My Poor Bagpipes

In search of words to combine with music here, I sometimes find it necessary to translate from other languages. Poetry translation involves following strange paths.

Here’s the path I followed to present today’s piece, Jules Laforgue’s “My Poor Bagpipes.”  Throughout this month I’ve been presenting parts of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  as part of my celebration of April as National Poetry Month. This causes me to look more at Eliot and where he derived his sense of modern poetry from. Eliot’s own testimony says that a late 19th Century French poet, Jules Laforgue was very important to his own poetics. That’s about all I knew about Laforgue: important to Eliot.

I search and find some Laforgue poems, though only a couple in English translation. Luckily, there’s a site, that has put a great deal of his work online in its original French. I pick out a handful that have interesting titles or first lines and see what rough machine translations will show me.

As I looked at the rough translations I was struck by déjà vu—only in English of course. “Hey, that sounds familiar! I’ve read something like this poem.” In French it was Poètes a Venir,” and of course it was Walt Whitman’s “Poets to Come.”  It appears that Laforgue may have been among the first to translate America’s Whitman to French in 1886, while Whitman was still alive. And from his work translating Whitman, Laforgue began to write “vers libre”—free verse, himself, helping to pioneer that idea in French poetry.

Chat Noir Poster2

“The very illustrious company of the black cat with his famous shadow plays, his poets his composers.” Remembered by its posters long after it closed, the Chat Noir cabaret was a place where music and poetry mixed in 19th Century Paris. A very Parlando Project thing, no?


I will not be translating Laforgue’s translations of Whitman back to English here. I picked his “Air de Biniou”  to try, primarily because I was intrigued by the first line “No, No, my poor bagpipes.” I’m attracted to incongruity and black humor, and I kept double-checking to make sure that line’s “cornemuse” in French must mean “bagpipes.” The poem’s first verse seemed to refer to the bagpipes’ famously raw timbre and pitch issues: “everything is a mistake, everything turns out bad” claims Laforgue’s first stanza.

Inserting gratuitous bagpipe joke:

Why do bagpipers walk while they play?

To get away from the sound.

As I worked on it, I had trouble with several words, two or three of which I’m still unsure I’ve translated correctly. This may be a general issue for anyone translating Laforgue, as he liked to play with language and meanings, sometimes using unusual words. But I soon had a more serious issue, after dealing with “occit” in the second stanza. A poet’s images are not his literal manifesto, and irony was part of Laforgue’s stance. In this second stanza he says Nature is a wife the artist will kill. I get his point: the artist thinks they can better the mundaness of nature and create something new and above it. And it’s nature—an inanimate concept, not a person. Yet and all, it’s still a too-casual image of a too-serious and widespread problem, domestic violence, for me to be happy with it. Looks like this is a general issue with Laforgue too. He consistently used images of women, sex and relations with women as a repository for his issues with our biologic nature. In a word: misogyny.

Clearly he’s not alone in this. It could be one of the things Eliot picked up from him too. Like Eliot, he’s not stinting on masculine failures, but this can reveal an attitude that men  fail because of their souls  while women  fail because of their gender.  I tried to mitigate that stanza by dealing with another problematic word in it: “carambole.” It’s a word usually used for a particular fruit, but it’s also a bumper pool game, and something like that later meaning I think was what Laforgue intended. I was going to use something like rebound or carom in my translation, but at the time I performed it, I went with a more archaic meaning of the word where it may refer to cannons. At least that put the poet and Nature in a running battle. I may have made a wrong choice there, but that’s one of the things you run into in translation, needing to convey the author’s outlook which may not be your own.

We have little space left to wander more in the twisted paths you find when translating. I think it can be tremendously helpful for poetry composition, because it puts you, hand in hand with another poet, trying to find the right word with the right sound and connotations.

Bretons' with Bagpipes

“Je suis bagpiper!” says the man in the center. “Daddy, can we talk about the patriarchy and your intonation issues.” says the girl on the right.

But one last thing, those surreal bagpipes in this French poem. Laforgue’s family was from Breton France. Bretons are a Celtic culture, and yes, they have bagpipes. As to my music here, while I enjoy composing string parts and breaking out the classical guitar, sometimes I don’t want to be careful, I just want to grab electric guitars and bash something out. “Everything is a mistake” says Laforgue. Nonetheless. Use the player below to hear it.



