Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Translating Poems into Song Texts: Part 1

In an earlier post, I wrote about getting started on a new work, a cycle of seven songs for mezzo-soprano and piano, and how I found the poems I decided to set to music (you can read that here). That part of the process started in Mid-March and took several weeks. This part of the process started in mid-April. I began working on the first song to be written only in mid-May and finished it last week (mid-June).

The irony in finding texts about Inspiration is that I would hope to find it as a composer. Someone listening to a song under three-minutes in length may not be aware it took three weeks to compose it. There was more work to be done before I even started that part of the process.

Since it’s now a song cycle rather than a collection of songs, it needs to become more organized and the process, therefore, needs to be more thought out: how the poems relate to each other as a series. It’s not telling a story, necessarily, songs that move in a chronological sequence like Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin; it’s more like Britten’s anthologies, different poems by various authors but all centered on a particular theme – sleep, for instance, in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings – moving in a particular dramatic or contrasting sequence.

After selecting the texts, determining the basic order of the poems was only one of several steps I needed to take. Building an arch form means finding a parallel poem for each block of the arch – like the call to the Muse in Shakespeare’s sonnet at the one foundation and the spontaneous combustion of Rumi’s poem which Coleman Barke translates as “Say Yes Quickly” at the other end. The Rilke poem, An die Musik (To Music) – the only poem specifically about music but not related to Schubert's justly famous song – was clearly my centerpiece. Saint-Amant’s “Lazy Poet” waiting for inspiration contrasts specifically with the hard-working, constantly weaving spider of Whitman’s poem who keeps building his web strand by strand (also implying Robert the Bruce’s inspiration from watching a spider, then tearing down the web only to watch the spider start all over again).

The short East Asian lines from Basho and Li Po balance each other in more than comparable length. Not satisfied with his creation the first time, a young poet seeks to do better the next, trying again to “capture the essence of Fuji.” Li Po, probably in a drunken ecstasy, celebrates the power of spontaneity, that whatever his pen creates is what was meant to be (a Christian attitude would interpret this as saying “what God intended”).

To create a dramatic rhythm from beginning to end, starting with the frustrated poet blaming the muse for not helping him means ending with a burst of creative energy that is the realization of some implicit creative spirit, muse-induced or not. In between, a lazy poet, after learning some discernment from Basho’s view of Fuji, turns into “a patient spider” after a soul-searching definition of creativity’s inner-workings heard in the Rilke poem.

It’s Li Po’s aphorism about Inspiration specifically that concerns me: as part of the dramatic flow, shouldn’t it come after the poet learns an important skill from a hard-working spider, breaking through the work it often takes to turn an inspiration into a completed work of art? But then the energy of Li Po’s lines is too close to that of Rumi’s. Of course, there’s a similar tempo to Basho’s artist, willing to start over again, and Saint-Amant’s lazy one who waits for inspiration no matter how long it takes. The difference between these two, however, is going from “waiting for inspiration” to doing something with that inspiration – revising it until one gets the best result one can, not just the first one that comes along. So I thought Rilke’s enigmatic lines would then, like a Bunsen burner, bring to a boil the confidence needed for Li Po’s inspiration: by applying the poet’s skills – taking the time to find the right words – the result is something that, regardless how long it takes to create, lives in the moment.

As listeners in an audience, we don’t think of the creative effort that went into Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, realizing it was written down in one sitting the night before the opera’s premiere, even a few hours’ work resulting in something only a few minutes long. It seems perfect in itself, an act of genius.

Similarly, we don’t think of the struggles over a span of decades, not hours, that it took before Brahms had the confidence to complete (much less even begin) his first symphony. By the time we reach its triumphant conclusion, twenty-some years of dogged labor and countless discarded attempts hardly matter at all.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

There was still a very real concern about copyright.

The two English poems were clearly public-domain. While the other poets were also long-dead, most of the translations were likely to still be under copyright. This practical concern prompted me to try my hand at my own translations, a problem in itself given my high-school and college German from years past, my lack of experience with French whatsoever and not having the Chinese, Japanese and Persian poems in their original, even if I could figure them out word-by-word.

It wasn’t that I felt I could “do better” than the ones I found already published (though in some cases, perhaps…). If two people could translate the same poem to come up with something even slightly different in English, why not a third? While I can say I “translated” Rilke and Saint-Amant, I call the other three “paraphrases” only because I took existing translations and reworked certain words and rhythms – and in the Rumi adapted interpretations and dropped certain lines which may have taken too much time to explain concepts easily understood to a Persian reader. After finding a very Victorian-sounding line-by-line translation of Rumi’s poem (though, I think, still without a title), I realized that Coleman Barks’ translation is as much a paraphrase as I was going for. Still, I can find no better title than his - Say Yes Quickly - something I am still tempted to use for the whole cycle (better than Seven Songs on Inspiration).

