Lost in translation

by CarlD

JohnM asks if the voles are really dead! Only as dead as we’re dead, I’d say, or as alive as we make ourselves. But I’ve been doing my micro-blogging on Facebook, so his comment jostled me to realize I could just go ahead and do some of it here to get things moving a bit.

I’m reading Murakami’s 1Q84, and enjoying it. Via Overdrive, btw, a cool library app. And I just came across this:

She entered the bar a little after seven. A young piano and guitar duo were playing “Sweet Lorraine.” Their version was a copy of an old Nat King Cole record, but they weren’t bad.

The use of ‘copy’ here is odd. There’s a general oddness of the prose, which is clearly a theme of the book. It may be a theme of Murakami, but I don’t have the background to assess that. In this book there seem to be adjacent dimensions in partial contact; the signal of this so far is that things are a little off. So is this one of those? Or does Murakami not know that a ‘copy’ of a song is conventionally called a ‘cover’? (No idea if that distinction exists in Japanese – John?) Or did the translator miss one here? Or are they both playing with similarity and simulation in a way that needs to be teased at in language?

Anyway, this then got me thinking about the first time I was introduced to the concept of a ‘cover’. I was young but already aware of music, and it was via our family friend Luther Dogan, the partner of Dyke the Elder’s colleague Paul Snyder. Luther was a professional musician who, if I remember correctly, did mostly backing vocals. He used the word ‘cover’ in conversation and then explained it to me when I was confused. I remember rolling it around in my brain quite a bit, probably one of my earlier exposures to metaphorical language that doesn’t map neatly onto the naive meaning it’s applied to.

I also think of Luther frequently because one of the times I remember being just plain wrong was in a much later conversation with him about Ry Cooder, in which I confidently asserted that “Paradise and Lunch” was Cooder’s first album. I don’t know why I thought that, but it wasn’t, and Luther knew it. But he was very gentle about prompting me to reconsider, and graciously dropped it when I didn’t.

I also think about Luther a lot because he was the Black partner of a White man, which I later learned was supposed to be a big deal in several dimensions. But it wasn’t a big deal at all – they were just our friends Paul and Luther.


18 Comments to “Lost in translation”

  1. “Copy” sounds off to me, too. But Murakami’s translator is highly regarded. I’d have to check with him to know whether this usage is deliberate.

    That said, just to keep the conversation going, I will offer my vague impression that “kopi” the Japanese adaptation of “copy” may be used more broadly in Japanese than the original is in English. What is retained, however, is the notion that a copy will never be quite as good as the original, that a copy is, ipso facto, a fake and, in some contexts, a deliberate fraud.

    This is, however, only speculation, to be consumed with large quantities of soy sauce.

  2. Per Wiki, Sweet Lorraine was written in 1928, tune by Burwell and lyrics by Parish (who also wrote the lyrics to Stardust), and made popular in that same year by Rudy Vallee. The song became a standard, covered by many artists over the subsequent decades, perhaps most notably by Nat Cole. I’d presume that the young cats in Murakami’s bar were copying Cole’s cover style as opposed to, say, Sinatra’s or Chet Baker’s versions of the same tune.

    Shortly before moving away from Boulder I engaged in an extended chat with one of our next-door hipster neighbors, a guy studying for his Ph.D. in poetry at the U of Colorado. When we got to talking about Murakami, he informed me that he and his other two roommates each owned a copy of 1Q84. (It should be noted in passing that a cover of a book is not the same as a copy of a book.)

  3. “I don’t know whose idea Haruki Murakami was, but it seems to be paying off. ”

    – the first sentence of an online summary/review of Murakami’s new novel.

  4. So tonight we watched an episode of The Good Wife in which the case happened to revolve around whether the defendant illegally copied the plaintiff’s cover version of a song.

  5. This is great! You guys are getting through to me – my creativity is blooming! But wait – why do I feel so anxious all of a sudden?

  6. I had planned to drop 1 or 2 somewhat relevant short comments per day until the author of this post showed up. Now that I’m let off the hook, I have to figure out what to do with the 3 queued-up comment topics that I won’t get to use here. Okay fine, here’s one: before Murakami decided to start writing novels he ran a jazz club, so he probably got to hear plenty of covers and covers of covers.

  7. But, says the anthropologist, he ran a Jazz club in Japan. We cannot assume that “cover” or “copy” or their local equivalents mean here what they do in the U.S. jazz world. Just saying, you know.

  8. Having written my previous comment, I emailed a friend, a long-term expat, fellow translator, who has lived in Japan longer than we have and is, by happy coincidence, a jazz guitarist who studies with a modestly famous Japanese teacher. His reply to my query follows:

    “So what’s the original Japanese???

    “I’ve not noticed anything odd in Japanese in this area: “cover” is about exact copies of a pop tune, and “copying” is about copying a solo. For standards, you don’t talk about copying a Nat King Cole song, you talk about playing/perfoming/doing a Nat King Cole song.

    “So assuming the Japanese isn’t completely wacky, it’s a mistranslation, at least in the sense of rendering something that’s natural in Japanese as unnatural in English. Perhaps more a problem of the translator not being that much of a musician than a translation error. Also, although Cole wrote a lot of songs (Unforgettable, of course), a lot of his hits were written by others, e.g. Route 66, Mona Lisa. So another translation problem is the issue of the author (or character) thinking that a tune is Cole tune when it’s actually someone else’s tune. So you’ve got at least three levels of misunderstanding: does Murakami himself understand this? If so, was he intentionally depicting a character of shallow knowledge? Did the translator understand that question?

