“When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.”
Dylan’s reaction (or lack thereof) to the announcement of his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature has drawn considerable disapproval. Of course he does not particularly need any extra adulation, and his low-key response has tended to be interpreted as disdain. However I think he’s made up for it in his acceptance speech. The scolds still disapprove of his not turning up to deliver it — I don’t know. It seems to me there could be any number of reasons, and I personally don’t feel at all offended that he hasn’t really given us one. In so far as his reaction is paralleled by his publishing policy, I think all we need to reflect on is that he sees himself as writing songs not literature, just as, as he says in his acceptance speech, Shakespeare saw himself as writing stage plays. Perhaps it’s just modesty that makes his work relatively unavailable in book form; though maybe it’s a rather immodest modesty that compares oneself with Shakespeare. However not all authors have to rush to print. The song’s the thing . . .
Tim Parks, interesting as always at The New York Review of Books‘ NYR Daily blog, focuses on the problem of translation and comprehension by non-native English speakers. Poetry is of course notoriously hard to translate.* Compromises have to be made between meaning, sound, rhythm, rhyme, meter etc., and the best we can look for in translated poetry is perhaps a real poem in a new language, inspired by the original, rather than an absolute equivalent. It is difficult to see how many people can get too much out of poetry in a foreign language which they can’t speak. A life-time’s study of Russian can no doubt get you a better appreciation of Eugene Onegin, but you can never really experience it as a Russian if you were not born a Russian. There are huge amounts of cultural baggage you’d need to shoulder, and a life time is too short a time for such study. We just have to make do with what we can achieve on our own. Personally I have never really been able to work out what it was pop and rock singers are saying when I hear their songs in English anyway. For example I always thought Herman’s Hermits were saying “She’s a muscular boy; a complete impossibility”.** Just imagine what the words of Dylan’s songs must sound like to an Arabic, Mandarin, etc. speaker. That doesn’t mean that the songs don’t mean anything to foreigners: obviously they do. The meaning of a song goes beyond the words alone. One might wonder to what extent the Swedish Academy got it, without having to use that skepticism as a reason to question the awarding of the deserved prize.
* Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei provides evidence for the “impossibility” of translation.
** I am told that I should point out for readers no “hipper” than me, that the correct words are in fact “She’s a must to avoid”. Excitingly I learn that I am not alone in this misreading. Am I Right has a Misheard Song Lyrics page. They tell us there’s even a word for this error: mondegreen! The OED tells us that this word comes from “The Lady Mondegreen”, a mishearing of “They laid him on the green” from the ballad The Bonny Earl of Murray. The word was coined in 1954 by Sylvia Wright in Harper’s Magazine.