March 2018 Parlando Top 10 Part 1

It’s time for that quarterly exercise where we look back for the most popular audio pieces here at the Parlando Project over the past season. I’m going to follow the format we used last time, and break the countdown into four episodes. I base the popularity on the number of likes following their posting here, and the streams the audio pieces received directly from the blog, or on iTunes, Spotify, or other podcast sources. Let’s start the count from the 10th most popular as we move up the list to number 1:

10. Rosemary

Even though these pieces were listened to in the Winter for most of our listeners*, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s words have a kind of spring-cleaning of the heart vibe, and so may be apropos for opening the windows and letting the curtains blow around—or at least they will in a few weeks when it warms up here in the northern part of the northern hemisphere. I awoke to 10 degrees Fahrenheit and snow and polished ice myself today.

I rather liked the music I wrote and performed for this one, just as I have liked going back to Millay to reassess the strengths she brought to poetry. Millay’s popular reading audience, once substantial, hasn’t completely disappeared, and there’s a welcome re-assessment of her poetry starting in academic circles.


9. Stopping by a Woods On a Snowy Evening

I’ve featured Robert Frost’s words quite a bit here, perhaps to atone for my dismissal of him when I was a teenager as the kind of worthy poetry in our schoolbooks that we needed to move beyond. Two things were key to my learning to love Frost: his uncanny ability to write lyrical verse that sounds natural, and my finally noticing the dry wit and stoicism that underlies most of his work.

Frost, alone of his American generation, has retained a level of popular appeal and critical approval. He’s double-edged in maintaining that. Some are captured by the surface of his poetry, hearing and maintaining in their memory the catchy moral-of-the-story “big choruses” of Frost. In this poem, it’s the “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” at the ending. Others listen carefully to the verses, the parts other than the lines we most remember, the parts we can come back to and find that we’ve forgotten were there. When I came to work musically with this poem, I’d forgotten those. There’s no lovely woods to see in this dark night. He may be lost. He’s so dark and alone that he can hear snowflakes sweeping across snowbanks between the jingle of his rig’s harness bells.

Musically, I was obligated to add shaker bells percussion to stand for those harness bells, but then, more obscurely, I decided to add a South-Asian tambura drone for the sweep of snow.



Modigliani’s portrait of Pierre Reverdy


8. Clear Winter

I was a terrible French student in my little Iowa high school and my little Iowa college. I seem to have no ability with languages, and less than no ability to handle those accents and the reforming of the mouth that makes speaking a foreign language possible. But I love poetry translation. I feel like a paleontologist removing the clods of sediment from a skeleton. Slowly, painstakingly, there it is, just as it was in its moment of sudden! But then my task shifts, and I must become the process of fossilization, to find the minerals of English that can fill in for the sinew and feathers of it’s original language.

I had a great time with the challenge of Pierre Reverdy’s “Clair Hiver.” I’m unsure of the accuracy of the “tea-kettle” section of my translation, but I fell in love with it, and could not abandon it, even if the light behind Pierre Reverdy’s eyes cannot reach the little anteroom behind mine.


*web stats I get for the streams tell me I have as many recent listeners in Australia as I have in Texas—and one listener in New Zealand. Bret, please tell Jemaine that there’s a lot of good stuff to read and listen to in the archives you’ll see listed by months on the right.

Mirabeau Bridge

Earlier this month I announced that my performance of Tristan Tzara’s The Death of Apollinaire”  was the most popular piece here last fall. Seeing this, it’s past time to present a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire himself.

If one was to draw a graphical map of the French Modernists of the early 20th Century, corresponding to the English-speaking ones we’ve been talking about a lot here, Apollinaire would be at a central place like Ezra Pound. Apollinaire knew everybody, he influenced everybody; as a critic, he wrote about everybody. Although, like Pound, he held strong opinions about what a more modern art needed, what little I know about how he was experienced as a living artist says that he was also loved by most everybody that he met as well.

Like Tristan Tzara he was an example of a European, though his work was centered in Paris and he wrote largely in French. His mother’s family was Polish or Belarussian, depending on where the borders were drawn at any one time. His father’s background was never definitively known. Born likely in Italy, he had traveled and spent time in several countries, and spoke several languages, before settling in Paris before he was 20.

Portrait of Guillaume Apollinarie by Picasso

“Don’t you be L7!” Picasso’s cubist portrait of Apollinaire

In the visual arts, he invented the word Cubism, and he also was the first to call his work Surrealist. He knew modernists in music, like Satie. He knew the young artists, like Picasso, Chagall, Henri Roussseau. Dadaists considered him an influence and a co-conspirator.

