Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cover Songs and Translation and the Resurrection

Cover songs are weird. They're impossible. You try to take the original song but play it your own way. You want it to be the same but it has to be different.

I tend to be a charitable reader of works of art. Meaning, I usually want to like them. This is probably most especially true regarding cover songs of songs I love. Which means I've been heavily enjoying this album I just found yesterday: Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan - Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International. It's a mouthful of a title, but that's fitting because it's a four CD set of 76 songs! Anyways, let's just say that Johnny Cash, Bad Religion, Joan Baez, Adele, Elvis Costello, Peter Townshend, Patti Smith, Flogging Molly, Tom Morello (aka the Nightwatchman), Pete Seeger, and more! covering my favorite artist's music has been a very fun experience. Some of these artists' approaches to Dylan's songs worked much better than others, but all of them were a joy to listen to (even if I might skip some of them more often in the future).

However, my sympathetic disposition towards reinterpretations of art I love was challenged by one of the songs on the album. I started listening to K'naan's version of With God on Our Side--one of my favorite Dylan songs--and a minute in I seriously had to check that that was really the (alleged) title, because he was definitely not singing With God on Our Side. For a second I actually thought they had mistitled it and K'naan was singing some obscure Dylan song I'd never heard before. Turns out, K'naan doesn't get to any of the original's lyrics until his third verse. Here, give them a listen and compare how crazy-different they are:

But it's really grown on me since that initial utter confusion. K'naan rewrites almost the entire song to use his own experiences growing up in Somalia just before and at the beginning of their civil war. And even when he's singing Dylan's original verses, he changes Dylan's schoolboy lyric "The names of the heroes / I was made to memorize" to refer instead to "the names of the warlords." This is simultaneously a personal twist but also puts into question the nobility of the war heroes that we instinctively revere as patriotic Americans. In other words, it actually intensifies Dylan's original anti-war message. I won't go on--though I really could, for an entire (and long) post--about how fascinating and brilliant the cover is, but if you want to read another person's rave about it (and see the lyrics of the original and K'naan's version side-by-side for comparison), you can read it here

I'm starting to get to my point now in this paragraph. This was a "cover" of a song. It had a little bit of the same melody in the background, but K'naan's version broke the cardinal rule of covers: he completely changed the words. You can mess with speed, volume, pronunciation, instrumentation, even throw in a few different words here or there, but in a cover you are not supposed to change the words. It's like that's the inviolate soul of the song! And yet, as I alluded to above, K'naan's version in some ways is more true to Bob Dylan's original intent. The cover is the song that Bob Dylan would have written if he had been born in Somalia in 1978. It's very different, but it's the same soul.


Translations are weird. They're impossible. You try to take the original text and express the same thoughts in a different language--in other words, in an entirely foreign way of expressing thoughts. You want it to be the same (convey the exact same meaning) but it has to be different (the target audience doesn't speak the original language, otherwise the translation wouldn't be necessary--duh).

Everyone who speaks two languages has some story about words/phrases/ideas that just can't be (fully, adequately) translated. A simple example going to Estonian is when Americans say casually "I love hamburgers!" Estonian has a verb "to love," of course, but it only applies to human-human (or at least human-sentient being) relationships. To say "ma armastan hamburgereid!" would be as nonsensical as saying "I am physically attracted to hamburgers!" (Technically, due to American influence, it's becoming pretty normal to use "to love" in Estonian in just this way, but let's pretend that Estonian is staying (mythically) pure and undefiled by American cultural colonialism.) Yeah, in Estonian you can say "I like hamburgers" or "I like hamburgers a lot!" but that just doesn't convey the same thing, really, as the English "I love hamburgers!" There's just a passion missing. This is a stupid example, but hopefully you speak a foreign language and can fill in a better one.

Going from Estonian to English, there are 3 or 4 verbs in Estonian that mean "to try," with varying degrees of actually trying or caring about trying conveyed depending on context. Of course you can approximate this in English translations with more powerful verbs like "I will endeavor to ..." or "I'll strive to ...", or you can convey the less-excited "trying" with a phrase like "I'll see what I can do...". But the more formal stuff just sounds silly, which is not what you wanted to convey at all, and the noncommittal phrase just isn't the same either.

