Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Listen to This, Listen to That: Found in Translation

by Dan Froid

This week, I'm thinking about translation. Translation is conversion—and not just from one language to another. I’ve been reading about the word’s usage in other disciplines: how it’s been translated. I did not know, for example, that when a holy relic is moved to a different site that process is called translation. Nor did I know, or at least I forgot what I learned in high-school math, that in geometry a translation is the shifting of all points of a figure in the same direction. That’s a useful image. So translation is a wholesale shift: mark all the points of a figure and push them onward, elsewhere: map them onto someplace new.

Of course books do that, as well as songs. You experience the thing and, as a mere triangle, you are diverted, all your points moved entirely. Neko Case’s “Deep Red Bells” reminds me of a hot, slow summer in which I walked around a lot by myself in the light; and when it was dark I did a lot of sitting. Mostly I did nothing at all, but worked and walked and slept. I scarcely even read. I put this song on repeat and listened intently, and very nearly gasped each time her voice grew loud and even pealed, as in bells. She sounds almost joyful. Joyful!

Where does this mean world cast its cold eye
Who’s left to suffer long about you
Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag
Past empty lots and early graves
Those like you who lost their way
Murdered on the interstate
While the red bells rang like thunder

This is the song’s urgent conclusion, the paper bag moving so swiftly—it’s in the process of translation—through the air, over the graves of the dead. This is the image I thought about while I listened to Jean-Luc Nancy. In “Found in Translation,” the forty-seventh episode of Air Schooner, Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue read from their translation of Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy’s collaborative work, Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem). The book combines Lalucq’s poem and Nancy’s commentary on her work. He says:

Absent the image, the poem will make an image in speaking: just as ‘light brim of blood’ is seen when read, when said to oneself, seen literally alliterated in the carefully elaborated welling of red.  Virginie chooses wording that doubles blood’s plosive, insisting on the coagulating, carmine trickle to follow.

This is the image that I see: that paper bag. But actually, even though the meaning of the phrase paper bag is eminently clear to me, what I see is a plastic bag, in a washed-out color that you could kind of call red. It’s maybe the color, the red, that appeals to me in both the song and the commentary. Or it’s the sound. The plosive is the kind of sound that cuts off airflow, as in blood and deep and red. Case’s deep red bells are as troubling as a light brim of blood, are as deep and red as a brim of blood. They’re such an odd image; in the song the bells seem to stand in for the blood of those “murdered on the interstate.” Maybe in the song, in an act of synesthesia, Case translates blood’s plosive to bells’ pealing.

Hogue and Gallais worked to tease the meaning out of the words in this experimental book. Gallain, a native French speaker, says, “I had to dig deeper and deeper into the French language and the French meaning of words . . . at first sight, at first glance, the absence of clear meaning is experimental, so you have to try to be in the mind of the poet, Virginie.” These ambiguities in meaning: that’s what I like about the book as well as the song.

“Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” is a traditional folk song. Let’s call Nina Simone’s version, like any cover she recorded, the definitive one. At first I found this song lovely, and fairly innocuous: “Black is the color of my true love’s hair / His face so soft and wondrous fair.” Curious, I suppose, that hair should be the first feature of one’s lover worth observing. Not the eyes or the mouth or a part of the body. Anyway, I read Simone’s version as a love song, a genuine evocation of desire and a hope to marry. It’s true, she sounds rather forlorn—as though she’s not sure her lover notices the color of her hair. Does he “love the ground on where [she] stands?” Still, uncertainty is love is nothing new.

Others have translated this tune, so to speak, into far different modes of expression. Both Patty Waters and Body/Head (Kim Gordon’s latest project) take the song and wrench it, snap it open. They determine all its points and translate it, locating it elsewhere, perhaps in some infernal region. Both stretch it out to nearly fifteen minutes, shattering the melody and rendering the fairly banal lyrics, like those of any traditional folk song, into a nightmarish hellscape of love. Waters eerily repeats “Black . . . black . . . black . . . black” and improvises over a jazz accompaniment, while Body/Head’s dissonant guitar circles around Gordon’s low wail. Maybe this song was always disturbing and I didn’t notice it until they showed me how. Now I think the song expresses, not an earnest vision of love in marriage, but heartbreak to the point of madness. Now the song is as alarming as those deep red bells.

“Found in Translation” ends with a reading of Parween Faiz Zadah Malaal’s “Like a Desert Flower,” translated from the Pashto:

Like a desert flower waiting for rain,
like a riverbank thirsting for the touch of pitchers,
like the dawn
longing for light,
and like a house,
like a house in ruins for want of a woman—
the exhausted ones of our times
need a moment to breathe,
need a moment to sleep,
in the arms of peace, in the arms of peace.

Because of this poem’s anaphora—like x, like y; need a moment to a, need a moment to b—it has a nearly lullaby-like quality. An appropriate note, I think, on which to end, and so I give you Meredith Monk’s “Gotham Lullaby,” another song from that hot summer in which I did nothing at all. I listened to this song a lot, too. This is one whose wordless vocalizations cannot be translated, and it’s refreshing, to hear Monk step outside of language. It almost sounds like an alien lullaby. It’s not, of course, but a sonic exploration of feeling. Another kind of translation: of emotion into simple sound.