When I Paint My Masterpiece part 14: Un appuntamento con la nipote di Botticelli

When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971) part 14

by Jochen Markhorst

XIV      Un appuntamento con la nipote di Botticelli

 Legendary German band BAP’s contributions to the European canon are of course 1981‘s “Verdamp lang her” and especially 1982’s “Kristallnaach”, but the oeuvre has plenty of candidates at least as strong. The intimate masterpiece “Do kanns zaubere” with its delightful melodies, for instance, or the moving, abrasive “Jupp”, the story of the old alcoholic bum who spends his days on the park bench, with his plastic bag and his mammoth bottle of cheap Lambrusco. He is a great storyteller, old Jupp. He has been everywhere, balanced on the equator, danced with cobras, played poker in Kathmandu, his romance in Beijing with a blonde fairy, how he lived as a Robinson stranded on an island, and Jupp has lived a gold rush. But then the final lines:

Nur vun Stalingrad verzällt e’ nie:
“Wo litt dat, Stalingrad? Enn welchem Land ess dat?”
Stalingrad pack e’ nie, irjendwie

Only Stalingrad he never mentions:
“Where is that, Stalingrad? What country is that in?”
He never gets to Stalingrad, somehow ...

… sung as usual in the Cologne dialect, Kölsch.

Before he got really big with his band BAP, Wolfgang Niedecken sometimes performed solo. With acoustic guitar and harmonica, and not only for that reason he is called the “kölsche Dylan”. Social commitment, moral missionary zeal and fighting spirit he has been demonstrating since the late 60s, and that remains the lifeblood of BAP as well when, in the 80s, the band has long since become a European titan and effortlessly breaks through one million-dollar barrier after another.

Meanwhile, the songwriter never hides that Dylan is his great role model. Demonstrating it on stage with Dylan covers sung in Kölsch, and even more when he presents a monthly radio programme on WDR4 from 2017. In 1995, the Dylan love culminates with the release of a solo album: Leopadenfell. Seventeen Dylan covers, one (“Jeder’s manchmol einsam” – “It’s All Over Now, baby Blue”) even more beautiful than the next (“Nix andres em Kopp” – “License To Kill”).

Superb interpretations, thanks in part to the exceptionally successful translations of the Dylan lyrics – known to be a huge pain point in 99 out of 100 Dylan translations. Niedecken has made his own translations – in Kölsch, of course – and ignored the German standard work Bob Dylan Songtexte 1962-1985 by Carl Weissner and Walter Hartmann. Producing a quality impulse that also permeates “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. Weissner & Hartmann translate as much as possible one-to-one, thereby accepting rigidity. Which is not entirely culpable: on the first page of the monumental work, the translators publish, as a kind of disclaimer, the requirements they had to meet in order to obtain the licence:

“In the license agreement for this German edition, Bob Dylan demands that the rhyme of the original be maintained 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.”

“Maintain the rhyme of the original as much as possible” … apart from inferring that Dylan has no understanding of foreign languages, the requirement also demonstrates that he values form over content. Consequently, the best translations are those that, like Niedecken’s Kölsch, ignore this weird requirement, and rather try to capture the poetry of the text. Niedecken, for example, understands that the wordplay in Botticelli’s niece evaporates in German (Weissner & Hartmann: Botticellis Nichte), and sings Nix wie heim en ming Hotelbett, wo Botticelli’s Venus waat “Quickly home to my hotel bed, where Botticelli’s Venus is waiting”. Just as he can ignore the awkward Eines Tages wird es sein wie eine Rhapsodie (“one day it’ll be like a rhapsody”) and take the poetic liberty to make of it: Hück Morjen stund ich noch op irjendeiner griechische Bröck (“Just this morning I was still standing on some Greek bridge”) – a griechische Bröck in this second verse that subtly builds a bridge from the spanische Trepp in verse 1 to the Belgian landing in Brussels in verse 3.

Niedecken is one of the few who feels free within the constraints. A journey around the world in 80 languages reveals much translator’s suffering, much laborious toil to build in some kind of coherent narrative and to stay as close to the source as possible, as well as feeble compromises to “maintain the rhyme”.