The Rilke was not difficult – the two or three translations I found were all very similar, in fact in many places identical. Certain words, after all, mean specific things, but sometimes finding an alternate word that doesn’t alter the meaning may sound more poetic, more musical or at least improve the rhythm.

Here is Rilke’s original German:

- - - -
Musik: Atem der Statuen. Vielleicht:
Stille der Bilder. Du Sprache wo Sprachen
enden. Du Zeit
die senkrecht steht auf der Richtung
vergehender Herzen.

Gefühle zu wem? O du der Gefühle
Wandlung in was? — in hörbare Landschaft.
Du Fremde: Musik. Du uns entwachsener
Herzraum. Innigstes unser,
das, uns übersteigend, hinausdrängt, —
heiliger Abschied:
da uns das Innre umsteht
als geübteste Ferne, als andre
Seite der Luft:
nicht mehr bewohnbar.
- - - -

Here is one standard translation I found in several places on-line (I could not find a credit for the translator):

- - - -
Music. The breathing of statues. Perhaps:
The silence of pictures. You, language where all
languages end. You, time
standing straight up out of the direction
of hearts passing on.

Feeling, for whom? O the transformation
of feeling into what? — into audible landscape.
Music: you stranger. Passion which
has outgrown us. Our inner most being,
transcending, driven out of us, —
holiest of departures:
inner worlds now
the most practiced of distances, as
the other side of thin air:
no longer habitable.
- - - -

There is nothing wrong with this but Rilke specifically avoids the definite article “der/die/das” in several places, and so I thought not using “the” would be closer to his original intent. I can understand why the translator wanted to use the parallel structure with the word “Music” but the poet writes in the second part, “Du Fremde: Musik,” not “Musik: du Fremde,” placing the emphasis on “You stranger” instead.

And so I came up with my own adaptation of it, going back to the original German. I preferred the Mahler-like “Farewell” rather than “Departure” for Abschied (both are dictionary-correct). The ending is quite literal and I saw no reason to change it.

- - - -
Music: breathing of statues. Perhaps:
Silence of paintings. You – language where languages
end. You – time
standing upright from the direction
of vanishing hearts.

Feelings for whom? O you feelings
transformed into what? – into audible Landscape.
You stranger: Music. You, grown out of us,
Heart-Space. Our innermost self
transcending, driven outward –
Holiest farewell:
Where the innermost surrounds us
like the most practiced distance, like the other
side of air:
no longer habitable.
- - - -

Being a fan of the Golden Section, I noticed it occurs here (in the original German) before the line “Heiliger Abschied” (“Holiest Farewell”) which ties in nicely with my search for something stylistically comparable to Strauss’ Composer’s Aria from Ariadne auf Naxos (see previous post) with its line “Musik ist ein heiliger Kunst” (Music is a holy art). Ah, coincidence… Placed as the keystone of my song cycle, this line – Heiliger Abschied – becomes the Golden Section of the entire cycle.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Pardoning my French, which is nonexistent, The Lazy Poet depended solely on an old dictionary – still, not as old as the 17th Century poem I wanted to re-translate – and here, rather than being more literal to the poet’s original intent, I wanted to remove the topical references that may have endeared it to his readers in 1631, but which would need footnotes for those in 2009.

- - - -
Accablé de paresse et de mélancolie,
Je rêve dans un lit où je suis fagoté,
Comme un lièvre sans os qui dort dans un pâté,
Ou comme un Don Quichotte en sa morne folie.

Là, sans me soucier des guerres d'Italie,
Du comte Palatin, ni de sa royauté,
Je consacre un bel hymne à cette oisiveté
Où mon âme en langueur est comme ensevelie.

Je trouve ce plaisir si doux et si charmant,
Que je crois que les biens me viendront en dormant,
Puisque je vois déjà s'en enfler ma bedaine,

Et hais tant le travail, que, les yeux entr’ouverts,
Une main hors des draps, cher Baudoin, à peine
Ai-je pu me résoudre à t'écrire ces vers.
- - - -

The translation I’d first found – from the Dover Collection edited by Stanley Applebaum (who, I assume, is also the translator) – is curiously rhyme-free as happens often in translations where it might seem too fussy to re-create the same rhyme-scheme, striving more for understanding. But the original poem is, after all, a strict sonnet. For all its lethargy, being about the lack of inspiration, is he being witty or is he ironically stressing skill over inspiration, artifice over art? Not being a native speaker (and certainly not a 17th Century one), I have no idea. Here is the Dover translation:

- - - -
Overwhelmed with sloth and melancholy,
I dream in a bed in which I am trussed up
Like a boned hare sleeping in a pie,
Or like Don Quixote in his gloomy madness.

