The pagodas of the destroyed city: translating Dylan under instruction

by Jochen Markhorst

I          The Japanese Nightsong

Translating poetry is walking on thin ice. One of the most beautiful examples from world literature is Goethe’s classic miniature “Wanderers Nachtlied” (Wanderers Nightsong) from 1780:

Über allen Gipfeln                                 O’er all the hilltops
Ist Ruh,                                                    Is quiet now,
In allen Wipfeln                                     In all the treetops
Spürest du                                               Hearest thou
Kaum einen Hauch;                              Hardly a breath;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.    The birds are asleep in the trees:
Warte nur, balde                                    Wait, soon like these
Ruhest du auch.                                     Thou too shalt rest.

(transl. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

In 1902 a Japanese student in Germany translates the poem into Japanese and it is published in Japan. A French student is touched by this “Japanese” miniature and translates it into French in 1911. A French Japanologist is kind enough to translate that for a German colleague, and it is published as a Japanese poem in a literary magazine under the title “Japanisches Nachtlied” (Japanese Nightsong):

Stille ist im Pavillon aus Jade              There is silence in the jade pavilion
Krähen fliegen stumm                          Crows fly silently
Zu beschneiten                                       To the snowy
Kirschbäumen im Mondlicht.             Cherry trees in the moonlight.
Ich sitze                                                    I sit
Und weine.                                              And weep.

The veracity of this curious story is controversial, but since the 1960s it has persistently been circulating as a deterrent example for poetry translators.

Brave are the translation attempts of “Desolation Row”. Not just for sung covers; quite a few “dry” translations have been made, translations that treat the lyrics as a poem, disregarding the music.

The rights holder does allow it, but the Dylan Holding Company sets requirements for the translator. At least, that is what the German translators Carl Weissner and Walter Hartmann write in the front of 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. Operations like these are always problematic. In many cases it is inevitable to deviate from the content of the original. It is clear that the extent to which one may go there is quite debatable. We have tried to keep it within reasonable limits, without doing things by half.”

It is a bizarre, unreasonable requirement to “keep the rhyme of the original,” and it tells two things:

1) Dylan finds the form more important than the content

2) Dylan has no knowledge of foreign languages

Or he thinks, let’s drive those Germans crazy, which is possible too. In any case, many translators, including Carl and Walter, do their utmost to maintain that abcb rhyme scheme – with all the resulting consequences for the content.

From They’re painting the passports brown, for example, Weissner & Hartmann make Sie bräunen ihre Pässe, Blatt für Blatt – because it must rhyme two lines later with Der Zirkus ist in der Stadt. But translating back, it now says something like They tan their passports, sheet by sheet. Quite different in content. The vague oppressive threat has disappeared (“painting brown” is an active, aggressive act, “tanning in the sun” is a fairly peaceful and passive event) and Blatt für Blatt is just childish.

It is not culpable. It is an impossible task, to maintain both the rhyme and the atmosphere, undertone and ambiguity. More dubious are some choices that fall outside the rhyme but are nevertheless translated in a rather different way. Ophelia’s iron vest becomes a “Keuschheitsgürtel” (chastity belt). Dr. Filth gets the alienating name Dr. Schmant (which is “sour cream” – it is very unusual as an indication for “filth, smut”). Casanova gets a brainwash, people are not “expecting rain”, but “think back to the day it rained” and Cinderella says “I can see immediately if someone is faithful” (her name is Aschenputtel in German, so same rhythm and as many syllables, but strangely enough not translated).

As for the majority of the words: the translation itself is a very respectable tour de force, with many more excellent linguistic finds than strange decisions.

II         Corporal Adolf

The Italian version has some sort of official stamp of approval from the master himself. The Roman “prince of singer-songwriters”, il principle dei cantautori, Francesco de Gregori has attracted attention with “Non Dirle Che Non È Così”, his version of “If You See Her, Say Hello”. The song is selected by il maestro for the Dylan film Masked And Anonymous (2003) and receives an honourable mention on the soundtrack album cover: “the legend of Italian pop music”.

The contribution to the soundtrack is actually small. Under the scene in which Jack Fate arrives at his hotel, we hear, roughly glued together, the first forty and the last fifteen seconds. But it encourages Francesco to sing an entire album full of Dylan covers in 2015: De Gregori Canta Bob Dylan: Amore E Furto, with fairly safe, but utterly beautiful arrangements. But then again – in Italian everything sounds good.

The translation “Via Della Povertà” was made years before, in 1974, in collaboration with that other Italian legend, Fabrizio De André, for his seventh album Canzoni. The album opens with the song, in an arrangement that is identical to Dylan’s original (acoustic guitar, second guitar for the Spanish decorations, a bass and a harmonica solo before the final verse).

The rhyme scheme is neatly followed, but in terms of content there are more rigorous deviations than in the German translation – inimitable sometimes, but brave attempts to smuggle a narrative structure into a couplet, and always melodious.

The tight-rope walker from the first couplet is boldly deleted and the blind commissioner has been given a wider role:

Il commissario cieco dietro la stazione    The blind commissioner behind the station
Per un indizio ti legge la sfortuna             For a clue he reads you bad luck
E le forze dell’ordine irrequiete                 And the restless law enforcement
Cercano qualcosa che non va                     Is looking for something wrong

To compensate, the two Italians invent new supporting characters. Out of the blue, but completely in style. Like in the Ophelia couplet:

I tre Re Magi sono disperati                       The Three Wise Men are desperate,
Gesù Bambino è diventato vecchio           Baby Jesus has grown old
E Mister Hyde piange sconcertato           And Mister Hyde cries in bewilderment
Vedendo Jekyll che ride nello specchio.  
Seeing Jekyll laughing in the mirror.