In 1913 he published his best-known collection of poetry “Alcools”  (Alcool is the French word for alcohol). In it, Apollinaire set out his direction in modern poetry, using various forms, often imbued with contemporary colloquial speech and connections to modern technology and urban life. One tic he adopted in “Alcools:”  he dropped the punctuation from his poetry, emphasizing the flow of his words, an effect that could be seen as presaging a modern rapper’s unstoppable flow.

Am I guessing at that? It just so happens, I’m not. On Christmas Eve in 1913, Apollinaire was recorded reading one of the poems from “Alcools:” “Le Pont Mirabeau”  (Mirabeau Bridge), and that recording, encrusted though it is with the scratch and noise of time, survives.

So, today’s piece, with my music and my English translation of his words, leads off with Apollinaire’s own reading of his poem in French.


Mirabeau was the longest bridge in Paris when it was built using using new steel-reinforced methods in 1893.

Translating “Mirabeau Bridge”  was a challenge. Having heard and been transfixed by Apollinaire’s intensely rhymed and recited version, I had to bend my usual translation approach, which skips any attempt to keep the original “music” (the rhyme and meter) of the poem. And as I look at the many attempts to translate this poem to English, I see most tried to at least rhyme it. The Pogues used a rhymed English translation for a nice sung version a few years back.

As I approached “Mirabeau Bridge,”  I whined to my wife: “Richard F’ing Wilbur tried to translate this, and his  version is awkward—and Wilbur’s a master of poetics!”

Why do I usually skip trying to rhyme-up translations? It adds a great deal of difficulty to conveying the poem adequately. It almost always leads to awkward English, particularly when you try to follow a rhyme scheme from the French, with many more words that rhyme, using English, whose poetic tradition did not grow out of rhyming. Having been influenced by French poetry at an early age, when trying for similar effects I often use a variety of imperfect and near-rhymes, something an audience may accept or find grating, depending on their tastes, and that’s what I did here, along with a free and not regular rhyming scheme.

Give a listen. Consider it a trip-hop battle between Apollinaire and myself. Respect to Apollinaire. Can’t bust his moves.

Parlando Project Winter 2017–the Most Popular Piece of the Last Season

The last few days I’ve been looking back over the past three months at the audio pieces that received the most listens and likes from visitors here, and we’ve now counted up to the post revealing the most popular piece.

But before I get to that, let me let newer visitors here know what the Parlando Project is. For the past few years I’ve been experimenting with the ways that words can be used along with music. Most of the words are going to be poetry, if only because I like shorter pieces for this, and poetry accommodates that desire most easily. The music? My goal is: as varied as we can make it. The “we” here are largely myself and Dave Moore, who I’ve played with as the LYL Band since the late 1970s. Dave also is the alternative voice of the Parlando Project, one that’s read or sung several popular pieces during the history of this project.

Dave and I have also been writers (Dave’s also a cartoonist) since our youth, but this project is not, in it’s greater part, about presenting our written work. Rather it’s about looking at a variety of other people’s experiences and expressions, reacting to them, and seeking to embody them in a way we hope you’ll find interesting.

Do we turn the poems into songs? Sometimes. Sometimes they were, or were meant to be, songs anyway (Tagore and Campion for example). But often we aim for something that is cast between spoken word and chant. As best as I can figure out, this is akin to what William Butler Yeats once aimed to do with poetry and poetic drama, and he thought William Blake, Sappho and the Celtic bards did the same. And for myself, in addition to those Yeats pointed to, it’s my spin on what Jack Kerouac, John Lee Hooker, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith (along with others) did.

Rap/Hip Hop does this too, but as varied as those artists’ approaches are, most of their tactics I can’t make work for me. No disrespect, it’s just my limitations.

Well, here’s the Parlando Project’s most popular piece from the last three months: Tristan Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire.”  It was number 3 last September, so it’s been getting the listens since last summer, yet it’s not one I selected because it was well-known or sure to be popular.

Tristan Tzara by Robert Delaunay

Accessorizing with knitted wear was the most important artistic dictum of Dada

Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dada, is not that widely available in English, and even the subject of this elegy, the influential Polish-French writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, has a fame that doesn’t transfer with full brightness off the European continent. I did my own translation from Tzara’s French for this piece. And though I’ve attempted to do this, off and on, since my youth, translating Surrealist, much less Dada, poetry into English has it’s extra complications: to what degree is an image meant to be impenetrable and random, meaningless as a stance; and to what degree is it instead a shockingly fresh juxtaposition?

