Translation as Creation

“Martin Luther’s early sixteenth-century translation of the Bible had been an important false start of sorts. It had quickly become the cornerstone of common literary German, in turn imbuing the practice of translation with an unusually large amount of cultural prestige and authority”.

-Jonathan Kregor, Liszt as Transcriber

“The fact that the foundation and the formation of common literary German should have happened by means of a translation is what allows us to understand why there will exist in German a tradition of translation that regards translation as the creation, transmission, and expansion of the language, the foundation of a …linguistic space of its own”.

-Antoine Berman, The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany

The creative power of translation can especially be observed in music in more ways than one:

Anton Webern arranged the Ricercare from Bach’s “Musical Offering” for orchestra. The subject is often split between multiple instruments. This is what Webern’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, called klangfarbenmelodie (“sound-color melody”). Webern learned the technique from Schoenberg and utilized klangfarbenmelodie in his own work.

One of my favorite jazz albums is a translation. Cannonball Adderley’s Fiddler on the Roof  takes selections from the Broadway show and, through translation into works for jazz sextet, transforms these numbers into both sensitive and sensational romps.

One could call Madlib’s Shades of Blue a remix album. It can also be interpreted as a translation of Blue Note recordings (remix and translate can be one in the same). How he manipulates the tracks while retaining their spirit is a worthwhile listen. A lot of the creative decisions Madlib makes in his own work are on display here.

Countless other examples exist…

What is special about translation in music is how, as Berman wrote for language, it serves as a means of “creation, transmission, and expansion”. Even as musicians work on original material they translate. That act is then absorbed into their own work and each feed off of other.

But what of translation becoming original material at a certain point? Could one argue that the point of differentiation gets blurry between, say, Webern’s arrangement of Bach and his own Concerto for Nine Instruments? 

Is that not where translation ought to be? Not copying but creating?

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