Like a Polish Wanderer (part 2). The art of performing Dylan in Polish


This article continues from Like a Polish Wanderer: the work of translating Bob Dylan


by Filip Łobodziński

One of my mottos as a translator is “Literature in a given language may only profit from being translated into a foreign language.” One of the fundamental works in the Polish poetry is a translation of the Book of Psalms by Jan Kochanowski, possibly the greatest Polish poet ever. The translated pieces enrich the style, the language, the vocabulary, the spiritual perimeter of our literary world. No doubt about it.

Another motto says: “There is no perfect, ultimate translation.” Which means that every new translation is welcome. One of my friends argues that we in Poland are in a far better situation in terms of Shakespeare than native English speakers – they have just one Hamlet whereas we have seven or eight. Quite a luxury, n’est-ce pas?

Around 1996 I started to sense my own philosophy of translating, especially of songs translation. “Especially”, because I translate prose and non-fiction books, from Spanish and (occasionally) French. I cut my teeth on the Disney songs where you not only have to preserve the original content and rhythm and rhymes but also be in time with the ever-changing frames, mouths opening and shutting and so on. It’s been a hard but good schooling.

But with Bob Dylan it’s a bit different. With singers-songwriters in general.

The first question is:

If I translate this song would it be relevant for the Polish listeners? Is there any reason for it to be put into Polish language?

The second question is:

Is it possible to find an equivalent for the content within the Polish phrases and sounds? Polish is a much less pleasant language for a singer than English or Italian. We have many consonants, few one-syllable words – but we have an advantage of a variable syntax – we can order words differently and the sentence still may have the same meaning (it’s a bit like the regular vs. the Yoda syntax).

The third, and most fundamental question is:

Will I be able to find the right mood/style to convey what I find important in the original song?

For the English speakers who don’t give a damn about the whole thing it may be a bit hard to understand. Why translate something if it sounds perfect in English?

Translation is a win/lose game. You compromise. Searching for a gem, you fail in conveying certain things but you gain otherwhere. Technically, it’s like designing a crosswords or a sudoku puzzle.

My philosophy, if I may call it that, is that I must find an adequate version. Not a faithful one in words but a faithful one in meanings, in profound structures.

To find the right language is the first task. I have found it somewhere between the beatniks’ translations and Polish contemporary poetry. Sometimes in old Bible translations. The richness of Bob Dylan language requires many directions. But one thing has been sure to me: I mustn’t refer to the 19th century poetry and to anything majestic. The Dylan language is complex yet pure. It is not “over-poeticised”. And many translators fall into the trap of “over-poetry”. They try to tame fire with gasoline.

I think I’ve found my way through. Of course, it is and always be the Łobodziński’s Dylan because he “speaks” with the words I “heard” inside of me, chose and put on paper.

And he sings.

Finally in 2014 I finally decided I had to do something with this ever-growing ringbinder containing my Dylan translations. My first idea was to start a band that would consist of typically Polish folk instruments so that it could have an extra Polish touch also on the musical level. If I sing all these sh’s, ch’s, zh’s and hsh’s why not season them with strange instrumental sounds?

But then I changed my mind because such a vision stood in contrast to my way of working with the translations. I saw his lyrics as something that communicates with everyone, that is ecumenical, universal. How could I spoil it with something so local and niche? It would be exotic, funny, but still a novelty. And I wanted to be serious about it.

That’s why I got in touch with Jacek Wąsowski, one of the top Polish guitar players who knows his way around on mandolin, banjo, dobro, harmonica, Gypsy guitar – and is a producer with his own studio. Jacek was enthralled because, he told me, he’d grown up on Dylan and the whole folk movement and there were times he wouldn’t listen to a song if it had drums.

So we formed an acoustic band where he plays all the instruments at his command, I play classical and 12-string guitars and ukulele, then we have a bass guitar/double bass player, a drummer who opts for just snare, bass and floor tom plus some shakers and nearly no cymbals – and a guy who plays accordion, trombone and keyboards. When we saw we could do an album I invented a name for us – dylan.pl.

Our aim was not to become a regular cover band. No curly haired singer in shades, no imitations, no Dylan-wannabes. We wanted to find our own way, staying true to the spirit. That’s why some of our songs do resemble the originals and some not. E.g., for Jokerman we opt for some voodoo-immersed, jungle, drone playing. For Blind Willie McTell we aim at some Swordfishtrombones sound/feeling. With The Times They Are a-Changin’ I wanted to get away from the omnipresent 6/8 time signature and searched for an inspiration in the Crime in the City, a song by Neil Young. Here’s the result:

Guest appearance of Muniek Staszczyk, one of top Polish rock singers and a huge Dylan fan (he’s the one left-screen).

When I started to select songs for the album I already knew it would have to be a double one. Nobody knew if we would ever repeat the assault so the more we’d do at the start the better.

My idea was to escape the obvious and to present Bob Dylan as an artist who still creates (thus one song from Modern Times and two songs from Tempest) and whose oeuvre is a whole Universe. So we did songs as long as Tempest and Highlands and as short as Father of Night. We did great hits and relatively obscure (at least in Poland) songs as Time Passes Slowly or To Ramona.

I divided the album into a “public Dylan” (titled Oj tam, stara = It’s Alright, Ma) and an “intimate Dylan” (titled A mimo to był sam = All the while he was alone). All in all, 29 songs and an essay by one of the top Polish prose writers Andrzej Stasiuk.

For those madmen who wish to know more, here’s a link to the content: https://www.discogs.com/dylanpl-Niepotrzebna-Pogodynka-%C5%BBeby-Zna%C4%87-Kierunek-Wiatru/release/10068584

The title, a long one, is an exerpt from the Subterranean Homesick Blues lyrics “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” in Polish.

The album was recorded and mixed by September 2016. Then there were troubles with the graphics, one artist finally turned down our request, we had to find another one. Meanwhile, Stockholm Accademia locuta, causa elevata. The album came out finally in March 2017, exactly on my 58th birthday.

We have plenty of new songs ready. Perhaps we’ll record and release them next year. Who knows? The adventure is on.

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.

The index to the 500+ Dylan compositions reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.

We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   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, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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3 Responses to Like a Polish Wanderer (part 2). The art of performing Dylan in Polish

  1. Jochen Markhorst says:

    Thanks Filip, great article and your music is beautiful. I like your Jest Mi Miłość, and your rendition of Czasy Nadchodzą Nowe is really great. I enjoyed the accompanying video too. I shall seek out more of your music.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    I second the motion!

  3. Filip says:

    Tnank you once again. The JEST MI MILOSC clip is an excerpt, an impression edited for a site where they allow up to 90-seconds clups. We will do a regular clip this fall, 4:30 or so.

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