Getting Lost in the “Translating”

In the written word, we all know that some things can be misunderstood. Misinterpreted. Subtle cues and clues can be overlooked. Puns can be missed. Intended plays-on-words can be taken too narrowly—one-dimensionally—thereby losing their force. And, etc.

I suspect this happened in my last post “Translating Sorrow”. The word “translating” is multivalent, with a few different nuances. I intentionally played on those nuances. From dictionary.com are the following definitions for translate:

1) to turn from one language into another or from a foreign language into one’s own: to translate Spanish.

2) to change the form, condition, nature, etc., of; transform; convert: to translate wishes into deeds.

3) to explain in terms that can be more easily understood; interpret.

4) to bear, carry, or move from one place, position, etc., to another; transfer.

The first definition was clearly used in the translation of the Polish subtitle of Górecki’s work. Yet the second was intended in my reference to Psalm 30:5, both at the beginning of the first section (Weeping may spend the night…) and the end of it (Weeping may spend the night, but with the morning: joy [Psalm 30:5; cf. Luke 24:1-10; John 20:10-18]).

The cue was in its bookending—its opening and closing of the section. A further clue was the added Luke and John references in the parentheses. Both these sections of Scripture refer to the disciples’ post-Crucifixion distress and their subsequent post-Resurrection joy—mirroring Psalm 30:5. That is, their sorrow was ‘translated’ into joy.

Further, the text of “Holy Cross Lament” depicts Mary’s sorrow at the Crucifixion. Of course, we all know that this temporary distress was alleviated at Jesus’ Resurrection. Hence, again, my inclusion of the Luke and John references next to Psalm 30:5.

In the Giya Kancheli section, the composer’s persistent sorrow was ‘translated’ into his music, exemplifying 2 above. Later, he apparently yielded to some optimism following his friends’ rescuing him from the brink of death. This represents definition 4 above. Moreover, this literally life-altering event may have moved Kancheli (I opined this, in hope) from his seeming indifference to his Christian heritage to a (re)affirmation of Christian faith. Assuming so, once again definition 4 would apply here.

Lots of ‘translations’ in one post!

Translating Sorrow

Psalm 30:5: Weeping may spend the night…

Sorrow. Sometimes I perceive it in the eyes that look through me at the store. Sometimes I see it in the aging man’s eyes peering back at me in the mirror. Sometimes it seems all-pervasive.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that of late I’ve been drawn to neo-Classical composers who have works in this vein.

Henryk Górecki

Already familiar with Polish composer Henryk Górecki, I decided to try the Nonesuch Records 1992 release of Symphony #3, aka Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Stricken, I played it over and over for a time. Unbeknownst to me, the disc somehow became popular the year it came out, eventually selling over a million copies—well above typical Classical sales levels.

The symphony consists of three movements, each a different song. The text of the first is taken from a 15th century Polish prayer as from the point of view of Mary, mother of Jesus, called “Holy Cross Lament”:

My son, my chosen and beloved
Share your wounds with your mother
And because, dear son, I have always carried you in my heart,
And always served you faithfully,
Speak to your mother, to make her happy,
Although you are already leaving me, my cherished hope.1

The subject of the third movement is similar to the first in that it is from the perspective of a mother and about her son. In this one, using text from a Polish folk song, the mother knows her son is dead but cannot find his body. Despite this, she finds some solace.

Between these two is the shortest of the three, both in terms of text and music, this one themed opposite of the others. An 18 year old Polish girl, in poetry to Mary, pleads with her to not weep for her. The words were inscribed on a basement wall in what was then Gestapo headquarters in Zakopane, Poland. The young woman, identifying herself as Helena Wanda Blażusiakówna, dates the start of her imprisonment as 26 September, 1944.

In native Polish the subtitle of this three movement symphony is Symfonia pieśni żałosnych. The English rendering (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) inadequately captures its rich multivalence. According to the liner notes,

[t]he subtitle . . . has suffered much in translation. Pieśni is simply ‘songs’; but the qualifying Żałosnych is archaic, and more comprehensive than its modern English, German, or French equivalents. It comprises not only the wordless ‘songs’ of the opening double basses and monastic lament, but also the prayer and exhortation (“Do not weep”) of the Zakopane graffito, and the lullaby, both elegiac and redemptive, of the final folk song.

The final three verses of the folk song exhibit acceptance and hope:

Perhaps the poor child lies in a rough ditch
And instead he could have been lying in his warm bed

Oh, sing for him God’s little song-birds
Since his mother cannot find him

And, you, God’s little flowers, may you blossom all around
So that my son may sleep happily2

Weeping may spend the night, but with the morning: joy (Psalm 30:5; cf. Luke 24:1-10; John 20:10-18).

