The Dylan Review spoke with poet and translator Alessandro Carrera in fall 2021.
DR: Do you translate the lyrics as poetry on the page or as songs to be performed? Do Italian performers cover Dylan songs in Italian?
AC: I’ll start from the second part of the question if you don’t mind. Yes, there are several Italian covers of Dylan songs. They start after Blonde on Blonde. The first covers appeared in 1967, when Dylan was not very well known. It was at a time when there was a rush of British and American covers in Italian pop music. Everybody was translating English and American songs. Also, there were very favorable laws at the time, that in a way, favored covers even better than national songs. It’s not the case anymore, but it was the case back then. So, if you could get into the “club of translators” of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dylan, and others, you could make money. The first cover was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but it was not released until 1972, because the arrangement was not good. But the first cover that had a certain circulation was “I Want You.” Many people listened to those songs without knowing who the author was. It was only in the 1970s that there were covers addressed to people who could clearly compare to the original, and I would say that the best ones were “Desolation Row” and “Romance In Durango,” both written by Italian songwriters Francesco De Gregori and Fabrizio De André. I would say “Romance In Durango” was probably the most faithful rhythmic translation. It was very close to the original lyrics. And there were others. There were translators before me because the first collection of songs appeared before Writings and Drawings, and one of [the translators]—who translated Lyrics, 1962-1985—decided to do translation in rhyme. I was not satisfied with this. To me, many songs seem to be contrived just for the sake of putting in a rhyme. When I started working on it, I saw that it was absolutely impossible to translate all the songs in rhyme and metric. Also, because the previous translations were full of mistakes. And I wanted the readers to, for once, read exactly what Dylan meant, instead of reading my personal interpretation, my version, and that is the reason why I wanted to add a substantial corpus of endnotes for every song. So, my edition is not a critical edition, but it is the only annotated edition in the world, I think. The publisher let me do it. Then my notes were translated for the Spanish edition. So, in the Spanish edition, you’ll find up to 2012, my notes translated. However, the work on the notes to me was necessary because I noticed that Dylan uses several layers of meanings; it’s full of puns, which are almost untranslatable. Some lines are—this is something I noticed, I’m not sure that I’m right—I noticed as a translator that sometimes Dylan uses idioms in the literal meaning, not in the idiomatic meaning. That is, he picks up a sentence that is idiomatic in English, like “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you,” from “Like A Rolling Stone,” and you don’t really know if he means the idiomatic meaning of “getting your kicks” or the literal meaning: getting your kicks in the rear. It’s very hard to decide, and that’s not the only case. So, when you translate, what do you do? You have to choose the idiomatic meaning or the literal meaning. You cannot choose both because there is no equivalent in Italian. So therefore, I said, I have to explain this in the notes. I give the idiomatic meaning in the translation, because I think it’s the first one that everybody understands, I mean English-speaking persons. Then I say, okay, you can also read it in another way. And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to have explanatory notes. And then the notes became philological, that is, these are the sources, poetic sources, musical sources, and whatever. Therefore, most of my translations are literal. No rhyme and no metrics, but there were some songs that couldn’t let me sleep. They were telling me, “No! You have to do it right! You have to make me with rhyme and metric.”
DR: Could you give an example or two?
AC: Yes, “My Back Pages,” for example. With my “My Back Pages,” it was possible to do that without changing much of the text. And then I did the same thing with some short songs where the rhythm is the most important thing, some of the blues songs for example. It was impossible with the narrative ones, like “Hurricane” or “Brownsville Girl,” you know, they have to be read like stories. And then there were two songs that told me “No! You have to make me right.” And I’m proud of those: “Early Roman Kings” and “Mother of Muses.” And then in other songs, I adopted a compromise. For example, “Desolation Row,” because every stanza ends with the same sound—”Desolation Row”—I rhymed with row in every stanza. So, there’s only one rhyme in every stanza, but at least there’s some sort of recurring rhythmic lyric.
DR: Every translation is also a transformation and a new creation. How important is the structure of a line to you in transforming it into Italian verse, and do you feel that to accommodate the significant differences between the English and Italian word order, you must sacrifice something distinctly U.S. American?
