Remarks of a happy Tarantula reader

by Filip Łobodziński

Who is the most profound and insightful reader? An academic? A student, perhaps? A literary critic?

Well, none of them. At least the way I see it; the greatest attention to the various levels of any text is paid by its translator.    And why, you may ask. Because to translate a piece of prose or poetry and to do it properly and adequately you need to fully understand (and enjoy) the original.

As far as I could judge so far, none of the regular Untold Dylan contributors are currently translators (although one was in the past I believe). If I’m wrong, just correct me and tell me to go somewhere else where I rather belong.

But if I’m right, I assume this is partly why nobody here has written anything about Tarantula. The possible authors either read it and didn’t like it at all or the they didn’t read it (I mean, really READ it) so they don’t have much to say about it.

I translated Tarantula into Polish three years ago. I was even nominated in 2019 for the most important Polish award in translation (I lost but so did three other nominees, still, it was one of the five best translated books in 2018).   But I write this not to boast but rather to explain I really had to dig deep into the matter and found some revelatory material there.

Of course, I’m a foreigner to the English-speaking world, to the American culture and spirituality of the Sixties. Therefore I can’t understand each and every possible level of meanings and senses hidden within Tarantula. What I could – and had to – do was to project myself on the text and at the same time to imagine a Polish world of Tarantula, its Polish sensibility, its Polish resonance, its first reason for being translated. To put it shortly, I had to READ it core-deep.

When the publishing house I collaborate frequently with asked me if I could face the task I said, “no”. Not because I didn’t like it. But because I didn’t know it. All I knew was the pusillanimous gossip, ironic hearsay, disdainful remarks by people very proud of their own mediocrity who just “knew better”. I said no because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get through and succeed. And afraid all my effort and hard work would be in vain because nobody would read it. Who needs Tarantula?

Eventually, I agreed because they told me no one else would. I thought it might cost me, maybe, a whole year to do it. I finished my translating job in three months. As I explained later, I’d been in a trance, and that trance was arguably the only reasonable way to say the same thing in Polish. A shot of Tarantula language proved enough. Those who read the original and then my Polish version said later on, I succeeded. Polish Tarantula is adequate, is Dylan-resonating, is in harmony with the original.

Asked to write an intro spur on the back cover, I wrote a pastiche of what waited for the readers inside (here’s my rough translation into English): “reader / at home in a bus on a beach & wherever you may be holding this book / stop wondering if it’s a novel & how t call what you try t read / reader you’re much wiser & bolder than yr habits / tarantula is a spider / tarantula is a trance”.

What struck me when I started a hard job to promote the book all over Poland was that the book really worked when read aloud. The things that seemed enigmatic, confusing or horrible at first sight proved entertaining and funny when they were put into sounds. My friend, an avant-jazz clarinettist even planned to record his improvs around my Tarantula readings. Perhaps one day we’ll do it. All in all, people looked incredulously into the book but they immediately queued for it when they heard it read. (It’s the best way to absorb poetry, by the way – to read it all by oneself, aloud).

But what was really revelatory was its content, as I saw while translating. Maybe Tarantula is a bit outdated nowadays in America but it really sounds very up-to-date in Poland. In 1966 when it was mainly written, in 1969 when it was “booklegged,” or in 1971 when it finally came out officially, we were still deep in the gloomy reign of so-called communism where life was stable, dull (or tragic at times) and very quiet, with a quietude of a concentration camp. People loved and hated, were born and died, worked and bought food but had just three newspapers, three radio and two TV channels to choose from (and each and every one sold the same bullshit). We didn’t know all that media hullabaloo and political racket you Westerners ate each morning for breakfast.

What I’m trying to say is Tarantula is so rich, vibrant and cacophonous that it resembles the modern world. It arguably IS the modern world. The way the words climb on each other, their hasty running hot on each other’s heels, their chaotic hubbub – ain’t it just like the day you go into a shopping mall? With so many different musics coming from each shop, meddling and mixing into an end-of-the-world soundtrack? Ain’t it just like the night you surf the Internet among hyperlinks, headlines, pop-up ads and news, each one pretending to be the most important?

