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Technical Transference or Cultural Adaptation: Songs in Translation

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       Werner Winter has defined the work of a translator as the work of an artist who is asked to create an exact replica of a marble statue but who cannot secure any marble.
       The challenges and frustrations are indeed great, and these might be doubled in size when the translator has to work with song lyrics for these represent a crossover between oral and written genre. As Hervey tells us, the translator will have to start with a recorded ST in an oral medium, then transfers it to the use of written transcript, and ultimately composes a TT which has to be a script suitable for oral performance.
       The sound is a matter of primary concern: it is steadily in one’s ears, not merely on the back of one’s mind. Because of this, the translator cannot render a “faithful” word-by-word translation of the original. He has to compromise, offering after the proper sacrifice, compensation, and cultural transposition, a balanced rendition in the target language, one that can either make the audience believe that the words they are hearing are the words which the composer actually set” or a “translation which enjoys or enjoyed the status of an original ST in the target culture.”
       The latter is known as “covert translation,” the one Rosalino Cellamare, alias Ron, gives us after having worked on the notes and lyrics of Jackson Browne’s The Road. When his rendition made its apparition in the Italian market in the early 80s, the public was not aware of the song’s background and took it at face value as the new creation of this young songwriter who presented it with seven other songs in his LP entitled Una Citta’ per Cantare. First of the group, this “covert translation” gives away Ron’s optimistic view of a dedicated musician life, matching once again the image he has created for himself. It does not match the effect, tone, and purpose of Jackson Browne’s original text, labored and delivered in the 70s in a post-Vietnam America.
       This represented indeed my first challenge, as editor and critic of Ron’s rendition. Firstly, I could not, then and now, take it as an original for I knew Jackson Browne’s text; secondly I was quite aware of both cultures and situations and found difficult to “accept” some free renditions which totally “corrupt” main concepts and problems of the American generation, the pop culture, and the author himself. If Ron gives us a crescendo of optimism, love for music, pain-free cuts and fresh starts, Browne’s album (Running on Empty) is a crescendo of frustration in the realms of love and music, picturing life as this constant move on the road that the author, as any other pop star, has to endure.
       After a momentary panic and disappointment, I had to admit that the Italian equivalence is, in spite of some inconsistency which I will soon uncover, a good work of art for it summarized the main original objectives, tailors them to the Italian market and the individual figure of the singer, and redeems itself with a year 2000 performance where the two authors, Ron and Browne, sing together, sharing stanzas, and even switching languages (the mystery is finally revealed and responsibility is taken: bravo, Ron). Thus, according to Nida, we are dealing with a “dynamic equivalence,” one that cares about the response of the receptor. This response can never be identical, for the cultural and historical settings are too different, and, I should add, the image of the performer is also at stake.
       Ron was fully aware of the fact that everyone looked (and looks) at him as the boy next-door and that the Italian culture could not easily accept any product that supports a lascivious conduct of life, of abandonment to heavy drugs, sex, and desperation which Jackson Browne so naturally describes in his text. His “cocaine afternoons” become for Ron and the Italian audience a very ambiguous “fumarti il pomeriggio,” which denotes either the smoking of a cigarette in the afternoon, the wasting of an afternoon, or even, in a very restricted jargon for Italian youth, a smoke of marijuana.
       Following the same philosophy and cultural dictates, the naughty girls in the back seat of “daddy’s cars” disappear or rather transform themselves into girls who “cannot” offer anything to anyone who does not enjoy good reputation, income, and a certain prestige. Finally the life of the artist turns from the insecure, nostalgic nights spent on the bus or inside hotel rooms into the lively life of huge stages, underlined by an interaction of fans and vedette, and his attempts to please them more than himself.
       But as with any man-made creation, perfection is impossible to attain. Ron decides, in fact, to leave some cues that are of primary importance in Browne’s text but that create problems and generate confusion amongst the Italian listeners within the renewed structure of the text Ron now proposes. The first example is given by the “hotel rooms” which are at the core of the ST, for all songs in Browne’s album were recorded in hotel rooms, and they also indicate the restriction and solitude of the soul of the author in contrast with the road that opens in front of him. Ron mentions “vecchi alberghi” twice: the first time, they are presented to the audience as “trasformati;” the second time they are “dimenticati.”
       The Italian audience is puzzled by these concepts: what is the meaning of these two lines? Usually concerts, public representations, recordings (especially the ones of Ron in the 80s, who was always followed by a vivacious and variegated band with artists of national caliber, i.e. Lucio Dalla and Francesco de Gregori) are done in “arene,” which is the word I chose coupled by “autostrade,” which are the ones that take you from one city to the other, instead of Ron’s “grandi strade.” In Italy there are no big roads, and if one is talking about the medium-sized country roads, these are certainly not able to take you outside of the city or region.
       The second inconsistency is the maintained word “luna,” which again is a key term in Browne’s text, in contrast with the stars (his dreams, the unreachable), but which pops up only once in Ron’s Italian rendition, when he compares it with the faces of the girls the author has met along the way. The response of the public is again one of confusion.
       The third inconsistency, one that this time Ron introduces personally, showing in fact no adherence to the original text, is the twice repeated “canti, smetti e canti,” and “provi, smetti e provi.” This linking device, positioned just before the refrain, proves to be faulty for along the text the author has claimed that he never wants and can stop: yet he stops twice, once to sing, and once to test the songs prior to his public performance.
       Two couples of much healthier triplets would be, according to me, “canti, sogni e canti,” and consistently and coherently, “provi, sogni e provi,” which will also restore the struggle the author has to endure between reality and dreams.
       These few changes, together with some more subtle ones, as, for example, some wording in the refrain, some verbs here and there to better tie the author’s willingness to please others on one side, and his agony to reach happiness on the other, were not easy for me due to the criteria followed by both songwriters regarding the song’s rhymes. If one can see consistent 2/4/6/8 pairs in Jackson Browne’s lyrics, Ron’s translation turns them into 1/5 2/7 6/8, and in the following stanza, 2/7 3/6 4/8, to suit the length of the Italian words and the smoothness of the musical rendition. I had to be faithful to his structure. After a preliminary very literary draft, I had to adjust my vocabulary to his metrical system, and test it to be able to sing it with the same elegance, easiness, and sonority that the TT delivers.
       I have to say that, in spite of the challenges and frustrations translation work never fails to create for its committed craftsman, the joy of that one moment when the translator can finally look and admire his/her final product is far too bigger in stature and degree to give up. Winter is right when he says that an exact replica of a marble statue seems impossible especially when one cannot secure the marble and has to wander around to collect wood, clay, or any suitable material which could replace and maybe repeat the effect of the chosen stone. What he forgets to say is that, after numerous nights sweating for the physical and mental fatigue, like Michelangelo, the translator looks at his creation and in awe says: “Talk to me!” He is able to meet, face to face, his voice within.


