Lost in Translation

If any of you devoted readers out there keep up with our blog pretty regularly, you may remember this blog post from way back in March, when I was pointing out the differences between artists who get to create new works from scratch and artists whose job it is to merely interpret someone else’s masterpiece. As performing musicians, we are generally always on the interpretive side, and I occasionally get grumbly about the fact that I’m not as much a part of the initial creative process as I’d like to be. (for more on that, refer to that older post...)

Well, Q was invited to perform at an award ceremony for the Goethe Institute of Chicago that took place this week, and the experience made me think about my role as an interpretive artist quite differently. Let me explain. The award that was given out was the prestigious Wolff Prize for translation of a book from German into English, and the winner was writer Burton Pike for his translation of Gerhard Meier’s “Isle of the Dead.” As the members of the jury were describing the masterful qualities of Mr. Pike’s translation that led them to choose him as the winner, two seemingly obvious, yet suddenly enlightening thoughts occurred to me.

1) A musician’s work is exactly the same as that of a translator. We don’t write the original work ourselves, but it is our responsibility to put that original work into a form that our audience can understand. Just as a translator might take a passage in German and spin it eloquently into English, it is our job to translate musical notation on the written page into the sounds that audience members will understand, relate to, and recognize as music.

2) Translating, both in language and in music, is truly a great art. Just read these words that were part of the jury’s statement. If you’re like me, you might wonder if this was a translator’s award ceremony or if it you’re actually reading a concert review!

“Pike’s deft rendering of the rhythm of Meier’s undulating sentences, in which leitmotifs constantly reappear in slightly altered form, keeps the reader enthralled to the end. He has beautifully preserved the deceptive simplicity of a text that gradually reveals itself to be profoundly elegiac.”

After hearing those words, it suddenly made so much sense to me why the Goethe Institute wanted to have a string quartet performing at the beginning and the end of the ceremony. Our playing signified the parallels between literature, music, and really all art forms (think about the actor’s role in a play or the job of an art historian!). In the same way that Mr. Pike exquisitely translated Meier’s writing, we poured as much nuance and creativity into our translations of Shostakovich and Haydn as the composers did when they wrote the original works. Through our playing, we are able to create new art from the art that is already there. Funny that it took a translation award ceremony to get me to appreciate that so fully.

In just a few days, Q is heading off to St. Louis where we will take part in the Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists. I was looking forward to this before, but I now have a renewed sense of excitement and inspiration to bring works of music to life in a way that can only be achieved by a great translator. Auf wiedersehen!

*For those who are interested, the award ceremony was recorded for the Goethe Institute’s archives and will eventually be available on WBEZ’s Chicago Amplified.*