I have a prejudice for the later. When I am translating poetry I take it for a given that I will not be able to convey the auditory music of the original, though I try to retain the musical development of its statements, and above all, I try to find English words and idiom that will grab the English-speaking reader’s interest with vividness.  This approach has it’s dangers, as I’m not enough of a scholar of the lives of writers or of the their languages to make the most informed decisions, but in the case of “The Death of Apollinaire”  I feel this leads to a very effective and affecting statement about the death of an artist still suffering from his battle wounds just after the end of the WWI.

My limitations aside, I hope I was faithful to Tzara’s voice, and I hope you’ll find it moving too. You can listen to it with the player below.

New pieces will be coming soon, so come back and check, or hit that “Follow this Blog” button up near the top-right to get notices of new pieces.

Call Any Vegetable

As I promised last month, there’s going to be a few more posts here without new audio pieces, discussing some side issues and ideas I’ve run into during the last year or so of the Parlando Project. Some of these are going to be lengthier, and they may not be as interesting to those who come here just hear surprising combinations of music and words. I’m using the tag “About” on this sort of post, so that you can easily filter the audio containing posts (Podcasts) from these.

Today’s post is about what I found as I looked at Tristan Tzara’s poem “Vegetable Swallow.”

Why was I looking at Tzara poetry? I have a long-standing interest in the Surrealists, a movement that followed Dada, and with whom Tzara sometimes made common cause. And my first translation of Tzara for use in an audio piece, his elegy to proto-Surrealist Apollinaire, was unexpectedly popular here, the third most listened-to piece of last summer. So, time to look into some more Tzara I thought.

I own books that I could have searched, but they are poorly stored and arranged, and so I relied on our modern vade mecum, The Internet, to see what else might be out there to compose music with. A familiar search engine found 122,000 results for Tzara poems, but of course all is relative. One of my favorite French Surrealist poets, Paul Éluard, still obscure to many English speakers, had 222,000 results, and Carl Sandburg turned up 448,000. Emily Dickinson? 23,000,000! So Tzara’s poetry is not as widely available as some. I did not look at all 122,000 results, but of the poems I found translated into English, a handful seemed to repeat, and looking through them, I eventually thought one titled “Vegetable Swallow”  had the most potential for use along with music. Here is how it appeared on several web sites, in an unattributed English translation.

two smiles meet towards

the child-wheel of my zeal

the bloody baggage of creatures

made flesh in physical legends-lives


the nimble stags storms cloud over

rain falls under the scissors of

the dark hairdresser-furiously

swimming under the clashing arpeggios


in the machine’s sap grass

grows around with sharp eyes

here the share of our caresses

dead and departed with the waves


gives itself up to the judgment of time

parted by the meridian of hairs

non strikes in our hands

the spices of human pleasures

Why did I select “Vegetable Swallow?”  It was a good, short length. It seemed to have some musical qualities. I liked how it concluded. Some of it was incomprehensible at first take—but it’s Dada isn’t it.  This is, after all, a poet who taunted the art-world with the idea that randomly arranged words could be compared to the value of recognized literary art.

I found I had preferred my own translation of Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire,”  and so I aimed to do my own translation of “Vegetable Swallow”  too.

As I started work on “Vegetable Swallow,”  I first had to find it in the original French. After some searching, I found an edition of Tzara’s “Poésies Complètes”  to work from. Right from the top, at the title, I started to dissent from the English translation used elsewhere. Perhaps you read “Vegetable Swallow”  as Dada: two unrelated words jammed together for the effect of absurdity, but one could also read it in English as a compression of the phrase “Eat your vegetables,” which can be a parent’s command, or a commonplace for feeling obligated to do the unpleasant but necessary thing. But in French, swallow as a verb is not the same word as swallow the bird. Tzara used: “Hirondelle,” and as Minnesota’s own Dada bards The Trashmen once proclaimed: “The Bird is the Word.” I would have chosen “Vegetable Martin” or “Vegetable Bird” as the title, because I clearly think I’m conveying Tzara’s presentation more accurately there—even though, in this case, I’m making the title more hermetic.

