Reading Bob Dylan

By Filip Łobodziński

No, it’s not going to be about Tarantula nor the sadly-up-to-now-discontinued Chronicles. It’s going to be about the songs. Because with Bob Dylan it all starts with the songs and their performance.

Each time I see a ranking of The Best Bob Dylan Covers I expect to find there only songs covered in English. Bob Dylan’s native language is an obvious choice, even for the foreigners, given the fact that this is the form within which the songs conquered people’s minds and spirits in the first place. In English were they conceived, shaped, burnished, performed, modified, reiterated by the Man himself. In English they have been intercepted and diffused by hundreds of their admirers.

The English language is a modern-day’s Latin or lingua franca. There are probably magnificent scientific explanation as to why it’s happened – by way of commerce, by way of power, by way of technology, by way of its apparent grammatical simplicity. Whatever the cause, English rules the world, or at least its richest and most influential (which does not mean the best!) part.

I don’t know when a Bob Dylan song first was translated into and sung in a foreign tongue. It could be a fascinating journey through time and space – to see how the Unidylanverse kept on expanding from the moment zero on. What zone did it conquer first, or leave its mark upon? Was it Spanish? German? Possibly French? (The French adapted plenty of British songs in the sixties, so maybe…). My bet is on Hans Bradtke’s adaptation of Blowin’ in the Wind that was released as Die Antwort weiβ ganz allein der Wind in December ’63, in an unforgeable interpretation by Marlene Dietrich.

Since then, tons of foreign-language versions have appeared, from Italian to Indonesian, from Hungarian to Hebrew, from German to Greek.

 

 

One can only surmise how accurate and true to the original songs’ spirit all these cover versions are. Some of them surely are faithful, some are approximations, some are just vague impressions based on the primary sources. Or even caricatures, for that matter.

Of course, within this non-English Bob Dylan world we have a Polish team too. I’m proud to be part of it, having translated over 250 songs by Bob Dylan into my native language and having been singing some of my works.

 

I’ve already written down and published on these friendly pages some of my reflections on singing Dylan in Polish and on translating them. If I wanted to quote now something from those articles I’d opt for Tony Attwood’s own intro to the first of them:

“When I started Untold Dylan I had no idea that Dylan’s music was being translated into and recorded in other languages.  But of course now I think of it, that is a typical anglocentric view, seeing the language Dylan speaks as being the only way to hear and appreciate Dylan’s music.”

And those words, when read once again a week ago, prompted me to add something for you English-speaking readers and fans to consider. And no, it’s not an anglocentric view to think Dylan’s lyrics can be (beauty)fully sung and understood in English only. Actually, most people think their native literature tastes best in its original shape. And it does.

So why on Earth bother to re-write the same lyrics but in a mutilated form? What is the purpose of spoiling the perfect form? What sense is there in singing “som en hemlös själ”, “comme des pierres qui roulent”, “földönfutó” or “jak błądzący łach” instead of “like a rolling stone”?

The answer is blowin’ in history seen as a constant process of learning.

Let’s have a look at the tale known from Gen 11.1–9. The Tower of Babel (though it was not called so in the Bible). Its demolition by the Hand of God is described and meant as a chastisement brought upon people for having assumed nearly the same status as the Almighty. God confounded their languages so they could no longer understand each other, and work together. Misunderstandings and conflicts replaced former unity and accord. From then on, we were doomed to guess instead of knowing, to cross blades instead of shaking hands.

The way I see it, and it is not only me who shares this view, this etiological biblical narrative should rather be interpreted as a blessing. For, as it is obvious, different peoples on Earth developed various speeches and tongues not because of some superimposed verdict from Up There but because, I believe, of different ways of perceiving the world and the different soundscapes those peoples were surrounded by. And only when they started to confront each other did they feel the need to understand, and to stand under the same sheltering sky.

In war, there’s no literature; just instructions. In war, there’s no reflection; just orders. In war, there’s no good will; just malevolence. In war, there are no neighbours; just competing opponents.

The phenomenon of a foreign language creates the gate to an alternative universe. When learning English, not only do I memorize English words and the rules according to which they can be used. I get to know a whole new world, a world furnished by these guys who say “tea” instead of “herbata”, “curve” instead of “krzywa”, “fuck” or “whore” instead of “kurwa” and The Tempest instead of Burza. A world where a little baby feels at home when they sing Hush Little Baby – and absolutely not so if they start to sing Na Wojtusia z popielnika.

This is the world where people don’t need dictionaries to understand Like a Rolling Stone. At least to understand the words and their sequences – as in Spanish ‘comprender’ – even if they need more studies to understand the song’s deeper  m e a n i n g – as in Spanish ‘entender’.

A translator, thus, is someone who wants to break into this fascinating world and fully understand, and then to find her/his way back with a bag full of ideas that would help her/him transform the original message (song, poem, novel…), to recreate it in a new language.

