Translation Studies and Its Turns

Translation Studies and Its Turns

Research, Ideas, Issues

In my blog, I am going to publish fragments of my current research, or share my ideas about what I come across in the publications I read or in the materials I study, or discuss issues in Translation Studies which, I think, call for a discussion. My posts do not claim to be anything more than work in progress and are inevitably of fragmentary nature. I count on my readers and their expertise to fill in the blanks and to contextualize discussions, whenever necessary. All borrowings must be acknowledged.
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Intercultural Intrasemiotic Musical Translation

TranslationPosted by Sergey Tyulenev Tue, April 02, 2013 13:06:13

Recently, at the University of Durham, at its Music School, I attended a workshop where a Japanese folk song group (Abeya) taught several people from the university how to sing one Japanese folk song. I was one of those willing to partake of the Japanese folk singing.

As you may well know or at least suspect the tradition of Japanese folk singing is quite different from the European tradition or musical culture. We were provided with the music sheets with samples of two songs, one of which we just listened to, whereas the second one we even tried to sing. To make it easier for us, the organiser David Hughes translated the Japanese song Kaigara Bushi (Shell Collector) (one of the examples of how this apparently quite popular folk song is performed can be found here: In the European notation “Kaigara Bushi” looks as follows:

Figure 1.

However the Japanese folk singing is full of what we might call, once again borrowing the term from the Western tradition, embellishments—all sorts of vibratos, trills, glissandi, abrupt cessations of singing and starting over again. It seems that the original Japanese notation reflects that much more aptly:

Figure 2.

This is a different song (Esashi Oiwake, Horseman’s Song; cf.:, yet it exemplifies the level of intricacy of the Japanese folk singing style expressed (translated) through all these wiggly lines on a six-line staff.

The European way of notification is a kind of radically domesticating translation enabling the non-Japanese to appreciate the song, at least remotely. Or only remotely. Probably, as remotely as a Haiku poem in a European language.

For a translation scholar the example of the difference between the notification of a Japanese tune according to the Japanese system vs. the European one is striking. It has an advantage in making the difference between the source and the translation graphically palpable: what seems so complex and elaborate in the Japanese version looks almost primitive in the translation. I remember from my music educational background that pentatonic scale and melodies based on it were seen as somewhat backward in a sophisticated culture like the European classical one with its well-tempered scale celebrated most famously in J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. This examples questions my colonial past.

The singing manner is also quite strenuous on the singer. I would say that to understand better the intricate movements of the melody, somebody with the European background might find it helpful to think of the bel canto and coloratura sopranos. Look at how the beginning of the first line of Esashi Oiwake can be parcelled (the lower European staff):

The first bold line on the three lines is an enlarged fragment from Figure 2 above. This is the original Japanese notification. The two coupled sets of lines below are phonograms of two singers. Both sing the melody respecting the required pitch movements, albeit slightly differently (which is only natural with any kind of notification as compared to the actual performance = the intersemiotic translation of the graphic sign into sound). The European staff at the bottom is David Hughes' translation of the Japanese notation and signing into the European one. (Interestingly, this is a sort of translator's commentary on how he translated with a parallel text we know well from bilingual editions of literary translations juxtaposed with their originals.) There are main sounds, supporting the melodic structure—F, a sequence of As and G at the end, and there are grace notes and different figurations between them. The main sounds are likely to make it into the European version of the song, while all the melismata will probably be omitted, unless the translator will try to provide an interlinear version as David did on the bottom staff.

Such is a case of intercultural (Japanese-European) intrasemiotic (music-to-music) translation. But it would a mistake to think that it has nothing to do with intercultural intrasemiotic interlinguistic translation. In fact, the case I've briefly described reminds me of the controversies we have witnessed recently with Jiang Rong’s novel Wolf Totem (;; I am not going into all the complications of what the translation process may involve socially—the negotiations between the author, the translator and the publisher as described by Howard Goldblatt (see the third hyperlink). Yet the upshot is that the rich cultural novel by Jiang Rong was made different in its French and English versions by virtually curtailing its historical and cultural discussions. What the juxtaposition of the notifications of the two songs above shows most palpably in the domain of intercultural intrasemiotic musical translation is analogous to the intercultural intrasemiotic interlinguistic translation.

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