The abundance of people, creatures, objects of desire and of repugnance, factitious fictions and fictitious facts, figures, proverbs and off-the-cuff quotes within Tarantula is overwhelming. It may not be the book you like or want to return to. It certainly is not something we would talk about had Bob Dylan not written outstanding songs before publishing it. But it is not gibberish. There’s much more to it than meets the common sense. (Neither our world nor Tarantula observe the rules of common sense).

For me, Tarantula is a photograph of our world. And if somebody translated it into Polish back in 1972 it would not have been understood at all, nobody could have grasped its warning. I was lucky and happy to be able to do it in the last weeks of 2017 because then I knew what I was dealing with.


You can read about Filip’s work on the “Untold Writers” page.


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  1. Nobody can pull my strings

    Dear Filip,

    do you remember, why the guys came to you and ask you to translate the book.
    It was just by commercial reasons. Dylan has received his nobel in Octobre 2016 and all around the world the „dylan-related-publisher“ hushed to produce new Lyrics-collections and of cause Tarantula, the first book Bob Dylan wrote back in the Midsixties.
    And you´re right in proclaiming „I can´t play a song that I don´t understand“ and you´re right in saying that there is still much value for our times in this book.
    But for every nation here on our globe.
    For me Tarantula always was a kind of scetchbook, Dylan put his ideas, visions and pictures into, which were sprawling out each night, during the whee small hours to ease the „Under Pressure“-mood of his brain.
    Some people know, what it means, when there is a fountain every day trying to tell someone, when after midnight your day has just begun.
    The scenes from Tarantula pop up in his 1965/66-songs and he stached this material there to use it later here and there.
    I always say, if he had released it in time, then the people could have hold it in their hands in the break of the Royal Albert Concert and many fans would have tried to buy a copy.

    Here in Germany, we have the Carl Weissner translations since more than 40 years. Carl Weissner had also edited and translated the Lyrics 1962-1985 and The Howl (Das Geheul) of Allan Ginsburg and many other beat-literature-related authors and of cause Tarantula which is considered as the last spark from this Burroughs ( Cut-up), Ginsburg/Corso/Kerouac-circle.
    So this writing still could be a battery station to fill the different perspectives on life, politics and society.
    The result of the Dylan-translations of the year 2016 and to bring them on as fast as possible led to nasty, sometimes senseless translation and I said to myself: Forget them. You´re better than them. Make your own translations!…… I´m not eager to make a mistake… I used to care… but Things Have Changed.

    But Filip, another thing, and may this is a chance to get in touch with you. I tried to reach out to you and Dylan.PL so many times, because your polish versions of Dylan-songs are really great.
    I´m organizing the Darmstadt Dylan Days 2021, which take place on 24th.May.
    The cast for this event is done but I would be glad about to having you here in Septembre or early fall 2021.
    Just try to reach out, I´m not that hard to find.

    Nice greetings from Darmstadt,


    P.S: Do you know, what my lasting picture of Poland is ?
    Two lions sitting in the snow at minus ten in the Wroczlaw Zoo ?
    Just watching and waiting for spring to come.

  2. What a breath of fresh air, on a ‘novel’ that once was a sort of prayer book for me, which I wore in the pocket of my leather jacket, together with Dharma Bums, as a 16 year old, and yes I read it in a sort of trance while exploring the world, running from home. It made more than sense to me and it still does, and your descriptions of its content and the way to read it are spot on. It’s the jungle sprouting from that Nobel worthy phrase: i accept chaos, i am not sure whether it accepts me… (by the way, the Dutch translation does not do it for me, because of the sound… it pleases me that your Polish one has focussed also on sound!)

  3. @Marco Demel
    huge thanks, Marco, for your extensive comment and an invitation which would be a great honour to accept and we’ll talk about it with the band (BTW, whence you know about us??).
    Now, just as a quick reply – the guys who offered me the translation here in Poland were not guided by commercial reasons. They wanted to publish a book I had been dreamong of releasing fo years, i.e. an anthology of Dylan’s songs’ translations. The book was ready back in the summer of 2016. But the agency Wylie who holds European rights to Dylan’s literary output suddenly kept silent for some months, possibly waiting until October when the Swedisg Academy announced what they did. And only then Wylie spoke: you may do your anthology but only under the condition you publish Tarantula as well in Polish within 15 months. So the commercial impulse was on the Wylie’s side. The Polish publishing house just had to obey, being more than eager to have my anthology out. So the Polish Tarantula is like an offsrping. But it turned out nicely.

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