The implication is powerful: there are no readers more observant, more perceptive, more perspicacious than a translator. There is no lecture more discerning and subtle than the one executed by a translator. Because the native readers may feel satisfied with what they understand (Spanish ‘comprenden’) while the translator urgently needs to understand profoundly; to catch on to the original text (Spanish ‘entender’) (what a powerful distinction, by the way!) and to its possible conditioning.

We, the translators (of literature, of official speeches, of technical use instructions and s.o.), build bridges. We open the gates. We tread on underground waters to find paths leading to distant solar systems.

There’s one more advantage of being a translator. Not only do we read the text, and read into the text, but also we listen to it. We taste the sounds and the messages. And then we try to breathe a new linguistic life into the text. To do so, we need to be extremely aware of our own speech. Few people learn their native language as thoroughly as the translators.

I try to find a gate or a window through which my countrywomen and countrymen could inhabit a part of your world, Tony, Aaron, Denise, Larry, Pat. Even more, meet Jochen and François on a common ground and breathe the same air. Literature, besides music, dance and food, is one of the most effective options to share the world. Bob Dylan’s songs provide us with a splendid opportunity to effectuate such a great flirting date.

Is my piece about Bob Dylan at all? Oh yes, it is.  By way of example, in mid-June, our band dylan.pl gave our first live concert for a live audience in 16 months. Afterwards, we signed our albums, I signed my Polish Dylan translations, an anthology of his songs Duszny kraj and Tarantula. And quite a few people approached us and said that only thanks to attending our concert had they felt an urge to explore the Dylan world. Before, they just knew a couple of songs but they didn’t understand them so it had been more like a part of the soundscape, and not necessarily an important one. Now, they said they wanted to dive deep into his songs because they’d smelled something incredibly beautiful, powerful, moving and thought-provoking that lied beneath the music.

I managed to trace a path that would lead them somewhere they didn’t ever expect. I gave them a chance. It should be stressed, though, that the aim of translating is not to replace the original text literally word for word. The text is a prey and the translator is a hunter on a bloodless chase. The prize is a new foreign version that speaks the same truth albeit with different words (my struggle with the Polish title of Like a Rolling Stone and my proposition of translating are described here.  For me, more important is to stay true to the depth and spirit even if I “lose” something at the level of specific words.  I write Dylan’s songs in Polish the way I think he might have written them had he been born somewhere near Wałbrzych or Białystok.  (Although a Jewish family in 1941 was one of the most endangered species in Central/Eastern Europe, as everybody knows, and there would be no songs at all…).

Bob Dylan doesn’t write in Polish. But he can be perfectly spoken in Polish, if I may use such a strange syntactic construction. Thank God (and rather contrary to His will…) the Tower of Babel became a vivid monument to the beginning of a mutual understanding. Untold Dylan people are my sisters and brothers, even if we never meet face to face. And my Polish audience are my “rabbit’s friends-and-relations” who participate in a huge gathering. Hope nobody steals the silver spoon shadowed by the enmity darkness…

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3 Responses to Reading Bob Dylan

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Magnificent! …..but it is not war!! (lol)

  2. Pete Shanks says:

    Let us not forget Fairport Convention’s “Si Tu Dois Partir” (If You Gotta Go), a minor hit in Britain for a British group singing in French. Sometimes the 60s were really fun.

  3. Marco Demel says:

    Dear Filip & Dylan.pl,
    I´m with every word you wrote in your article and your fabulous versions of Dylan songs you´re doing with your bands are on my radar since two years.
    In the past I told you about my work with the organization of the DARMSTADT DYLAN DAYS 2021. On 22nd and 23th. of May we had three fantastic concerts with f. e Thomas Quartier and Manfred Maurenbrecher, who are both famous for their adaptions of Dylan songs into German. With the same effect,that often the songs then are coming nearer to the listener. I mean, they can better combine it with their all-day life here in Germany.
    So, to make it short I would be proud of having you here for a gig in Darmstadt. We even can talk about Tarantula (the translation of Heinrich Detering and yours), because this book still has so much to tell about our modern times in our different countries.
    For examples the complex of the unions (recall the story about the piano player) or about minorities (German: Der Sheriff im Räderwerk) with all the comparable news in our time.
    Please tell me, if you could come here for one late open-air concert on 17.th /18th. Septembre or 24 th./25th. Septembre, because I´m in fear for normal indoor-events by the upcoming Delta-version of the virus.
    Here in Darmstadt the Akademie der Sprache und Dichtung (Academy of language and poetry) and the Polish Institute are located since decades and if you don´t mind I would like to bring these institutions together even for a Dylan-related-evening.
    Filip, I often tried to reach out to you on your Dylan.pl page, but all my requests remained unanswered.
    So I only can invite you to answer me under : marco.demel@web.de or dylanhour@ radiodarmstadt.de

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