Found in Translation

These last couple of days have found me engaged with an interesting project…If ever I wondered what it would be like to see, feel, sense, the inner structure of language (and I have)—translating music lyrics of one language into singable lyrics of another is a taste of what that might be like. I found myself counting out syllables and realizing that it wasn’t necessarily about the number of them but the arrangement of them. Where are the rises, the extensions, the enjambments, and how do I fit English into the pattern—and not a new verse, but English that is a translation of an existing verse. All of the layers to consider…the zooming in and then looking at the meaning of a verse, not a line.

As I made my way through the process until I had a version I could try out with someone else, I kept thinking about the two times I have had a chance to wander through the inner workings of an organ. Once, in the church of Saint Francis Xavier in New York City, I wrote a blog entry about watching the liturgy from within the structure that housed the pipes of the old organ up in the balcony. Fascinating… And more recently, I asked the music director at Saint Andrew’s United Church of Canada about the organ and he invited me to return for a look-see. I saw the wind generator, giant bellows in a separate room beneath, and clambered upward as well to see the pipes with their conical tops. Both of these were opportunities to see inside something I hear…and now when I listen to Kevin play, it isn’t simply notes—it is the process that I hear…the parts that layer together to yield what I hear.

I thought too about having recently watched Next in Fashion on Netflix. If you know me, fashion maven I will never be, and actually have no interest in being. That said, I love looking at the lines, textures, and colours and how they get combined for a total effect. I enjoyed watching garments get constructed from the inside out—seams, hemlines, tucks, etc…all crucial and to be done with precision and expertise, yet, all on the inside—behind what is seen face-on.

For me, translating is wandering around inside language—fingering the contours of vocabulary, sensing mood, tone, pace…all of which lend meaning first in a primary language and then are tools to help guide the choices made when translating into another. The text for me isn’t simply the words on the page…it’s the layers beneath, the dimensions, that I can see, hear, feel, when I read. Translating is stitching a beautiful seam between the source language’s tone, meaning, pacing, etc. and the target language.

Add in music, and as I explained to a friend, the challenge is that a different body is trying to wear the clothing custom-made for another. English syllables have different curves than Spanish ones. The music can be worn—it’s just going to highlight different contours.

It’s work to create that kind of multi-layered vitality in another language…and I find it captivating—both the end result and the wander behind the scenes to understand more consciously and conscientiously what I lay down upon the page and claim to be a translation.

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