is curious what the Bob Dylan song translation is all about.

The song I analysed was Like a Rolling Stone; an obvious choice. My first intention was to write it down just to justify my approach to myself, and to see if I did anything wrong and if I could verify my translator’s choices.

One of the crucial verifying points for a translated song arises when you play and sing it. And here the song worked; it felt comfortable to be sung and played. But a song of the stature of Like a Rolling Stone is not only to be sung and played comfortably, it also has to have a purpose to be sung and played.

LARS is an emblematic song and so its translation required special attendance and attention. Being one of the most important songs in the whole music industry and within popular culture, it proved a single can have long duration; can be played very loud; can touch complicated matters with difficult words; can be passionate and scathing. And, last but not least, that it can be ABOUT SOMETHING.

As a translator, I always have to either find the true meaning or choose one way of interpreting the original text. The more alternating ambiguities I can impose on my translation the better, of course. But when you’re confronted with a song like Like a Rolling Stone you have to find yourself a thread that will lead you through the labyrinth.

All purely American and historical contexts were out of the question: when I translate a song I want it to be perfectly suited to the Polish mentality. Which does not necessarily mean I simplify things; I only try to excavate the universal meanings so the song will resonate in Polish ears and souls, so it talks to us and gives us space for our own reflections.

Thus, the Edie Sedgwick connection was out of my radar. I preferred the song to be about youths, the young and vigorous élite, who are suddenly confronted with real life in the street. Or/and about the author himself. A warning and an advice.

One of the most important differences between English and Polish is that our verbs have genders. It always matters whether we talk about a girl/woman or a boy/man. So I literally HAD TO choose the gender of the LARS protagonist. I chose a female.

And in December 2013 I started working.

When a song has an instantly recognized lyrical motif – a title phrase, a chorus – I begin with it because otherwise I can’t go on. Here, I paid my attention first to the chorus – which, by the way, is sung four times in the official studio version but is not repeated verbatim. There are slight differences. Apart from the title phrase, what matters really is that the first line, “how does it feel”, always rhymes with the last line of each verse. There’s a long tradition in Polish poetry and song of not using only pure rhymes but also assonances where only the vowels match.

So, “how does it feel” was my first bite. I opted for “i jak to jest, no jak to jest” which means literally “and how is it, well, how is it”. And immediately I put down “kęs”, a word meaning “morsel” to replace the original “meal” from the first verse’s ending.

The next three/four lines are attuned with the “-ome/-one” rhyme. So now I had to find the Polish equivalent for the “like a rolling stone”. This made me ponder a bit. Not only is it the most prominent phrase within the choruses, it’s the song’s title. Who is a “rolling stone”? A vagabond, a wanderer, a restless spirit… But not necessarily here. Not this time, baby. You’re alone, away from home, the times turned bad – so you’re not a free spirit by your own design but rather a spirit expelled into liberty you didn’t know nor want.

You’re on the outside of your previous life, you’re chased away from your comfort zone. An outlaw?

First I thought „to be without a home” would be perfectly matched by „gdy dom daleko masz” (= “when you have your home far away/when your home is far away”). Thus, either I had to find an A-vowelled word for “rolling stone” or start all over again.

Leafing through my synonyms thesaurus I ran into a word “łach”. Its meanings are: a rag (textile); an old nag; a bum. BINGO! So “jak bezdomny łach” (= “homeless bum”) would be fine if iot was not for the repeated ‘home-‘ element. I decided upon “błądzący” (= ”stray”). The last thing was the line “like a complete unknown”. I remembered the unknown people are sort of invisible, transparent. Where does one look to recognize othyer people? At their faces. So I wrote: „i przezroczystą twarz” (close to: „when your face is transparent”). And so I had the first chorus:

And how is it
Well, how is it
When your home is far away
When your face is transparent
And you’re like a stray bum?

All right, I lost the „like a” repetition but you can’t have everything at once.

And now for the verses.

“Dawno, dawno temu” (= “long, long time ago”) is a typical intro to Polish fairy tales so it suited me best for “Once upon a time”. But it required rhymes because in the original we have “time – fine – dime – prime”. (And then: “call – doll – fall – all” and “didn’t you – kiddin’ you”). An AAAAC BBBBC pattern.

First I found the rhyme “fart” (= “luck”) and “żart” (= “joke”) for the C lines. But to obey the content and the rhymes (for “temu” there are few rhymes in Polish that would make sense here). So for “you dressed so fine” I opted for “byłaś jak z wybiegu” (= “you were straight from a catwalk”). Then, for “you threw the bums a dime” I wrote “datek ubogiemu” (= “alms to a poor man”) and for “in your prime” I sailed away a bit and coined “a ty wprost z Edenu” (= “while you, as if from Eden”). Eden is absent in this particular Dylan song but for mme it symbolizes here a better world.

