Peter Tasker

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One More Cup of Saké: Dylan Translated and Transformed


Peter Tasker


Peter Tasker

The Magokoro Brothers –  featured on the soundtrack of the 2003 Dylan movie, Masked & Anonymous  –  turned My Back Pages into a completely different song. Here’s a version by Yo-King (a.k.a. Yoichi Kuramochi) who wrote the Japanese lyrics.

As American poet Robert Frost famously asserted, poetry is what is lost in translation. So it is with the songs of Bob Dylan, which are stuffed with culture-specific references, echoes and layers of meaning that could never be reproduced in another language.

Still, it is well worth making the effort. Goro Nakagawa –  a folk singer, novelist and poet  –  is the brave soul who took on the herculean task of translating Dylan’s collected lyrics into Japanese. The English tome, first published in 2004, contains the 352 Dylan songs officially released between 1962 and 2001. Nakagawa’s Japanese version came out a year later.

Nakagawa’s approach to translation leans towards the purism advocated by Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who believed that “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” In his afterword, Nakagawa explains that he aims to stick as closely as possible to the original text, even at the cost of awkwardness and unnaturalness in the Japanese phrasing.

Several musicians covering Dylan in Japanese have taken a much looser approach. Like the Magokoro Brothers, RC Succession kept the title and melody of a Dylan song while transforming the lyric. Their version of I Shall Be Released is basically an RC Succession song conveying the anti-establishment views of singer Kiyoshiro Imawano.

The late Kiyoshiro‘s reworking of Dylan belongs to the subversive style of translation championed by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. In stark contrast to Nabokov‘s literalism, Borges favoured “happy and creative infidelity” and rejected the sacred status of the original text. “What are the many versions of the Iliad,” he wrote, “if not diverse perspectives on a movable event.”

In Japan Dylan himself has become a “movable event,” available to be interpreted according to the priorities of the interpreter. As long ago as 1964 he delivered his devastating farewell to left-wing activism in the lyrics of My Back PagesYet for Kiyoshiro and likeminded souls “Bob Dylan” remains a symbol of protest and a means of validating their political messages.

Few have come up with anything as extreme as this act of “creative infidelity” perpetrated by veteran punk-rocker Michiro Endo shortly after the triple disaster of March 11th 2011.

Meanwhile, there is a lot more work in store for translator Goro Nakagawa. The real, non-movable Bob Dylan has written many new songs since 2001 and the latest edition of his collected lyrics includes variations and songs that were never officially released.

The book is a heavyweight publication in every sense. With its 960 pages, it weighs in at nearly 6 kilograms.