Swede Mikael Wiehe (“När mitt mästerverk blir klart”, 2007), for example. Minimal liberties. Such as promoting the pretty little girl from Greece to en häftig liten grekisk dam, a cool Greek (or “hot”, depending on the listener’s perceived value of häftig), and Mikael does not sigh that he has happily returned to the land of Coca-Cola, Nej, låt mej få simma i ett hav av Coca Cola, “no, let me swim in a sea of Coca-Cola”. The only other text aberration is the most ferocious. The young girls pulling muscles are given more erotic allure in Sweden: in Brussels, gyttjebrottning drottningar come to say hello – “mud wrestling queens”, in other words. Musically an excellent cover by the way – great organ.


Even less freedom French Dylan fan Pierre Mercy allows himself, translating “Quand je peindrai mon chef-d’œuvre” as literally as possible, even abandoning rhyme and metre. And thus faithfully presents la nièce de Botticelli, the wild geese are un troupeau d’oies sauvages and young girls training their muscles are des jeunes filles bandant leurs muscles. It does not rhyme anywhere, but the content is completely copied. Pierre is even vivement de retour au pays du Coca-Cola.

Identical to the crippling respect with which Neapolitan Michele Murino treats the lyrics for his likeable project Mirino & Maggie’s Farm, an occasional project of talented Italian musicians who fill the 2023 album La Nostra Versione Personale di Te with 14 Dylan covers in Italian. The press release even considers the non-rhyming literal translation a selling point: “Fourteen Bob Dylan tracks interpreted with Italian lyrics, all by Mirino, trying to respect, if not one hundred per cent, at least as closely as possible, più vicino possible, Dylan’s original lyrics.”

And indeed, in Mirino’s “Quando il mio capolavoro (io) dipingerò”, the opening song, the narrator again has un appuntamento con la nipote di Botticelli, the day will be a rhapsody, the wild geese fly, we are happy to be back in the land of Coca-Cola, and we see the Brussels girls che stiravano i muscoli, stretching their muscles. But then again, in Italian everything sounds good, of course.

At the other end of the spectrum are the ambitious show-offs. Translators who are suspected of trying to hitch a ride on Dylan’s name and use the source text as a stepping stone for frustrated literary aspirations. In the Netherlands, the translator duo Bindervoet and Henkes have made a name for themselves with large, in itself very admirable projects like translating such untranslatable monuments as Finnegans Wake, Ulysses, Hamlet, all the Beatles songs and more. A love of James Joyce can lead to professional deformity, it turns out. As with their “Schilder ik mijn meesterwerk”, which is very Joycean laced with alienating archaisms like stervenswee (an extinct word, approximately: “moribund”), abundant, distracting poetic tricks like alliteration and inner rhyme Snoepgrage journalist die sjort en port / Sterke agenten stellen paal en perk (“candy munching journalist lashing and prodding / Strong cops putting limits”) and inexplicable extra layers like Botticelli’s nicht bezoekt me na de kerk (“Botticelli’s niece visits me after church”) – everything has to give way to rhythm, apparently.

Ironically, in their own manifesto on translation studies (“Meta-language Reflection” in Filter, a journal of translation and translation studies, volume 15), the men comment with disdain on translators who miss “that there is more behind the words than the communication alone”. Ironic, as the men then miss virtually every shade behind Dylan’s words – the association Venus under Botticelli’s niece, the homophone muscles/mussels, the charge of Spanish Stairs (with them: “Spaanse Plein – Spanish Plaza”) and through the narrator’s memory rumbles a “stoomtrein – steam train”, suddenly taking us back to the days of Mussolini.

It is, in short, certainly a challenge to do justice to the Holy Trinity, to the indefinable magic of the Poetry-Euphony-Colour trinity of a Dylan text. It’s a long hard climb. But some craftsmen do reach that summit. Not coincidentally men like Wolfgang Niedecken or, as we shall see, Romanian Alexandru Andries and Japanese Haruomi Hosono – successful songwriters who have decades of songwriting experience in their backpacks.


To be continued. Next up When I Paint My Masterpiece part 15: An absolutely personal interpretation

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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