Elsewhere, the Italians light-heartedly add leading hints and undylanesque clarifications. Casanova is punished with rape for his “sensuality”. The captain of the Titanic does not shout: “Which side are you on,” but rather points out that there are still free spots in the lifeboats.

Even more radical are the “adjustments” in the superhuman couplet. The prisoners are dragged to nearby Calvary and there, Corporal Adolf announces that they will all “go up the chimney.” Which spells outs pretty clearly what is going on.

But most of all: “Via Della Povertà” has a brave rounding, with a bold reversal:

a tua lettera l’ho avuta proprio ieri         I had your letter yesterday
mi racconti tutto quel che fai                    telling me everything you do
ma non essere ridicola                                but don’t be ridiculous
non chiedermi “come stai”,                        don’t ask me “how are you”
questa gente di cui mi vai parlando        these people you’re telling me about
è gente come tutti noi                                  they are people like all of us
non mi sembra che siano mostri              they don’t seem monsters to me
non mi sembra che siano eroi                   they don’t seem heroes to me
e non mandarmi ancora tue notizie        and don’t send me your news anymore
nessuno ti risponderà                                 nobody will answer you
se insisti a spedirmi le tue lettere             if you insist on sending me your letters
da via della Povertà.                                   from Poverty Road.

… leaving no doubt that the previous nine verses summarize the content of “the letter”, and at the same time flipping the scenery; the I-person is not on Desolation Row, but in fact blames the letter writer for being there.

The version that De Gregori realizes in 2015 is much more embellished than the one of his now-deceased companion De André, but no less beautiful. It is similar to the Weir and to the Dylan-Unplugged versions, with “Spanish” decorations and a robust, highly swing-along rock approach.

De Gregori has revised his own translation, though. The Three Wise Men and Baby Jesus are gone, just like Corporal Adolf and the Ophelia couplet. And the last verse is again safely vague:

La tua lettera è arrivata proprio ieri       Your letter arrived just yesterday
Quando è mancata l’elettricità                  When there was no electricity
Ora, per favore, non essere ridicolo         Now please don’t be ridiculous
Non starmi a chiedere come va                 Don’t ask me how it goes
Questa gente di cui mi vai parlando        These people you’re telling me about
Non ha carattere, non ha fisionomia       They have no character, no physiognomy
Ho dato a tutti quanti un’altra faccia      I have given everyone another face
E ho usato nomi di fantasia                       And I used fancy names
D’ora in avanti, ti prego, non insistere   From now on, please don’t insist
Comincio a leggere con difficoltà             I begin to read with difficulty
Sempre che non mi mandi le tue lettere  Unless you send me your letters
Da via della povertà                                    From Poverty Road

III       From the West down to the East      

A French translator ignores the rhyme commandment and translates very literally, apart from the title and consequently the recurring refrain line: Le Couloir de la Désolation – “the corridor of despair”. Pierre Langlois-Berthelot does justify this intervention: the work is, “one of his most metaphorical and sometimes inscrutable poems” and deals with the death penalty. The wording “desolation row” refers to “death row”, as Pierre knows.

In 2010, veteran Ernst Jansz causes a furore in the Netherlands with his Dylan tribute album Dromen Van Johanna (“Dreaming Of Johanna”) and subsequent theatre tour. He made the translations himself and especially “De Verlorenstraat” (Forlorn Street) is rather crooked (“all the people you mentioned / so soon you don’t feel embarrassed / I sorted their faces again / and gave them a new name”). Jansz remains true to both rhyme scheme and content, which explains the slips.

Norwegian (“Lågfot Aveny”), Swedish (“Hopplöshetens Gränd”, Alley of Despair), Polish (“Ulica Krach”, Crash Street), Russian (“Отчаяние”, Despair), Japanese (“廃墟の街”, haikyo no machi, Destroyed City) … over half a century later, ambitious Dylan fans, far beyond the Occident too, still love to struggle with “Desolation Row”.

All we need to do now is to wait for a twenty-second-century German Japanologist who discovers “Destroyed City” in an old magazine, suspects a heart-breaking ballad about Hiroshima, translates it into German, which is picked up by an English student…

What else is on the site?

We have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 3330 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 597 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, or indeed have an idea for a series of articles that the regular writers might want to have a go at, please do drop a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article to Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note our friends at  The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, plus links back to our reviews (which we do appreciate).


Jochen’s remarkable new book  is available in English and in Dutch, both as a paperback and on Kindle.  Details are on the UK Amazon site, or of course on the Amazon site for your country.  Just search for “Desolation Row” by Jochen Markhorst.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The pagodas of the destroyed city: translating Dylan under instruction

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Some of my articles I noticed were translated into Spanish which to my limited knowledge of the language was quite well done.

    Then, likely with the help of a computer, for some reason or another, some were translated back into English from the Spanish translation.

    Goodness me, I never realized I wrote so badly (lol)!

  2. Denise Konkal says:

    I made a mistake in my comments for this article! I addressed Tony as the writer and it is by Jochen Markhorst, my sincere apologies Jochen and Tony! Could you be so kind as to fix the names in my post so its submission will be accepted! I simply cannot write it all out again. Thank you nissi

  3. TonyAttwood says:

    Denise the easiest thing is to submit the comment again if it has not been published. Much of the system is automated in order to block the many advertising comments that we get sent, and your comment might be trapped within that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.