The rest of this part of the first verse went smoothly “ostrzegano cię” (= “you were warned”) “to się skończy źle” (= “It’ll turn out bad”), “znajdziesz się na dnie” (= “you’ll find yourself on the bottom”) “ty myślałaś, że” (= “you thought that”).

So the first lines went:

Long long time ago you were straight from a catwalk
Alms to a poor man while you as, if from Eden
You had luck
They warned you, „It’ll turn out bad
You’ll find yourself on the bottom”, and you thought that
it was just a joke

So you can already see one doesn’t need to translate it word for word but rather to capture the spirit of the message and to deliver it convincingly. I might be meandering and straying myself but this is how it went. The way leading to the result is much more interesting than the result itself!

The second part of the first verse also required rhymes „about – out – loud – proud”. And this “kęs” (“morsel”) to end it with.

All I had to do here was to rearrange the word order to have the rhythm but otherwise it turned out rather easy:

Z ludzi , których zdeptał los (= At people trampled by fate)
zawsze dotąd rechotałaś w głos (= until now you used to laugh loudly)
dziś ucichłaś, otóż to (= today you’re silent, that’s a fact)
dziś masz mniej zadarty nos (= today you keep your nose lower)
skoro nagle trzeba żebrać (= now that suddenly you have to beg
o kolejny każdy kęs (= for every morsel).

The second verse is not rhymed so strictly as the first one which is fine for me, especially since one-syllable word carrying meaning are rare in Polish (it’s a real curse to have to end oxytonic – that is with an accent on the last syllable – acute lines with pronouns or particles that do not sound well in the Polish syntax at the final position).

Here we have “lonely – only”, a distant alliteration of „taught – street – get” and a piled-up rhyme „juiced in it – used to it”.

And once again, as before and after, a confrontation of the heroine’s present shabby condition with a luxurious previous life.

The “Miss Lonely” was the first flank I charged at. It points at the gender but I wanted my Polish version to be universal. So, I thought of a noun that is female in gender (our nouns have gender too, as in French or German) but sexless in meaning. Since I already pictured the person who is the subject of the song as something of a ghost of previous times, someone otherworldly, I put down a “Samotna Zjawo” (= “O, Lonely Apparition”) phrase.

Then I dug at the rest of this part of the verse.

My final choices were:

Najlepsze szkoły za sobą masz (= You finished the best schools)
Samotna Zjawo (=  you Lonely Apparition)
ale przecież wiesz (= but you know after all)
że cię prawie (= you were nearly)
wyżymali tam (= wrung out there)
nie uczono cię, jak (= you werer never taught how)
przetrwać na ulicy (= to survive on the street)
a teraz pytasz (= and now you ask)
“Jak ja tu niby (= „How am I supposed)
sobie radę dam?” (= to make it down here?”)
nie chciałaś z tym guru żadnych umów, skąd 
  (= you wanted no contracts with this guru, no, not at all)
zgrywałaś twardziela, teraz miękniesz, bo 
  (= you played tough girl, now you get softer because)
na alibi z jego strony liczyć nie ma co 
  (= you can’t count on any alibi from him)
gdy napotykasz jego pusty wzrok (= as you meet his empty gaze)
i robisz w jego stronę pojednawczy gest 
  (= and make a conciliatory gesture to him) –
note the “gest” (= “gesture”) rhyme to “jest” in the chorus.

As you can see, I switched the “mystery tramp” for a “guru” and “make a deal” for a more general “conciliatory gesture”. These are triumphs and failures of a translator. Sometimes you have to sacrifice the literality for a flow, without losing the general idea altogether.

The second chorus contains one more line (talking all the time about the Highway 61 Revisited studio version). For the “to be on your own” I chose “gdy w krąg pusto tak” (= “when there’s desolation around”). And for the emblematic “with no direction home” which gave title for the famous Martin Scorsese movie I gave up trying to force the Polish version of the film’s title (“No Permanent Address”) into the song. It just wouldn’t work.

The third verse was the most difficult – I spent nearly a day on it, and then returned to it several times.

Who are the jugglers and their frowns? Who’s the diplomat on the chrome horse?

To translate a song as such you don’t have to truly understand the deep meaning – you create it, you enter into a kind of trance and you catch phrases blowing in your soul’s wind. It didn’t matter for me if the diplomat was Andy Warhol or Dylan’s aunt. It surely was someone important to the central figure of the song, with a vehicle, his/her ways through the upper world and… a Siamese cat. I just projected a meaning on my mind’s screen. And changed a “diplomat” for an “envoy”.

