Thursday, September 24, 2009

Translating Poems Into Song Texts: Part 2

Between writing some 60,000 words about Mendelssohn in the past three weeks, blogging about the latest insult to the arts in Pennsylvania and posting installments of the revised edition of “THE SCHOENBERG CODE,” I've gotten back into composing again after a nearly month-long hiatus.

Over the summer, I've been slowly chipping away at a cycle of seven songs about creativity and inspiration, written for mezzo-soprano and piano. It should not be such a time-consuming project but I have found in the past few years, having regained my once abandoned creativity, that composing has become fairly labor-intensive, unlike the almost spontaneous process it had been years ago, writing a half-hour chamber opera over Thanksgiving vacation when I was a student or an eight-minute multi-choral piece, “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” on Thanksgiving Day, starting it from scratch in mid-morning and completing it in time to go out for dinner later that afternoon. More recently, it took a year to write a string quartet and two to compose a symphony.

Though not nearly as involved, it still is taking me about a month or so on average to write a song somewhere between 2 and 4 minutes in length. Of the seven poems I'm setting, I've completed the four shorter ones – Walt Whitman's “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” Saint-Amant's “The Lazy Poet” (a 17th-Century French sonnet), a brief recitative on lines by the Chinese poet, Li Po and, just completed this morning, a haiku by the Japanese poet, Bashō. Still to go are the first and last poems and the keystone of the set, my own translation of Rilke's “An die Musik (To Music).” Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 100 opens the set and I've chosen a poem by the Persian poet and religious mystic, best known as Rumi, to conclude it.

The Shakespeare and Whitman are the only poems originally in English. I managed to concoct my own translations of the French and German poems through my limited familiarity with those languages, but for Japanese, Chinese and Persian, I've had to rely on other translators to come up with my own versions. When I set a series of poems by Li Po when I was a doctoral student at Eastman, I found them in the original language and actually went to a detailed Chinese-English dictionary to teach myself how to figure out the meaning of each character. I asked a former college roommate of mine who was from Hong Kong to check it for me and he made only one suggestion. In fact, I even included the original Chinese in the programs for the first (and only) performance of “Seven Songs from the Middle Kingdom” mostly because I thought it looked really cool and it freaked out the concert office because they had no idea how they were going to do that... This time, though, I was unable to find the originals and so had to rely on what I consider a “cheat.” It's not really just paraphrasing what somebody else wrote, but trying to find something that suits my style and makes a good vocal setting.

For this final poem by Rumi, I was initially attracted by a couple of lines from a Coleman Barks translation I'd seen quoted in Julia Cameron's “The Artist's Way,” some lines intended to be inspiring to someone trying to reclaim their lost creativity.

Say yes quickly,
if you know, if you've known it
from before the beginning of the universe.”

A little googling and I found not only the whole poem in Barks' translation, I found another translation that is more literal, if in unidiomatic English. Barks apparently left out several lines of the original poem, reworking it completely, transforming it rather than translating it.

When I read that he does not speak or read Persian, though he's considered one of the foremost translators of Rumi's poems today with several volumes to his credit, I figured perhaps I shouldn't feel so guilty about “preçis-ing” and combining bits from other translations. Though I feel my own owes a great deal to Mr. Barks' work, I've decided to describe my version of the poem as “a free translation of Rumi, after Coleman Barks.” Curiously, I don't even know the title of the original, if there was one, but “Say Yes Quickly” is such a striking line – and I'm tempted to use it for the entire cycle – it's obviously borrowed from Barks' version, even if the other translation uses “Quickly say 'Yes, yes'...”

This afternoon, then, after putting the near-finishing touch on Bashō's haiku

Endless misty rain
Can't see Fuji in the haze
Interesting – once more

I worked, once more, on getting Rumi's lines into some sense of shape.

It's not that it needed some stricter form. Most Persian poems are based on rhyming couplets and are fairly strict when it comes to rhyme schemes and meters, most of which is lost in English translations simply by the nature of translating a foreign language as nuanced as Persian. In the one source I found the poem on-line, it lists it as Rumi's “Ghazal 2933.” A Ghazal (which I was disappointed one source tells me should be pronounced “guzzle”) is a series of couplets, each of which is an independent poem (similar to a three-line haiku) but creates a meditation on a theme in its context, each couplet ending with a rhymed word or the same word. This, however, is almost impossible to render consistently into English.

