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Bob Dylan--Found In Translation

BOB DYLAN—FOUND IN TRANSLATION

By Chuck Cascio

     Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature recently, and some people raised their eyebrows a bit at the news. Dylan? The raspy-voiced musical icon about whom my mother once said, “If he can make a record with that voice, then so can you!” (which I am not sure was intended to be a compliment to me or a criticism of him...or perhaps a criticism of both!). In any event, I think the award was completely appropriate. No, Dylan is not an author, nor is he a poet in the traditional sense, but if you believe—as I do—Robert Frost’s comment that “Poetry is what is lost in translation,” then Bob Dylan is truly a master poet.

     Frost’s comment has been kicked around by many masterful literary scholars, a group of which I hardly consider myself a member.  However, I have given it considerable thought over the years, and I believe the idea was captured perfectly in the 2003 movie, Lost in Translation.  If you haven’t seen the movie, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, I won’t give away the ending, but it does an excellent job of conveying the essence of what I think Frost was saying…and what Dylan captures in his lyrics, voice, and music.

     In his most powerful songs, Dylan seems to be striving for something unreachable, something that goes beyond his words and his own attempts at musical adaptation. The result is a genuine sense that he is straining for some explanation or description that he feels he cannot fully express. Like many artists who live with a persistent sense of uncertainty about how their work is understood and accepted, Dylan’s voice and words often resemble a plea of sorts, and in his best works, it is a plea for something bigger, something more than what we already know and experience. Consider this verse from Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”:

Oh, what did you meet my blue-eyed son?

Who did you meet, my darling young one?

                                                                            I met a young child beside a dead pony

 I met a white man who walked a black dog

        I met a young woman whose body was burning

                                                                            I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow

                                                                            I met one man who was wounded in love

       I met another man who was wounded in hatred

      And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard

                                                                            And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

     If “poetry is what is lost in translation,” then this is truly poetic. It allows the reader to see clear, somewhat painful visuals, while simultaneously understanding that Dylan’s imagery represents something more, the “white man who walked a black dog,” the “young woman whose body was burning” contrasted with the “young girl” who “gave me a rainbow” and so forth. Yes, put to music, it is a song, but even in that format, it is lends itself to many personal interpretations, individual experiences, and societal commentary. Or…perhaps it’s simply a folk song, or a poem.

     The same is true of so many of Dylan’s works, works that truly touched a particular generation now known as Baby Boomers, a generation to which I belong. There were plenty of voids for Dylan’s words to fill for us, many real life events that seemed to defy translation, logic, and individual rights. So along comes Dylan to tell us to look for the answers that are “Blowin’ In The Wind” and to assure us that “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”  In those confusing and tragic events of the Sixties and Seventies, the images were real, the opportunity for translation significant, the application of the words to personal circumstances plentiful, and, consequently, the impact genuine.

     For anyone too young to have experienced the full impact of Dylan, or for anyone who may need a reminder of the lasting power of poetry—whether applied to music or taken in isolation—consider the following, which is the first verse of Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” and see if there is a void today that it addresses, a void that perhaps has been lost in translation in the 52 years that have passed since this poem was first sung by Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize winner:

Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll

We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing

As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds

                                                                  Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight

Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight

                                                                   An' for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night

                                                                   An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

(Readers thoughts always welcome at chuckwrites@yahoo.com)

©Chuck Cascio, all rights reserved.