There are rhymes too, in the pattern of AAAAC BBBxC DDDDZ: “around – frown – clowns – down”, “understood – good – should”, “tricks for you – kicks for you”, “diplomat – cat – that – at – steal” (“steal” being a rhyme to “feel”, you remember).

And so my final choice was:

Za trikiem trik (= Trick after trick)
pokazywali ci (you were shown by)
magicy, ale ty (= the magicians you
w nosie miałaś ich (= didn’t care)
wściekli byli więc (= that’s why they were mad at you)
nie pojęłaś, że (= you didn’t understand that)
tak nie robi się (= it’s not polite)
zamiast ciebie jednak inni (= Yet others instead of you)
bawili się (= had their fun)
na konia ze stali twój poseł nieraz z tobą wsiadł 
  (= on the iron horse your envoy got on with you more than once)
z syjamem na ramieniu – podobał ci się tak 
  (= with a Siamese cat on his shoulder – you liked him very much)
aż tu nagle odkrywasz nieprzyjemny fakt 
  (= and suddenly you discover an unpleasant fact)
że ukradł ci wszystko, co tylko chciał 
  (= that he stole from you everything he wanted)
i w sumie oblał najważniejszy test 
  (= and so he flunked the most important test)

I give literal re-translations here also to let you have a glimpse into a Polish syntax where we have much more freedom, thus a construction “on the iron horse your envoy got on with you” is perfectly understandable because of the grammatical suffixes determining the words role function and position within the sentence’s structure.

I think I saved the bulwark here although I drifted a bit from the original mainstream. I know I did.

The “test” flunked by the envoy is a distant equivalent of “wasn’t where it’s at”. And it gave me the „jest” rhyme from the chorus beginning.

Now for the fourth verse. It’s really thickly populated, we have a princess (a new star of the élite?), the pretty people (an in-crowd?)… Rhymes are fewer but, still, they protrude.

“The pretty people” can have their Polish equivalent in “młodzi-prężni” which stands for “the young and resilient”. And “prężni” rhymes with the first two syllables of “księżniczka” (“princess”) so I set my camp here. BTW, “na wieży” (= on the steeple”) and “wierzą” (= “believe”) have a very similar pronunciation so…

So the final verse in my interpretation goes on like this:

Bogaci, młodzi, prężni (= The rich, the young, the resilient)
piją zdrowie księżniczki (= drink to the princess)
na wieży, bo wierzą,  (= on the steeple because they believe)
że to piękne i że (= that it’s beautiful and that)
tak ma być (= it should be that way)
wymieniają się darami – (= they exchange gifts)
ty pierścionek z brylantami (= while you your ring with diamonds)
zdejmij lepiej z palca  (= better take off your finger)
i czym prędzej (= and as soon as you can)
do lombardu idź (= pawn it)
Napoleon w łachmanach tak rozbawiał cię 
  (=Napoleon in rags used to amuse you)
językiem dziwnym budził twój głośny śmiech 
  (= with his strange language, he caused your loud laughter)
słyszysz, woła cię właśnie, już do niego pędź 
( (= do you hear, he’s calling you, run up to him now)
skoro nic już nie masz, nic nie stracisz też 
  (= since you don’t have anything, you won’t lose anything either)
jesteś niewidzialna, więc to i twych tajemnic kres 
  (= you’re invisible so it’s the end of your secrets too).

I worked on it for about two weeks. It turned out to be coherent, convincing (in Polish) though I’m almost sure one can give it another try and do it better. But what I’m aware and proud of, it proved efficient on the record and live.

Other articles by Filip Łobodziński


One comment

  1. That is quite a labour of love, Filip, chapeau.
    Your struggles are very recognizable. The power of song lyrics is determined by the interplay of rhythm, sound colour, style figures, rhyme and content. The interaction is extremely complicated and it is fascinating to read how you have struggled through it and which choices you had to make.
    The importance of content does indeed seem secondary.
    Something like that can also be deduced from the “Comment on the translation” by the Germans Carl Weissner and Carl Hartmann, in their mammoth work Bob Dylan Songtexte 1962-1985:

    In the license agreement for this German edition, Bob Dylan demands that the rhyme of the original be preserved as much as possible.

    So even Dylan himself has legally laid down that the rhyme is more important than the content – just like you feel that in your prime, for example, can be changed into as if from Eden. Which by the way, unintentionally I assume, managed to incorperate a subtle nod to Edie after all.

    I would imagine that epic songs such as “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” or “Hollis Brown” present you with different challenges – the kind of songs in which content details are more important than a figure of speech or rhyme. Or, on yet another hand, songs like “Odds And Ends” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, where the content is almost completely irrelevant.

    Anyway, thanks for your fascinating article, and keep on keepin’ on!

    Pozdrowienia z Utrechtu,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *