Like a Polish Wanderer: the work of translating Bob Dylan

Foreword by Tony

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.

I became aware of just what can happen to Dylan’s music when it is translated when we did the series on the 100 greatest cover versions and I got to listen to Dylan songs performed in Frisian.   Then we had a suggestion for Dylan in Polish: Jokerman –   (“Arlekin”).  I can’t give a direct link to these songs, in both cases the albums are however on Spotify.

To me, re-interpretations of Dylan in languages other than English is very much within what I mean by the title “Untold Dylan”, and so I suggested to Filip Łobodziński that he might write about his work of translating Dylan into Polish and all that is related to such a venture.  He kindly agreed, so here we go…

Like A Polish Wanderer by Filip Łobodziński 

My piece is not just about Bob Dylan translated into Polish; it’s all about what a Bob Dylan song – and literature, for that matter – might mean to people outside the English-speaking milieu. 

I was born nearly 60 years ago in Warsaw, Poland during the communist era.  Which meant, we had limited access to what was happening in the West. Music included. The iron curtain seemed like a sieve with tiny holes through which some things managed to pass through but by which means many were kept away. We enjoyed listening to some Beatles’ and Stones’ songs on the radio but you couldn’t say we had a full knowledge. They were like sparks from a large fire.

And we didn’t experience the Bob Dylan shock in the 1963, 1964, 1965.

And a shock it was, at least that’s what I presume judging from the testimonies from back then. Because one could foresee the coming of Elvis, Willie Dixon, the Beatles, and hey, even an Other Hendrix would surely have come along had it been not for the real one. The technology and the state of young people’s minds were ready for it all.

Frank Zappa could have been predicted, too. But Bob Dylan – not so.  There was no logical reason to expect that in 1960 a guy from the land of ice and snow and iron ores, from the middle of nowhere in fact, would come and, in spite of not being a great singer (in the Roy Orbison or Little Richard style) nor guitar virtuoso, turned the whole of popular culture and music upside down. But maybe it was because Dylan came from the outside, from another kingdom, not from the Jukebox Land and rock’n’roll parties but from the land of folk tale, not from the dance’n’rave but from the word, that he arrived.

And the Word was what he did bring.

We, in the grey, communist Poland, wouldn’t even know what that meant had he been presented to us by the state-controlled media on equal terms with the Beatles. We listened to Radio Luxembourg on a nightly basis, but that was not a good source either. They played fantastic records but Dylan was not on the top of their list.

Anyway, we got to know some of his most popular songs. One of Polish top female singers Maryla Rodowicz even recorded her versions of Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They Are a-Changin’ with Polish lyrics. We thought they were actual Dylan lyrics, just translated into Polish.

The truth, I knew it much later, was they were some free impressions based on the original lyrics. E.g., the „Czas wszystko zmienia” phrase means “Time changes everything” – and it’s not what Bob Dylan exactly meant to convey. „Odpowie ci wiatr” means “The wind will give you an answer” – closer but not quite the gist of it.

Bob Dylan, with his exceptional voice and phrasing and with a very sophisticated poetry, couldn’t knock to our minds’ doors and be welcome. He was much more difficult to digest. Only some cult followers in Poland grasped the idea of his art.

I became infected only in 1974 while in Paris, on my first trip abroad with my father. We went to see The Concert for Bangla Desh movie in a tiny cinema because we both were the Beatles’ fans. But it was the figure of the jean-clad Dylan, surrounded by three musicians onstage and preaching poetry to the open-minded, starstruck audience, that planted a seed. It was as if an alien laid its egg.

Some months later, in secondary school, I became friends with a guy who had Blonde on Blonde, More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits and a Czech compilation. And, significantly, also had a copy of Writings & Drawings. At the same time, I befriended two sisters living two floors below and they had Nashville Skyline. And, strangely enough, the latter was the first Dylan album I brought home to listen to. Then I borrowed the Hits, then Blonde on Blonde. And then, the Book.

I started to read. And to copy it. I copied literally the whole of it, with my ballpoint pen, onto the pages of several scrapbooks, like a medieval monk. And while transcribing the lyrics I started to READ them too. Not just the signs on paper but the deep meanings. I was amazed at the way Dylan organized the world with the power of words.

In 1978, I started my Spanish studies at the Warsaw University. We began to translate Spanish poetry into Polish. And I wondered if it could work with songs, too. The first-ever song I translated into Polish so that it could be sung to the original melody, was Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. It was March 1979. Then came two French and three Spanish songs. And then You’re a Big Girl Now. And Romance in Durango. And Forever Young.

In 1983, me and a couple of friends started an amateur band that sang and played Spanish and Catalan protest songs in Polish (we found they were quite a convenient way to manifest our rebellion against the communist power without getting into the censors bad book because they were officially against Franco’s regime). During our concerts, I managed to include some Dylan songs occasionally but they were not at the core of the band’s raison d’être. The band Zespół Reprezentacyjny was – still is, because we’re still playing, and have released some albums – although rooted more in the cabaret/chanson tradition.

But meanwhile, my Dylan translations file kept on growing. I didn’t know what to do with them. I only knew it was my real passion. I’d alread read a lot about him and his songs, and I dug into Michael Grey and other writers/analysts. I started to correct my first translations. My latest version of Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right preserves just the title phrase and two lines from the 1979 version. My first translation had turned out to be a poor effort.


Nearly all my translations became works-in-progress, in the sense that I kept revising them and trying to find more accurate ways of delivering them in Polish. And why all that fuss? Why did I want to get that message through to the Polish readers/listeners who may not have a good command of English and of the Dylan English?

The story continues at 

What else is on the site

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

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  1. Wonderful story Filip, and I am looking forward to the follow-up.
    Translating Dylan’s lyrics is a particular challenge. In a foreword to his admirable mammoth work “Songtexte 1962-1985” the German translator Carl Weissner reveals a complicating factor: “Contractually, Bob Dylan demands that the rhyme be preserved as much as possible.”
    The rhyme, the sound, is obviously more important to Dylan than the content. Weissner’s translations are generally fine, but letting go of the content to save a rhyme usually fails.
    Interesting, though. I studied various translations of “Sad-Eyed Lady”, and that is a true battlefield of fallen ambitions. My Polish is rather inadequate, but I would nevertheless be curious about your translation of Pani Ze Smutnymi Oczami.

  2. Jochen, thanks for your friendly comment.
    In fact, there are times when I take an offroad in terms of content to preserve the euphony. That’s why I proposed “ADAM DAŁ IMIONA…” instead of “CZŁOWIEK DAŁ IMIONA…” (Man Gave Names…) to have the melody of identical vowels (besides, Adam = Man in Hebrew). And with the “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” I opted for “SMUTNOOKA PANI W SARI” because the “Lowlands” was for me less important than the repeated L’s. I repeated the S’s and the vowels A-I (pani – sari) for the repetition of “LA” (LAdy – lowLAnds).

  3. Thanks, Filip. And my compliments. You seem to translate completely in the spirit of Dylan: “It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They… they… punctuate it. You know, they give it purpose” (interview with Ron Rosenbaum, 1978).
    Most translators are already satisfied when they have found an alliteration, but often ignore the sound, not to mention the rhythm:

    Traurige Lady aus dem Tiefland
    Dulce Dama de las Tierras del Sur
    Pigen fra Provinsen
    Droeve Dame van het Laagland
    Triste regina della nebbia
    La Dame des Plaines aux Yeux Tristes
    Trista Dama de les Valls

    … and after that the misery only increases. Granted, this particular song is rather untranslatable, I guess.

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