In case you haven't tried, there's often no way to adequately translate lots of really expressive phrases from one language into another. But the upside is that sometimes you get to convey what was pretty prosaic phrasing in the original language in more nuanced and exciting wording in the target language--gotta love those double-edged swords. Note that this requires a lot of creativity (when the American dude said "I'll try," did he mean "ma püüan," "ma proovin," "ma üritan," or what? You gotta pick one!) and perhaps guesswork. But the soul of the text can get across if you've got a good translator. (One of my favorite books, "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid," is pretty ridiculous to try to translate because of its extensive reliance on wordplay, puns, and all kinds of language games--but translated it has been, into a number of languages!)


Resurrection is weird. It's impossible. God tries to take the original "you" and express you in a different body and life and context. God wants you to be the same (the same daughter or son you've always been), but you have to be different (the whole purified/celestial/immortal thing).

What will it be like not to have the insecurities about body shape that we all deal with in mortality? (Or will we still have them?) Can someone really be the same person if they don't have to use their humor to cover up for perceived lack of attractiveness?

I feel like our knowledge of death--always in the back of our minds, though hopefully we don't dwell on it--has to affect all of us in subtle ways. Daredevils get a thrill from walking the thin line between life and death, some of us are afraid of driving too fast on a freeway for fear of fatal consequences. Will that bravado and shyness still exist in the same way?

No matter how smart you were on earth, you'll immediately be in the presence of people who have been dead (and thus, I believe, learning) a lot longer than you, so you'll be severely humbled by that. If you were never in the top of the class, how will it be different to have a mind that can remember everything (or at least, much much more than any mortal now can)? Will your ego inflate?

And then there are things often referred to as disabilities or burdens. How will someone who mediated their entire life through enthusiastic participation in ASL culture be the same if they have pitch-perfect hearing? Gay people (at least in the Mormon world) often wonder if they'll be straight in the resurrection (how often do straight people imagine if they'll be gay?), and there's plenty of speculation about which biological sex transgender people (or, for that matter, intersex people) will be. There are just so many questions along all these lines!

Obviously, here I'm launching into the speculative realm since I've never a) been resurrected, b) resurrected anyone else, or c) even met a resurrected being. I have no answers. Sorry. But I think resurrection will be like K'naan's cover of With God on Our side. I think resurrection will be like a brilliant, nuanced, and exciting translation from one language into another, sacrificing a few great phrases here and there, perhaps, but gaining access to a rich new vocabulary too that expands possibilities for personal expression to a tremendous degree.

The words you speak in the resurrection might not be the same words your friends were used to hearing you speak on earth. But I feel like they would be the same words you would speak if you woke up tomorrow immortal and resurrected, just like K'naan rewrote With God on Our Side the way Bob Dylan might have if he had been born in very different circumstances. The same meaning is there, and in some ways it might even be sharper. But it might also be disorienting at first because the presentation is so different. I feel like we'll need to get to know each other again in some sense, only to realize that we're recognizing the deeper parts of each other's selves that we intuited and loved before. ("Woooaaah dude, that's, like, waaay deep!")

If you've heard a great cover song that in some way improved on the original, or if you've ever seen a translation that was really beautiful, I think you've glimpsed a bit of what the resurrection will be like. The same, but different (and mostly better). Weird. Impossible.

It's gonna be awesome.


  1. I can tell you are a future attorney- you are quite the writer. And, you have quite the vocabulary.

    I enjoyed your take on Dylan's music. I have never been much of a fan of his. Especially when he sings. To me, he sounds like a rooster that is headed to the barn to have his head chopped off. But, I like the lyrics of his songs and think he is actually quite profound in many of the things he has written.

    Was Estonian hard to learn? I have a nephew who was in that mission. I don't know how old you are? He is going to be 28 or 29 in a couple of weeks. Maybe you two know each other?

    My languages are English, German, and Math. :) NOT Law. That is a WHOLE different language of its own. I have two siblings who are attorneys. You would be able to converse well with them. Me, I am too much of a ninny to know what the freaking heck they are talking about. ;)

    Happy night! Duck

  2. Ha, I do wax a bit prolix, don't I?

    Dylan's voice isn't for everyone, but fortunately his songs have been covered hundreds of times by people with more melodic vocals!

    Estonian was hard, but I loved it. Who was your nephew? I'm 27, so it's quite possible I knew him.