German, Dutch, English, Japanese, Italian, and French editions of Gödel, Escher, Bach.
There are some interesting similarities and differences between ‘interpretation’ and ‘translation.’ They both involve a transformation of some kind, where information (and by extension, meaning) is preserved between a source domain and a target domain. With translation, the success of the move is seemingly measured by the extent to which we recognize the original in the target domain. The emphasis, though, seems to be on what is preserved between the two domains, whereas with an interpretation the emphasis seems to be on the extent of the differences between the two (e.g. “the rhythmic transparency of Glenn Gould’s performances”).
What interests me is the threshold between those characteristics associated with interpretation versus translation when it comes to a musical performance. Clearly they aren’t interchangeable words or processes, but since their meanings have some overlap it has led me to think about where and why we draw distinctions (e.g. “the score didn’t translate well as a jazz trio”).
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter is a seminal work in cognitive science. It was my gateway to studying music cognition, and has remained a personal favorite for some 20 years. GEB contains several dialogs, between Achilles and the Tortoise (à la Lewis Carroll), which are rich in word-play and linguistic nuance. The structure of one dialog in particular, Contracrostipunctus, harbors a double acrostic. Taking the first letter from each turn in dialog yields the following sentence:
“Hofstadter’s Contracrostipunctus Acrostically Backwards Spells J.S. Bach.”
This is a self-referential statement, which is further encoded as a backwards acrostic (starting from the end, with the “h” in Bach):
You can read the original dialog here.
When the publisher expressed interest in issuing foreign-language editions of GEB, there was an initial concern about whether the book was even translatable: how could the “essence” and “meaning” of a book so rooted in word-play (among many other things) be preserved in translation? Hofstadter himself described the kinds of special problems and solutions he encountered during the French translation of GEB, in an essay titled: “The Search for Essence ‘twixt Medium and Message: When Hidden Messages Count More Than the Surface Message” in Traductio: Essays on Punning and Translation, edited by Dirk Delabastita, St. Jerome Publishing, 1997.
In terms of Contracrostipunctus, the character and capacity of each language necessitated the creation of a new acrostic (which, by extension, required a new second-level backward acrostic as well). But the translation still needed to be a faithful rendering of the original dialog; the word-play had to be supported both linguistically and culturally (e.g. puns, etc.) In other words, the dialog also had to be interpreted in terms of the target language.
In music, one is more likely to use the word “interpretation” rather than “translation.” For example, we might speak of a violinist’s interpretation of the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin. In that instance, it seems the source domain is the score, and the target domain is the performance; we discard the common denominator between the two (the notes themselves) and evaluate the extent of what’s left: the interpretation (i.e. how the notes were specifically performed).
When we speak of translation in music, we tend to discard the differences (the vagaries of individual performances) and measure the extent of what is left in common between the two domains (i.e. the notes themselves), and evaluate things based on how much of it has been preserved between the two. For example, a polyphonic piece written for keyboard would require something akin to a translation in order to be performed on a single flute: some music would have to be cut which could drastically alter the identity of the piece. Listening to the flute performance for the first time, the focus would likely be on whether the essence of the piece has been preserved (i.e. is it recognizable as being the “same” piece), rather than on the qualities of the interpretation. And if the flute piece strays too far from the original, then one might say it failed to “translate”—yet it could still be enjoyable on its own terms, as an interpretation.
Could you simultaneously be a bad translator and a good interpreter? How about at the United Nations?
Musical translations such as the one mentioned above are usually referred to as arrangements or even transcriptions (“transcribe”, from Latin transcribere, from trans– ‘across’ + scribere ‘write’). Yet writing an arrangement requires the ability to translate; the arranger needs to be familiar with the the capacities and characteristics of the ‘language’ of music, the ‘language’ of performance, and the ‘culture’ of each instrument or else the arrangement will seem to fall short on one level—no matter how good the interpretation.
Part two of this post will discuss some musical excerpts, and how some parts seemingly required translating before they could be interpreted.