Autostrade e arene
Nuovi testi maturati
Tu scrivi anche di notte
Perche’ di notte non dormi mai
Buio anche tra i fari
Tra ragazzi come te
Tu canti, sogni e canti
Sai che li accontenterai
Caffe’ alla mattina
Puoi fumarti il pomeriggio
Si parlera’ del tempo
Se c’e’ pioggia non partirai
Quante interurbane
Per dire come stai
Raccontare dei successi e dei fischi non parlarne mai
E quando ti fermi convinto che
Ti si puo’ ricordare
Hai davanti un lungo viaggio e una citta’ per cantare.

Alle ragazze non chieder niente
Perche’ niente ti voglion dare
Se il tuo nome non e’ sui giornali
O si fa dimenticare
Lungo la strada
Queste facce diventano una
Che finisci per scordar tutte
Non ti innamori di nessuna
E quando ti fermi convinto che
Ti si puo’ ricordare
Hai davanti un altro viaggio e una citta’ per cantare.

Autostrade e arene
Vecchi testi trasformati
Io non so se ti conviene
I tuoi timori dove sono andati ?
Buia e’ la sala : devi ancora cominciare
Tu provi, sogni e provi
La canzone che dovrai cantare
E non ti fermi convinto che
Ti si puo’ ricordare
Hai davanti una canzone nuova e una citta’ per cantare.

Highways and dancehalls Grandi strane piene
A good song takes you far Vecchi alberghi trasformati
You write about the moon Tu scrivi anche di notte
And you dream about the stars P erche’ di notte non dormi mail
Blues in old motel rooms Buio anche tra i fari
Girls in daddy’s cars Tra ragazzi come te
You sing about the nights Tu canti, smetti e canti
And you laugh about the scars Sai che non ti fermerai
Coffee in the morning Caffe’ alla mattina
Cocaine afternoons Puoi fumarti il pomeriggio
You talk about the weather Si parlera’ del tempo
And you grin about the rooms Se c’e’ pioggia non suonerai
Phone calls long distance Quante interurbane
To tell how you’ve been Per dire come stai
Forget about the losses, you exaggerate Raccontare dei successi e dei fischi non
the wins parlarne mai
And when you stop to let’em know E se ti fermi convinto che
You’ve got it down Ti si puo’ ricordare
It’s just another town along the road. Hai davanti un altro viaggio e una citta’ per cantare.
The ladies come to see you Alle ragazze non chieder niente
If your name still rings a bell Perche’ niente ti posson dare
They give you damn near nothin’ Se il tuo nome non e’ sui giornali
And they’ll say they knew you well O si fa dimenticare
So you tell’em you’ll remember Lungo la strada
But they know it’s just a game Tante face diventano una
And along the way their faces Che finisci per dimenticare
All begin to look the same O la confondi con la luna
And when you stop to let’em know Ma quando ti fermi convinto che
You got it down Ti si puo’ ricordare
It’s just another town along the road. Hai davanti un altro viaggio e una citta’ per cantare.
Well it isn’t for the money        Grandi strade piene
And it’s only for awhile Vecchi alberghi dimenticati
You stalk about the rooms Io non so se ti conviene
And you roll away the miles I tuoi amori dove sono andati?
Gamblers in the neon, clinging to guitars Buia e’ la sala: devi ancora cominciare
You’re right about the moon Tu provi, smetti e provi
But you’re wrong about the stars La canzone che dovrai cantare
And when you stop to let’em know E non ti fermi convinto che
You got it down Ti si puo’ ricordare
It’s just another town along the road. Hai davanti una canzone nuova e una citta’ per cantare.


1. Werner Winters, “Impossibilities of Translation.” The Craft and Context of Translation. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1964. 93-112.
2. Hervey. Thinking Spanish Translation. London: Routledge, 1995. 145.
3. W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman as cited by Joseph Kerman, “Translation for Music,” The Cract and Context of Translation. 147-164.
4. Ernst-August Gutt, Translation and Relevance. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 2000. 47.
5. Nida and Taber as cited by Gutt, 70.

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