    “There’s also the issue (especially) in Japan, that if you play standards, the copyright police demands that the venue pays a flat rate in lieu of specific royalties, and that flat rate is enough to make failing clubs fail faster. But since the chord sequence of a tune isn’t copyrightable, lots of people write “contrafacts*”.


    “There are lots of rabbit holes to get one’s head stuck in here.”

  9. I admit that I’ve not read the novel in question, and even if I had I’d probably have just read the controversial sentence without a second look. I have read other novels by Murakami, including Norwegian wood. The book begins with a kind of musical Proustian madeleine:

    I was thirty-seven then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to the Hamburg airport. Cold November rains drenched the earth and lent everything the gloomy air of a Flemish landscape: the ground crew in rain gear, a flag atop a squat airport building, a BMW billboard. So — Germany again.

    Once the plane was on the ground, soft music began to flow from the ceiling speaker: a sweet orchestral cover version of the Bealtes’ “Norwegian Wood.” The melody never failed to send a shudder through me, but this time it hit me harder than ever…

    Originally published in 1987, Norwegian Wood first appeared in English in 2000, translated by Jay Rubin, professor of Japanese humanities at Harvard. 1Q84 came later: the Japanese in 2011, English a year later; again the translator was Jay Rubin. So at least there’s a precedent for Rubin using the term “cover” in conformity with common American music parlance.

    As I go down this particular rabbit hole i reach a fork in the burrow. One way would lead to a comparison of the English translations with the original Japanese in both novels. Is the word translated “copy” in 1?84 the same as or different from the word translated “cover” in Norwegian Wood? I have no knowledge of Japanese, so I can’t follow this particular trail. Still, isn’t there something pedantic about regarding a precise word-for-word translation as being somehow better than a translation that captures the original’s meaning and tone even if different words are required to do so? It’s kind of like saying that a copy is better than a cover.

    The alternative path: am I prepared to go down there? I’ve apprised my family of the situation, and they’ve asked me a pertinent question regarding motivation: would I do it out of personal curiosity, or to win a pissing contest? My response: which is the better answer? They shrugged.

  10. I’m all for pissing. We will call you the Pissing Bandit.

    The novel itself is steeped in both mystery and oddness. Every character ain’t quite right; their psychologies and situations are at least a little off. Aomame the feminist icepick assassin’s breasts are both too small and lopsided (by her own assessment), and she has apparently entered an alternate dimension she is calling 1Q84, an event apparently triggered by the unlikely familiarity of an obscure Czech composer’s “Sinfonietta.” Among many other cues, plus the intel you guys have supplied, I feel pretty comfortable giving Rubin credit for intention with the choice of ‘copy’ in the case we’re examining, which then compiles with the other evidence to suggest that the nested concepts of copying / covering / translation / identity are a key theme. I even wonder if the pun of copy = understand is involved.

    Meanwhile Tengo, the other main character (there are two main narratives, so far juxtaposed without explicit overlap that I’ve noticed) is involved in an increasingly elaborate scheme to defraud the literary establishment to win major awards by rewriting the haunting but stylistically naive novella of a young country girl (herself having dyslexia, perhaps ‘copy error’); who, it now turns out, did not herself write it either, but dictated it to an even younger girl.

    This is a fun book, and a fun conversation.

  11. Btw “cover version” is redundant. I now feel slow to call that phrasing sloppy.

  12. Just popping in to wish everyone a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year, with lots of new ideas.

  13. You too, John! Been doing any mochi pounding?

  14. Thank you for this post I am Luther’s younger sister and I miss him dearly. He wwas an excellent musician and very astute music historian who taught me about many genre’s of music he was an extraordinary talent!

  15. So nice to hear from you, Donna! I wish I’d had a more direct connection to Luther as a musician, but it was always so clear he knew his stuff, and I remember him making astute observations on a variety of topics. You’re so right – he was an impressive guy.

  16. “Cover songs are not just new takes, not simply modernizations of old cultural material, but are necessary dips into the continuum of music. They are adaptations, engagements, and more importantly, re-codings of latent cultural products and materials.”

    In his essay Annotated Playlist: Cover Songs, self-styled “DJ, writer, activist, student, and basketball enthusiast” Justin Hogg cites Benjamin, Jameson, Brecht, and Lester Bangs to support his case, most of which I skipped over. But there are also some pretty cool covers linked in the post. As I write this I’m listening to Japanese chanteuse Jun Togawa’s “demented and twisted” treatment of the doo-wop standard “Angel Baby.” By referring to “cover songs” rather than “cover versions” or (non-redundantly/reductionistically) “covers,” Hogg is presumably emphasizing that a cover is a unique song in its own right. He concludes: “Repetition doesn’t mean perfection, but it always means change.”

  17. Fucked up my link there — out of practice I guess. Hopefully you can fix it Carl?

  18. Here’s an article relevant both to this thread and to DtE’s latest post about kneading and blending: “The Murakami Effect: On the Homogenizing Dangers of Easily Translated Literature”

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