From the Translator: The Song Remains the Same?


Images: David Bowie, 1974; Silvia Pérez Cruz, 2008; Édith Piaf, 1962 (Wikimedia Commons).     

Esther Allen’s translation of Erick J. Mota’s “The Bleeding Hands of Castaways” appears in the May 2016 issue of Words without Borders“On Cuban Time: New Writing from the Island,” which she guest-edited with Hillary Gulley. Join WWB this Wednesday, March 25 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts for Back to the Future: Cuban Sci-fi Now, a celebration of the May issue featuring Esther, Hillary, issue contributors Erick J. Mota and Yoss, Deji Bryce Olukotun, and Yasmín S. Portales-Machado. 

Beginning students in my translation courses often want a set of rules to memorize and follow. And certainly there are ironclad rules for various subgenres we study, rigidly codified fields such as diplomatic translation for the United Nations, legal translation, medical translation. Then we arrive at literary translation, where to search for rules is to miss the point, and what matters, instead, is context. Just as the best solution for one text might be the worst for another, the best solution for one translator’s social context might be the worst for another’s. That’s why I’ve always been wary of textbooks that purport to offer a list of “how-tos” for literary translation.

Popular songs are a great example of this. A song that almost everyone in a given culture at a given moment knows is a unique cultural artifact, a crystallized collective experience, a profound trigger that sets off a complex string of shared emotions. Our grief over the deaths of singer-songwriters like David Bowie, Prince, or Compay Segundo is uniquely impassioned precisely because we are truly grieving for ourselves, for our own short lives, lived and danced to the soundtrack they composed, the words and music that run through our heads and bring us together in moments of collective release. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues can’t ever be reconfigured into anything else without the loss of everything it evokes—a certain stuttering beat, that raw voice, at once imperious and plaintive, a particular moment, a particular decade, a face. Or can it? We know it’s never the same, and we also know that any song can be enriched and expanded through performance by a new artist. Think of Bettye LaVette unleashing one of the Who’s most famous numbers at the Kennedy Center while Pete Townshend gazes at her, transfixed, Love Reign O'er Me as he’d never heard or imagined it before.

A colleague tells me that the textbook she once used for her literary translation courses recommended the use of what Bible translator Eugene Nida called “dynamic equivalence” whenever a literary text alludes to or cites a popular song. That is, the original song, presumably not offering much in the way of nostalgic association for the audience in the target context, should be replaced by a different song, well-known within the new context, that can evoke a similar emotional reaction.

The concept of dynamic equivalence isn’t in great favor among translation studies scholars nowadays, and this precept from a textbook published in the early 1990s used to appall me. Take, for example, the Marguerite Duras play Savannah Bay, which uses the lyrics of “Les mots d’amour” as a leitmotif—C’est fou ce que je peux t’aimer, ce que je peux t’aimer dés fois, dés fois je voudrais crier. Imagine if a production for a London audience were to replace those words with the lyrics to, say, Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love.” The elderly French actress invoking a beloved Édith Piaf tune would be transformed into an entirely different person, whose cultural associations are British, whose nostalgia is for the early 1970s. Quel horreur!

The process of translating Erick Mota’s haunting space opera “The Bleeding Hands of Castaways” made me rethink that reaction. And no, I didn’t swap out the Latin American standards alluded to in Mota’s original story with a playlist of classic Anglophone tunes—“My Way” and “Fly Me to the Moon,” instead of “La Tirana” and “Espérame en el Cielo.” Two things made me very confident about retaining the original songs. The first is technology. Since the translation was being published on Words without Borders, it was a fairly simple thing to accompany it with a playlist, so readers unfamiliar with the songs could listen to them as they read—a solution that even fifteen years ago would have been far more cumbersome to implement. (Incidentally, the playlist was chosen by me, without consultation with the author, so I don’t know whether the specific performances I selected—Buika’s recent rendition of the classic 1972 “Cancion de las simples cosas,” for example—are the ones Mota had in mind when he wrote the story.) Still, the inclusion of the playlist constitutes a tacit acknowledgment of the crucial difference between the original and the translation. The original fully expects the sight of the lyrics printed on the page to set the songs playing inside the heads of its readers, bathed in successive waves of recognition and nostalgia as each deeply familiar tune is evoked. The translation replaces shared memory with recorded music, offering to introduce its readers to songs they might not already know, thereby also giving them an opportunity to form new memories and perhaps participate in some future nostalgia. No doubt many of you who are reading this right now can hear a trumpet solo and a crooning voice when you see the words Dos gardenias para tí, con ellas quiero decir, te quiero, te adoro, mi vida . . .

Because the second factor, naturally, is Ry Cooder and the international mega-success of the Buena Vista Social Club, which in turn was built on a history of popular Latin American music in the Anglophone world that, as musicologist Ned Sublette can tell you, extends back through “La Bamba” and Desi Arnaz and Carmen Miranda, and even way, way before that. Which is to say that even if many of you are hearing some of these songs for the first time, there’s a preexisting space for Latin American popular music in the cultural awareness of the audience I’m translating for that I can count on to make the incorporation of the original songs somewhat legible. Would I be able to do the same if the story centered on Vietnamese pop songs? Hindi pop songs?

And yet, and yet. Doesn’t Mota’s radical decontextualization—the songs are playing in a remote future on an asteroid many light years from earth—also invite a rethinking of the cultural specificity the songs represent? Is this story fundamentally about Cuba? Or is it about music? Had I chosen to substitute Mota’s playlist with a line-up of numbers by, say, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the Beatles, the story would be transformed, the Cubanness or Latin-Americanness of the original effaced by the flood tide of Anglophone global pop culture; the only things left to suggest the story’s origins would be the theme of exile and separation and the various references to both Russia and the United States. But perhaps, in some future context, such a translation could function effectively as a comment on the spectre of the coming McDonald’s-ization of Cuba that many in the US love to fear—a fear that many of the Cubans I’ve spoken to find absurd.

Another possibility appeals to me more. In José Manuel Prieto’s extraordinary Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, under the subject heading “Wonder, Stevie (The Secret Life of Plants),” the narrator, a.k.a. Thelonious Monk, recalls many adolescent hours spent in the penumbra of his room (in Havana, though he never says so), twiddling the radio dial, “until the galvanic discharge of That’s the way, oh-hoh, un-huh, I like it, oh-hoh, un-huh, came pouring through, and I would shake my leg like a frog in an experiment, kicking out reflexively in response to the electric shock, and raise my head, eyes full of life.”

Mota’s story reaffirms that music can dissolve barriers of space, time, distance, separation, exile, abandonment, loss. Imagine another translation that replaces the original playlist with songs by the likes of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, or the great salsero Larry Harlow, el judío maravilloso, whose life was transformed by a stay in Havana in the late 1950s, and who has never been back since. The project isn’t for me to carry out; I’m not steeped enough in that tradition to know which songs would strike exactly the right chord. And I don’t know what Mota would make of the idea. But that alternate translation, as I envision it, would be a brilliant further extension of his story’s resonant power.