The next major puzzle I have is with the second line “l’enfant—une roue de ma ferveur.” In the online text the em dash has changed to a hypen, and we are pressed to visualize a compound noun “child-wheel,” rather than to break the thought after child/l’enfant. I made a more speculative translation of roue/wheel, when I saw that the same French word is used for the gymnastic “cartwheel”. Cartwheel is a very specific, vivid image. It’s also an inside joke relating to the story that Paul Éluard met his wife when she literally cartwheeled down the street. It does the job of making a hyphenated “child-wheel” comprehensible, even if child-wheel’s presence in the Internet version may be a typographical misunderstanding.

In summary, the first stanza is two lovers together, embracing (or at least realizing/admitting) their carnal physicality.

The second stanza to me describes a rain storm above our two lovers. I can’t tell if stags are the storm clouds, or creatures caught in the storm. I chose caught in the storm. Next up I probably make my own mistake, which I’m catching only now. I translated “coiffeur” as simply hair because one of my computer translators had it as hair and I didn’t double-check that, when it now looks like “barber” or “hairdresser,” as in the Internet version, is more likely correct. I love the image of the rain falling down like hair cut by the barber’s scissors. Maybe the image works better if the focus is on the dark hair as heavy rain instead of the immaterial hairdresser, but still, I’m likely wrong on what Tzara wrote.

I make the syntax of the third stanza more English, and I make the most substantial and speculative change in the last line there. I understand “mordues” to not mean dead, as the Internet version has it. It can mean bitten as a verb or a fan/fanatic as a noun from what I find. I chose to go with the fanatic choice. And “parties” can mean part, but it can also be used for a political or other faction. From my choice of “fanatic” I could have then gone with “faction” for the French “parties,” but instead I chose the image of the swirling waves as a convention of fans or fanatics. I liked that image in as a presentation of two ardent lovers sharing caresses within the stanza, but now I’m thinking maybe I should have gone with the ideas of bitten and apart, as it would foreshadow the final stanza to a degree.

In the final stanza, I change around some syntax a bit too, but, in the next to last line, I confront a typo, repeated over and over as the other translation is duplicated on the Internet: “non strikes in our hands.” This is surely Dada! Is this a crossword-puzzle clue for baseball fans with a naughty testicular subtext (but what does Tzara know of baseball?) Or is it a cry against our complicity in the suppression of organized labor’s rights? A clumsy bowler approaching the lane, about to roll another gutter-ball? Such rich poetry!

No. It’s a missing “o.”

Here again, accessing the original French helps, though I should have distrusted one of my machine translators more in other matters after it insisted on translating “midi”, the common French term for noon, as MIDI. Perhaps it knew that I would be using MIDI to play synthesizers from my guitar and little plastic keyboard?

Fixing the typo allows the poem to close strongly. The last stanza’s first line works in either the Internet translations more active voice (though I would have chosen the stronger “surrenders” to “gives up” if I went that way). My choice is more passive: “The hours’ judgement is offered.” I think the third stanza is something of a time-lagged aubade, were the lovers have reached a time (noon instead of the traditional dawn) when they must part. The Internet version of the next-to-last line, with the typo fixed:  “noon strikes in our hands” is fine. My version, “gone noon in our hands” means to clarify what I feel is the image here, the reclining lovers atop each other, hands clasped together above their heads, like the hands of clock at noon, knowing they must part as the day reaches the border of PM (Post-Meridian); but typo fixed, the Internet version may be more accurate to what Tzara wrote. I’m afraid that by this point, I had been letting my poet half overtake my translator half, and I wanted the poem to end as well as it could by my lights, even if I was recasting what Tzara wrote to a sense of what I think he was getting at.

In the end, the Tristan Tzara poem “Vegetable Swallow”  I found on the Internet in English is less of a Dada exercise in scourging language, and more of a sensuous love poem, albeit one with fresh images. And even if you are not an expert in the foreign language being translated, checking English translations against the original is revealing. Furthermore, just as in performing the work does, doing one’s own translations helps one see deeper into the choices the poet made.

So yesterday, proud of my work, I was disparaging the unknown translator of the “Internet Version” of “Vegetable Swallow.”  Reviewing and double-checking my work after the deadlines of performance and recording were finished, his work comes off better upon further review. In the second and fourth stanzas, his work is more accurate than mine, and arguably better than mine (even if I’m doing the scoring). And with the hilarious “non strikes” typo, he’s blameless.