Giya Kancheli

Forget writing music like Giya Kancheli’s, I’d be ecstatic if I could write prose the way he does. The introduction to his Piano Quartet in l’istesso tempo (1998) can nearly serve as a preface to his oeuvre following his 1991 emigration from his native homeland of Georgia (post-dissolution of the Soviet Union):

Again and again we witness with deep regret how, despite the obvious improvements of the civilized world, our planet is still torn apart by bloodshed and conflicts. And no artistic creation can withstand the destructive force that so easily rejects the fragile process of progress.

Taking everything that goes on around me very much to heart, I try to express my own mental state in music. In essence, I write for myself without harboring any illusions that—as Dostoevsky put it—‘beauty will save the world’.

So my music is sad, rather than joyful, and the coloring of my personality means it is not at all destined to find a wide audience. One won’t find any calls here to struggle, to equality, to the bright future. Rather, one will find bitter sorrow over the imperfection of a society that cannot draw lessons from the most terrible historical examples.

I express my thoughts in an extremely simple musical language. I’d like to believe that listeners will not be left cold by my music, and will not identify its deliberate simplicity with what I think is the most dangerous feeling: indifference.3

Yes; it’s been said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.

Yet Kancheli exhibits seeming indifference to his own region’s religious tradition. For his composition Time…and again he slices a verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians out of context, applying these words to the contents of this work:

Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not (1:20).4

In the notes to another release, a writer observes that “[u]nlike Pärt and Górecki, Kancheli makes no direct appeal to Christian doctrine”, but is inspired by ‘the widely understood feeling of religiousness which is manifest in all music dearest to [his] heart.’5

In verbiage accompanying the 2004 release Diplipito is a review of Kancheli’s Valse, Boston written by John von Rhein from Chicago Tribune: “…Nobody conjures troubled landscapes in sound like Kancheli. He has given [us] a bleak, very Eastern view of modern existence, but the effect is cleansing.”6 I think that’s the essence of why Kancheli writes: catharsis. I know that’s what I derive from most of his works.

The title piece (Diplipito) of the release referenced just above appropriates a line from Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky: “My work of silence, my mute creation…” For the part of the countertenor, Kancheli’s score is marked simply: “Meaningless words from a Georgian epic.”7 Is Kancheli playing us here? Is a clue found in the dedication to the companion piece Valse, Boston: “To my wife, with whom I’ve never danced.”?8 Or should these works be understood alongside his others of the time, such that the former expresses the inexpressible with wordless utterances, while the latter states the sad truth that he’d never danced with his wife? I suppose dancing seems a needless luxury when one feels such persistent, crushing sorrow.

Yet the 2015 release Chiaroscuro sees a turn in outlook. The meaning inherent in the title of the title track is the juxtaposition of light and shade—contrasts. This piece is paired with Twilight, an apparent self-reference to his advanced years. In his notes on Twilight, Kancheli observes from his desk a pair of poplar trees. They change with the seasons from spring, to summer, to fall, and then winter, in which the bare branches reveal, “a perspective reaching into infinity…”9 This functions as a metaphor for life:

After being seriously ill, I now associate the wonders of nature with human life. Up to a certain point we do not pay attention to problems with our health. And then, suddenly, comes a moment of serious trial, when life—to speak metaphorically—hangs by a hair. It’s only a combination of circumstances that allows us to return and continue it—temporarily, alas, in comparison to my poplars.10

He dedicated Twilight to Julia Mironova-Khoperiya and Sergie Mironov:

The Lord has given them a rare goodness that cannot be expressed in words. I don’t know whether I could even partially depict it in my music. I am infinitely grateful to fate for the fact that these two people were beside me at the critical moment, and literally brought me back to life…and to my poplars.11

We are never more alive when trials and tribulations subside.

Kancheli passed away 2 October, 2019. I’d like to think he (re)embraced the Christian faith—that he embraced Christ—before his passing.

In homage to the composer, I direct you to this version of Chiaroscuro:

_________________________________

1 English translation by Krystyna Carter, ©1992 Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers, Ltd (unpaginated).
2 Ibid.
3 Text here is an amalgamation and a slight adaptation of the liner notes from ECM New Series 1767, In l’istesso tempo, 2005, pp 17-18 (as translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart) and the liner notes from ECM New Series 2442, Chiaroscuro, 2015, pp 4-5 (translation uncredited).
4 As from ECM New Series 1767, In l’istesso tempo, 2005, p 2 (and p 21).
5 Wilfrid Miller’s notes to Vom Winde beweint, ECM New Series 1471, 1992 (unpaginated).
6 Taken from ECM Records’ description for ECM New Series 1773, 2004. (The bracketed “us” replaces “as” in the text, which I take as a typographical error.)
7 As translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart in the liner notes to ECM New Series 1773, p 14 (see immediately preceding note).
8 ECM New Series 1773, p 2.
9 Taken from ECM New Series 2442, p 7 (no translator credit).
10 Ibid.
11 ECM New Series 2442, p 16.

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