Lost in Translation: 53rd Chorus, Mexico City Blues

Nacho Vilanova, Emilio Vilanova, and Eponine Howarth

(William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac in 1953. Photo by Allen Ginsberg)

Mexico City Blues
53rd Chorus

Merrily we roll along
Dee de lee dee doo doo doo
Merrily merrily all the day

Roll along, roll along,
O’er the deep blue sea
             “Yes, life woulda been
         a mistake without music”
  Most primitive thing we know
  About man is music, drums –
  first thing we hear – drums,
  fifes, reed instruments –
  naturals – catgut violins
  and heavenly lyres
  and along that line
  what the hell’s the name
  of that instrument
          the Aeolian Lyre
          by the Sea

The Organ they made too –
Demosthenes listened by the sea
  with a rock in his teeth
And complained when he spent
  more on bread than wine –
S h h h says the Holy Sea

Translation nº1

Gaiement nous roulons
Tra la la la la la la
Gaiement gaiement toute la journée

Roulons, roulons,
Au-delà de la mer d’un bleu profond
            « Oui, la vie aurait été
          une erreur sans musique »
    La chose la plus primitive que nous connaissions
    de l'homme est la musique, tambours —
    première chose que nous entendions — tambours,
    fifres, instruments à anches —
    naturels — violons en boyau
    et lyres célestes
    et dans cette lignée
    quel est le nom
    de cet instrument
              la lyre éolienne
              au bord de la Mer

L'Orgue qu'ils ont fabriqué aussi —
Démosthène écoutait au bord de la mer
     avec une pierre entre les dents
Et se plaignait quand il dépensait
     plus en pain qu'en vin —
S h h h dit la Sainte Mer

Translation nº2

Conducíamos felices
La, la, la, la, la, la
Felices, felices todo el día
Conducíamos y conducíamos
Más allá del mar azul profundo
             “Sí, la vida habría sido
Una mierda sin música”

Lo más primitivo que
sabemos del hombre es la música,
tambores —lo primero que oímos—, tambores,
flautines, instrumentos de caña
Violines rudimentarios
Y liras celestes
¿Cómo se llama
ese instrumento
de la misma familia?
Arpa eólica
Al borde del mar
Fabricaron también el órgano—
Demóstenes escuchando al borde del mar

Con una piedra entre los dientes
se quejaba cuando había gastado
más en pan que en vino
Shhhhh, decía la Mar Santa

Translation nº3

We drove happily
Sha, la, la, la, la, la,
Happily all day long
We drove and drove
Beyond the deep blue sea
“Indeed, life would have been
a bore without music”

The most primitive aspect
known to mankind is music,
drums—the first sound we hear—drums,
piccolos—nature’s reed instruments
Rudimentary violins,
And celestial lyres
What was that instrument
from the same family?
Aeolian harp
By the sea
Forged the pipe organ—
Demosthenes listening by the sea

Holding a stone between his teeth,
complaining when he spent
more on bread than wine
Hush, said the Holy Sea.

Translators’ Note

Chinese Whispers

‘Lost in Translation’ is very much an experiment in linguistics and translation, where the outcome revealed above to the reader was unknown to its writers at the beginning. To a large extent, it is modelled on the Chinese Whisper’s game (Téléphone arabe, in French) played by children, and often invoked as a metaphor for cumulative error.

Players form a circle, and the first player comes up with a message. They whisper it to the ear of the second person, who then repeats the message to the third, and so on. When the message reaches the last player, they announce what they’ve heard to the entire group, and the original message is compared to its final iteration. Errors accumulate in the re-tellings, and the statement announced by the last player usually differs significantly from that of the first player.

As in the Chinese Whispers game, the translator(s) here strive to preserve the meaning and words of the source-text by Kerouac and source-language (English). However, the exercise differs in that interpretation (via translation) holds a central role, and the message is transmitted by written form. Reasons for inaccuracies relate to the difficulties to find equivalences in the ‘target language,’ or active decisions made by the translator to maintain rhythm, or overall meaning, over specific given words.

The Text: 53rd Chorus, Mexico City Blues

To avoid as much distortion as possible, the poem chosen doesn’t include rhymes. The absence of metrics also made the translation ‘easier,’ in the sense that it excluded certain formal restrictions. Naturally, this doesn’t necessarily favour a ‘freer’ translation. For the rest, the room for manoeuvre is quite limited. There is little interpretative freedom in the translation of the name of musical instruments for example.

Metaphrase vs. Paraphrase

The translators very much alternate between the ancient Greek concepts of ‘metaphrase’ (‘literal’, or ‘word-for-word’ translation) and ‘paraphrase’ (a saying in other words)—also known as ‘formal equivalence’ and ‘dynamic equivalence’. Although the concept of metaphrase, or word-for-word translation—is imperfect, as a given word in a language often carries multiple meanings, and because similar given meanings can often be represented in a given language by more than one word, the concepts of metaphrase and paraphrase remain useful as ‘ideals’ of possible approaches to translation.

The concept of metaphrase and paraphrase reveals much of the material lost in translation; many of the decisions in the interpretation, made by Translators nº1, 2, and 3 included a choice between word-for-word equivalence, or dynamic equivalence that conserved the purported effect. For example, Translator nº2 records the use of the word ‘mierda’ (shit, literally), instead of ‘error’ (corresponding to ‘erreur’ in French). This indicates a choice of paraphrase over metaphrase.

Translator nº1 also highlights that they translated ‘merrily’ to ‘gaiement’ rather than ‘joyeusement’ (closer to ‘happily’ in English) because of the musicality. ‘Joyeusement’ broke with the shorter ‘merrily’ (hence the use of ‘gaiement’). Translator nº2 then notes that, in their choices, they chose the term ‘felices’ to ‘alegres’ (gai, in French), for it accentuates the given impression on the reader.

The Art of Fidelity & Interpretation

While fidelity is the extent to which a translation accurately renders the meaning of the source-text, without distortion, both Cicero and Horace cautioned against translating ‘word for word’ (verbum pro verbo). Indeed, the idea of metaphrase and paraphrase returns; a choice between absolute fidelity to the given-word, or interpretation as fidelity to the author’s intent (and perhaps meaning of the text).

Translator nº1 underlines the difficulty to translate the second verse “Dee de lee dee doo doo doo”. Indeed, the choice of “Tra la la la la la la”, rather than a conservation of the English onomatopoeias, encapsulates a moment in which the translator perceived the verse would likely be lost in translation.

All in all, translating a text necessarily involves interpretation: choices must be made. Part of the ambiguity, and the imposition of these choices, is the very structure of human language. Every sentence, generated by a human, is ambiguous. In addition, languages are not merely collections of words, rules of grammar, and syntax for generating sentences, but instead, they are also vast interconnecting systems of connotations and cultural references. For instance, Translator nº3 notes the use of “Hush” instead of “Shhhhh” in reference to Herman’s Hermit 1967 hit “There’s a kind of Hush”. In doing so, Translator nº3 is acknowledging the input of their own cultural baggage in the translation.

Concluding Remarks

The beauty of translation is surely that dilemmas have no definitive right answers—though some may be definitely wrong. Every translation passes through the mind of a translator, and minds inevitably contain their own perceptions, memories, and values. No two translations of a literary work, by different hands or by the same hand at different times, are likely to be identical.

Nacho Vilanova, Emilio Vilanova, and Eponine Howarth

Nacho is an industrial designer with a multicultural and disciplinary background living in London. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London. Emilio is a diplomat currently posted in Athens. Eponine is editor of The Thread and co-convenor of the Seafarers book club.

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