And from further research last night, I think I can identify the translator of the Internet version: it’s Lee Harwood. I was even able to find an audio link on the web where he reads “Vegetable Swallow.”  Even just hearing the modesty in his voice at midnight, him reading “Vegetable Swallow”  across the network as I stayed up too late tracking this down, I wished I could sit down with him and ask him more about his own work and that of Tristan Tzara. Alas, he died two years ago this summer.

Lee Harwood

Several Internet sites use Lee Harwood’s translations of Tzara, yet do not credit him.


For easy reference, here are links to the players of my translations and performances of Tristan Tzara’s “Vegetable Swallow”  and “The Death of Apollinaire.”

“Vegetable Swallow”




and “The Death of Apollinaire”

Vegetable Swallow

As I started doing some translations of Tristan Tzara, the man who was most famous for being one of the “Presidents of Dada,” I was surprised in more than one way.

Like some writers I’ve presented here, Tzara was known to me only by reputation, as a name, and that reputation was not only as a founder of Dada, but of being the theorist of its most nihilist and avant-garde wing. Dada as Tzara spoke of it seemed to say: let’s destroy everything, and see what remains. Sounds like a pretty fearsome guy, and from my generation’s punk rebellion in music, his reputation reminded me of the those just past the first wave of punk that bought into a first principle of denigrating everything that came before. That could be a useful corrective, a way to clear the creative mind from everything you feel has come to a dead end, whether it was “Tales of Topographic Oceans”  or Tennyson; the horrors of WWI or the denigrations of Reagan and Thatcher. Such a stance, pure as it is, has dangers of discarding the baby with the bain-eau.

Tzara also provoked with ideas like his “How to Make a Dada Poem:”

Take a newspaper

Take some scissors.

Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.

Cut out the article.

Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.

Shake gently.

Next take out each cutting one after the other.

Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.

The poem will resemble you.

And there you are–an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

One can read this and miss the satire in it (particularly that last line); or one can read this laughing, and miss the value in this practice, variations of which were carried out throughout the rest of the 20th Century by Surrealists and Beats and unclassifiable modernists like John Cage. I, myself, independently discovered an analogous method as a teenager, and composing pieces by randomly opening a dictionary and blindly pointing with a finger at word after word. And Tzara did publish pieces that seemed to be just such an assemblage of words and phrases, for example Bilan.”

Bilan by Tzara

Never Mind the Boustrophedon, Here’s a Tzara Poem as published in Dada magazine

Not only is “Bilan”  typographically incoherent, the phrases are such things as “the bloody revenge of the liberated two-step” or “satanic horoscope dilates under your vigor.”

I believe this sort of thing can work: as a corrective, as a breaker of writer’s-block, as a reminder of the random and irrational component in creation, and as an insight into the dead and clichéd language which infests all societies. I think it works best in small doses when needed, and longer pieces based on it, or continued reliance on it, can be analogous to over-reliance on laxatives.

So that was the Tzara I assumed I would meet as looked for pieces to translate and use here with music: a man with little to say other than to point out with broken language that language is broken.

And to some degree that was reinforced as I looked at the few English translations available on the web of his work. Occasional beautiful lines, perhaps of accidental beauty, mixed with incoherent lines. Here is a link to an English translation of a Tzara poem “Vegetable Swallow,”  though its translator is never credited on the several sites which have it with identical wording. This is the same poem which I use in today’s piece, but with my own translation from the original French.

I’ll talk more about what I found as I translated Tristan Tzara in my next post here, but I’ll summarize by saying that I found problems in the translation I linked to, surprising problems that sometimes feel to me a bit like reading the “bad quarto” of Shakespeare. I could be wrong in my interpretation of Tzara’s “Vegetable Swallow (Hirondelle Végétale)”— I am neither a scholar of Dada nor anything even close to a fluent French speaker—but I don’t even like the translation of the title, though I have kept it, because it may be what an English speaker is likely to know the poem as.  “Hirondelle” is French for the species of bird, the swallow. I might have my own inevitable and anachronistic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”  connection with the swallow, but in the title’s context along with the English word “vegetable,” one thinks of that scary and prescriptive phrase from childhood: “Eat your vegetables”—not how it’d be understood in French.

Tristan Tzara photograph by Man RayYoung Bill Gates grayscale

Steve Jobs would have told the young Bill Gates (on the right) to try a black sweater
Tristan Tzara (on the left, photo by Man Ray) would have suggested a monocle.

