Musical Translations I


Literary critic Harold Bloom, although not speaking about “translation” per se, employed the word ‘misprision” to describe the process by which writers misread or misinterpret their literary predecessors so as to clear imaginative space for themselves (“A Map of Misreading”, Oxford University Press, 1975). One could very well argue that Bloom’s ‘misprision’, applied on a larger scale, easily becomes the ‘cultural translation’ that R. C. J. Young so aptly described: ‘Translation is a way of thinking about how languages, people, and cultures are transformed as they move between different places. It can also be used more metaphorically, as a way of describing how the individual or the group can be transformed by changing their sense of their own place in society (“Postcolonialism”, 2003). In fact, Douglas Hofstadter, physicist, computer scientist and student of cognitive processes, expressed many years ago his fascination for the concept of ‘translation’ by applying it to ‘frames of reference’ in general (“Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language”, Basic Books 1997).


The concept of translation may very well be applied to musical cultures. Musical styles, repertoires, manner of performance, instruments are not only often “translated” in space, as a result of culture contacts and migration, but also frequently “translated”, in the sense that they are made comprehensible, meaningful, palatable and, also, in some way useful, to the cultures and social groups adopting them. On the one hand, when a musical style or repertoire is absorbed into the overall sense of identity of a social group which is not the one originally producing it, its original meanng is necessarily reconfigured. On the other, the translation process taking place allows insights into the symbolic connotations of the music and/or on the sound characteristics that make it compatible with the new social and geographic environment, as well as its new functions. Translation is in a way like reading a literary text from an aesthetic standpoint, which is alien to the one that generated it. That is why, like in the case of literature, translation may arrive at a total misunderstanding of the original sense of the music undergoing the process. It often is, however, a creative form of misunderstanding; a production of new “meaning”, “sense”, “import”, which brings us closer to the fundamental question: why organized sound is so important for human beings, regardless of how foreign to them is the context that saw its production.  


As we encounter repertoires foreign to our native environment, we cannot help but recontextualize them. If no music could be detached from its cultural context and given new meaning in a different setting there would be very little of it for us to listen to experience (no Bach, no Josquin, no Hildegard von Bingen). In the process of recontextualizing it in some manner, and trying somehow to make sense of the unusual experience, each one of us inevitably translates the music and, to some extent, betrays its original import. In other words, re-contextualizing music inevitably entails some degree of distortion and misunderstanding of its original sense. It is remarkable how, through this intellectual operation, we often end up enjoying our very misunderstanding of other people's music. Creative misunderstanding could actually be seen as a cultural safeguard, screening away those correlates of other people's music that, if appropriately understood, might perhaps even antagonize our way of being. My position is that everyone should feel free to “use” music in his own personal way in order to derive from it as much gratification (intellectual or not) as possible. The more sophisticated is the approach adopted, the more possibilities of enjoying a particular musical experience in many different ways will there be.


But the issue is even more complex than this short meditation would make it, because multicultural environments, by definition, force different practices to meet in a context which is equally alien to all of them. If music owes its original meaning to a particular home-context, the danger is not to be underrated that it may become meaningless in a kaleidoscopic context made up by heterogeneous ingredients, not meant to coexist.