Also, since I planned a fairly strict musical structure, I felt it would help balance the words and the music if the words more easily reflected some kind of structure. I quickly gave up on couplets and rhymes completely, however.

Here are the three translations: the first is a more literal translation by A.J. Arberry and was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1968.

- - - - - - -
You who are Imam of love, say Allah Akbar, for you are drunk;
shake you two hands, become indifferent to existence.
You were fixed to a time, you made haste; the time of prayer
has come. Leap up - why are you seated?
In hope of the qibla of God you carve a hundred qibla; in hope
of that idol's love you worship a hundred idols.
Fly upwards, O soul, O obedient soul; the moon is above, the
shadow is low.
Do not like a beggar knock your hand at any door; knock at
the ring of the door of heaven, for you have a long hand.
Since the flagon of heaven has made you like that, be a
stranger to the world, for you have escaped out of self.
I say to you, "How are you?" No one ever says to the "how-
less" soul, "How are you?"
Tonight you are drunk and dissolute, come tomorrow and you
will see what bags you have torn, what glasses you have broken.
Every glass I have broken was my trust in you, for myriadwise
you have bound up the broken.
O secret artist, in the depths of your soul you have a thousand
forms, apart from the moon and the Lady of the Moon [Mahasti].
If you have stolen the ring, you have opened a thousand
throats; if you have wounded a breast, you have given a hundred
souls and hearts.
I have gone mad; whatever I say in madness, quickly say,
"Yes, yes," if you are privy to Alast.

-- (Translated by A.J. Arberry - "Mystical Poems of Rumi 1" University of Chicago Press, 1968)
- - - - - - -

The second is Coleman Barks' version, published by Threshold Books in 1984

- - - - - - -
"Say Yes Quickly"
Forget your life. Say "God is Great." Get up.
You think you know what time it is. It's time to pray.
You've carved so many little figurines, too many.
Don't knock on any random door like a beggar.
Reach your long hands out to another door, beyond where
you go on the street, the street
where everyone says, "How are you?"
and no one says "How aren't you?"
Tomorrow you'll see what you've broken and torn tonight,
thrashing in the dark. Inside you
there's an artist you don't know about.
He's not interested in how things look different in moonlight.
If you are here unfaithfully with us,
you're causing terrible damage.
If you've opened your loving to God's love,
you're helping people you don't know
and have never seen.
Is what I say true? Say yes quickly,
if you know, if you've known it
from before the beginning of the universe.

-- (Version by Coleman Barks - "Open Secret" Threshold Books, 1984)
- - - - - - -

The third one is mine – not intended as an improvement but as one that suits my own musical purposes better. Not having Rumi's original poem, I feel less awkward, for some reason, not setting it as the poet wrote it hundreds of years ago: I would never dream of cutting up and rewording Shakespeare's Sonnet just to suit my needs, after all. But here it is:

- - - - - - -
Say “God is Great” for you are drunk – forget today
You have lost the sense of time – it's time to pray
Get up – why are you still seated?

You have carved too many little statues, idols
Fly upwards, soul: the moon is above, the shadow is low

Don't knock like a beggar at the door – take the ring of heaven
Be a stranger to the world – escape from yourself
I say to you “how are you?” No one says, “how aren't you?”

Tomorrow, see what you have torn and broken,
Thrashing about in the darkness
Everything you destroyed was my trust in you

The secret artist deep in your soul has a thousand forms
You can do great damage or help people you have never seen

Is this true, what I have said?
Say “yes” quickly, if you know
If you have known it from before the universe began!
- - - - - - -

The problem in this piece, however, is going to be the piano part. I want it to be “crackling with energy,” constantly rising and falling like a seething fire that occasionally throws off sparks or dies down to glowing embers. The sound that comes closest to this, I think, can be found in the piano etudes of Győrgy Ligéti – as an example, the 13th (appropriately) entitled “The Devil's Staircase” which you can hear in this amazing performance by Greg Anderson. Here, I will also be challenged by my limited pianistic skills in trying to recreate something like this in my own musical voice.

But at least it will give me something to do for the next... oh, six weeks or so...

- Dr. Dick

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