In my translation, Tristan Tzara is providing something more like a Surrealist’s Lover’s Rock lyric—more Paul Éluard than Dan Bern hilariously parodying Bob Dylan. Musically, I’m not attempting reggae though. I’m not even sure what genre to call my composition on this one, but it is,  like Tzara proclaims, “Swimming in disparate arpeggios.”

To hear it, use the player below.

The Dark Interval Version 2

The last post used my best effort at a faithful translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.”  Now, as promised, my alternative translation.

As I discussed, I first heard Rilke’s “The Dark Interval”  by hearing it. In the immediacy of that encounter, I heard it as a meditation on how our lives pass by while we do not speak up to them and use their singular moment, however imperfectly. Upon reflection, I now understand the poem was likely speaking of Rilke’s more impending death. The more literal translation I used for yesterday’s piece retains more of that focus.

Rilke and Tree

Rainer Maria Rilke. “A tree before my background”


Today’s version uses a freer translation, reflecting my original understanding of the piece. The original poem includes three or four images, which I sought to vivify in modern English. The first image, that of the “steep hour” (diese steile stunde) we know is a downhill slope, not a slow, steep incline one is ascending, because the next line includes a sense of rushing or hurrying (eilen). I have no idea if Rilke ever skied or otherwise could be thinking of skiing or sledding down a hill, but that was the concrete image that presented itself to me, and this choice helped me deal with most enigmatic image in the piece, the “I am a tree before my background” (Ich bin ein Baum vor meinem Hintergrunde). My choice in this translation is a risky one. I made the vaguest image in the German into the most immediate image in English, that not only am I sliding rapidly, but there is dangerous obstacle, a tree, to deal with. I now think my translation of “hintergrunde” to “my past” may be inaccurate. Given the poems concluding images, I think Rilke may been thinking of background more in the sense of “musical background”—but it was the choice I made then, and it works well in my first understanding of the poem’s intent.

Charles Adams' skier and tree

Like the skier with the light jacket, I may be puzzled.


The next image is also a bit obscure. “I am only one of many mouths, and the one that closes the soonest.” (Ich bin nur einer meiner vielen Munde/und jener, welcher sich am frühesten schliesst.”) I’m still unsure of which meanings Rilke meant to convey there. Is he saying, “I am only one of the multitude, and I’ll be dead (and silent) sooner than most?” Or is he saying “I could speak up in many ways (I can’t quite decide what is the right way to speak up), so instead I clam-up and never express myself?” In this translation, I chose the latter. I now think Rilke likely meant the former.

The last image is the most developed one, and the most attractive to a poet and musician like myself, because it’s an image out of music itself. I read “the dark interval,” that I use as the title for this piece, as a reference to the tritone, a dissonant interval that was being exploited widely in musical works contemporary with Rilke. And of course, music based on blues and jazz forms makes use of the dissonant intervals too, so I chose to use the more modern “funky.” And in developing this musical image I chose to use another informal term to vivify the “death tone” (Ton Tod), translating it to “wolf-tone,” which is the howling feedback sound a string instrument makes when the sounded note is the same as the strongest natural resonant frequency of the instrument’s body.

Keeping with my initial understanding of “The Dark Interval”  I was trying to say that we keep silent, and do not act, out of fear of “dissonance,” of fear of not fitting in with the expectations; or because we fear a “wolf-tone,” an unwanted, strong response; but that when we do, if we do, as can be done within music, the dissonance can be resolved, that musical consonance sounds even sweeter when dissonance shows it in contrast.

So, there you go, that was once my understanding of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval”  that I used in this second translation. As a piece, in English, it stands up, it has coherence, and I think it’s livelier than yesterday’s more literal translation—but I also think I got Rilke’s meaning wrong. How much does this matter?

I often consider translations of poetry like a musician doing a cover song

To the listener, it may not matter. If they don’t know the original in German or from another translation, they experience this work as it is. To art also, it may not matter. A misunderstood work is still a work of art, another one of many mouths that isn’t shut. I often consider translations of poetry like a musician doing a cover song, where there is value in recreating the song differently, just as The New Standards did with their Clash cover that I linked to yesterday. Still, I can’t shake off the thought that I was unfair to Rilke.

So here’s the second version of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.”   It’s a different performance, with acoustic and electric guitar and bass, but it uses the same music as yesterday’s. Use the player below to hear it.