There, not worrying about the Italian wars,
The Count Palatine or his royalty,
I dedicate a fine hymn to the idleness
In which my languishing soul is practically buried.

I find this pleasure so sweet and charming,
That I think all good things will come to me while I sleep,
Since I already see my belly swelling with them;

And I hate work so much that, with my eyes half-closed,
With one hand out of the sheets, my dear Baudoin, I scarcely
Was able to bring myself to write you these verses.
- - - -

The rhyme-scheme and historical references (including his friend, the poet Baudoin) aside, references to swelling bellies and “one hand out of the sheets” might take more to explain than a simple paraphrase. So I went back to create a line-by-line translation and then worked out some freer translation that also allowed me to recreate the sonnet-form’s rhyme scheme (not the same one Saint-Amant used, but a comparable one).

- - - -
Overcome by laziness and melancholy,
I dream in a bed where trussed up I lie
Like a boneless rabbit asleep in a pie,
Or like some Don Quixote in his mournful folly.

There, oblivious to the latest wars,
To political views and all things ridiculous,
I compose this hymn in praise of idleness
Where my languishing soul, long-buried, snores.

I find this pleasure so sweet, so compelling,
Believing good things will come to my dreams:
I can see how my purse is already swelling.

How I hate all this work, these trials, the curses!
Eye half-closed, lying brain-dead, it seems
I can scarcely manage to write down these verses.
- - - -

I thought rhyming ridiculous and idleness was cute but was disappointed to have subsequently found another translation that rhymed wars with snores.

While I went closer to the original in the Rilke, I was amused to find myself more freely re-translating parts of Saint-Amant’s sonnet to be less literal to the poet’s original intent. Again, it has more to do with my needs for a song text than its having anything to do with the poem. The only way to be completely honest to the poet would be to set it in French, but that was not my intent, here, especially since I would be unable to provide the original Japanese, Chinese and Persian for the others.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Paraphrasing becomes even more important in the haiku of Basho. For instance, one of his more famous poems – about a frog jumping into a pond – can be translated several ways depending on how literal one tried to be to the original non-grammatical original. (I have to laugh: looking for this haiku led me to a site that has a transliteration of the original Japanese.)

- - - -
Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water.
(translated by Lafcadio Hearn, one of the first translators of Japanese into English who died in 1904)

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:
(translated by Alan Watts, a famous modern translator of Asian verse)

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.
(an almost Victorian, rhymed translation by Curtis Hidden Page, an early-20th Century, Missouri-born Harvard graduate)

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water —
A deep resonance.
(translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa writing in the 2nd half of the 20th Century who disregards the traditional 3-line form of the haiku but creates something that might resonate more deeply with a Western reader)
- - - -

The original translation I’d found for the Basho haiku I wanted to use,

- - - -
Misty rain
Can’t see Fuji
- - - -

had a 3+4+3 syllabic scan but I wanted to use the more standard 5+7+5. Somewhere on-line I found another translation less structured but which added something to the last line: “That’s interesting! Again.” But I have since found the original Japanese (here) and realize that “again” has nothing to do with the poet’s intent. As vague as the images of Haiku are meant to be – complex meanings from simple words – I think he meant that the image of Mount Fuji is so well known that even when you can’t see it shrouded in the mist and rain, you still know what it looks like. But by taking this “again” a step further, I took a not-so-subtle mis-translation even further to create what I was looking for, not necessarily what Basho wrote:

- - - -
Endless misty rain
Can’t see Fuji for the haze
Interesting. Once more…
- - - -

Now it implies, perhaps, that because you haven’t created a clear image of Mount Fuji (either in words or painting) you have to try again to create a better, clearer one, something not implied in Basho’s original and a concept certainly more Western than Japanese. Still, young poet-grasshoppers have to learn their craft somewhere, so perhaps I will let it stand.

Li Po (or Li Bai, Li Tai-po as he is also known, depending on how you choose to transliterate the Chinese) was less of a problem. In this case, I took two different translations and found some middle ground (pun intended – China in Chinese means “Middle Kingdom”).

- - - -
Inspiration hot, each stroke of my pen shakes the Five Mountains.
- - - -
In high spirits I write, and thereby shake the Five Mountains. As a poem is accomplished I shout in ecstasy, I’ll bend the river!
- - - -
Inspiration! My pen with each stroke shakes the Five Mountains.
A poem becomes – I shout ecstatic, “I’ll bend the river!”
- - - -

I still have no clear idea what the Five Mountains are or how to explain them without maybe taking 6 extra lines to do so, but this seemed to me like a free paraphrase typical of some other translations I’ve seen of his often drink-induced ecstasy. Besides, if he’s going to “bend the river,” why can’t I?

The poem by Rumi, on the other hand, is an even longer story and I think at this point, I’ll save that for a separate post.

- Dr. Dick

No comments:

Post a Comment