AC: Well, sometimes the original is sacrificed—there’s no other way to put it—because the Italian syntax is different. It’s very fluid. In Italian you can use inversions, for example, if you want. So, it’s not that you have to respect the exact syntax of the other language, because you can play with the syntax. That’s something with other languages you cannot do. You cannot use inversions easily in English, or French, or German. What goes away is the sound. I mentioned “Early Roman Kings.” The reason why I wanted to do a rhythmic translation of that song is precisely because of its sound in English—not so much about the content, but because of the sound. I tried to read it out loud, and it has a phonetic density that is almost unmatched. You have to go back to songs like “Chimes of Freedom” to get the same amount of phonetics. It’s just full of sounds. You don’t even need the music for that song, in fact, it’s almost spoken. So, I wanted to re-create a sound but of course not the English sound. I wanted to have an Italian sound that was as strong and as uncompromising as the English song. As for the meaning, what makes the English language what it is, sometimes you have to forget about it. My choice when it was possible was to think, how would an Italian poet say the same thing? So, I was racking my memory to think of lines, or poets from the past. Sometimes I thought of poets from the twentieth century, and sometimes I went back as far as Petrarca. What could Petrarca do with a line like this? And I can give you an example: “Standing in the Doorway.” It starts with the line, “I’m walking through the summer nights.” Now, walking is the thing that all Dylan characters do. They always walk. This is the archetype of the Dylan situation: a lonely man walking down a country road, or driving, but mostly it’s walking, or getting on a train. But never getting on an airplane. There are no airplanes in Dylan, except in “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
The problem is that the verbs that you use to describe movements in English, like walking for example, and the way the same movement is described in Italian, is so different. Because in Italian you don’t use the verb the equivalent of “to walk.” You say different things. Instead of saying “io cammino,” “I walk,” “I walk from here to there,” “cammino da qui a là”— no, people don’t say that. They just say, “I go,” or they say “vado a piedi,” “I walk by foot.” So I had to find a different equivalent for all this walking. With that line, “I’m walking through the summer nights,” it was not easy to find any Italian line that had the same cadence, so to speak. Then I thought, I want Petrarca. There’s a famous poem by Petrarca that begins with two lines: “Solo e pensoso i più deserti campi / vo mesurando a passi tardi et lenti.” It’s a Dylan line: “Alone and pensive in the most deserted meadows, I am measuring my steps, taking a measure with my steps, slowly and with fatigue.” Now, this idea that “I am measuring my steps,” I thought, okay, this is what I have to do. So, my translation starts with “Misuro coi passi le serre estate”: “I am measuring the summer nights with my steps.” The sound is similar to the cadence in English. Of course it’s a different line, but if someone remembers Petrarca, they say, “Yes, I understand the equivalence of the two situations.” It may not seem so, but Dylan is closer to Petrarca than he is to Dante. There are several lines that could be translated with Petrarca in mind. In other instances, I thought of contemporary poets. For example, with “All Along the Watchtower,” I was trying to find a good equivalent of “watchtower.” There were several, but I was also looking for the rhythm. And there is the idea of “all along,” which is not just on top of the watchtower, and which was almost impossible to translate. But then I remembered a poem by Mario Luzi that ends with this line translation: [di] “Tanto afferra l’occhio da questa torre di vedetta”: “this is what the eye can get from this watchtower.” The final stanza, “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view,” I translated as “dalla torre di vedetta i principi scrutavano d’intorno.” But I couldn’t think of the perfect equivalent of “watchtower” until I remembered that poem by Luzi.
DR: That brings up the question of what Dylan was reading and when.
AC: That’s a good question. The Bible is always the main source. Not just the King James Bible, but there’s also the New International version. I think Dylan, as we all know, he reads to get something, to appropriate. He’s a magpie. I don’t think he reads systematically with the idea of getting into a contest with the original. He may quote or echo Walt Whitman sometimes, but I don’t think he consciously says, “I want my listener to understand that I’m referring to Walt Whitman in order to engage in a conversation on this issue.” No, I think he works in a more collageistic way, which makes sense in the end. That is the mystery. It’s not the amount of quotes that you can find. There are songs of Dylan that are just made of quotes. “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” is entirely made of quotes. But it makes sense. The way he puts them together creates a different thing. Therefore, the accusation of plagiarism really does not stand up.
DR: Dylan is a master of the demotic and much of his immediacy depends on audience recognition of tropes of common speech. How do you mirror this effect in Italian?
AC: I noticed that even in the songs of the 1960s, he uses the demotic, but sometimes the demotic comes from areas of the English language that not everybody would recognize immediately. There are several expressions that belong to the language of the blues. And I don’t think everybody can get them, because you have to have a certain knowledge of the blues lyrics, of the blues poetry, to understand what they mean. Sometimes he uses references to the blues in a funny way that’s completely out of place. Even the song “Just Like a Woman” is a blues expression. The way he uses it cannot be picked up from the streets of New York. No, it comes from Alabama, Tennessee, or Mississippi, actually. It does not come from New York. Or the idea in “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which sounds so 60s, so New York. But no, it’s based on very old blues, and you always have some clue that brings you out of the city and into the countryside. For example, in “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” you have at the beginning, “Go away from my window.” “Go away from my window” comes from “Drop Down Mama” by Sleepy John Estes,. It’s a song that Sleepy John Estes composed long before the 60s, but Dylan knew it. But there are two sources. “Drop Down Mama” by Sleepy John Estes begins “Go away from my window, quit scratching on my screen,” but the expression comes from an English ballad that’s called “Go Away from My Window.” It’s a very old ballad, and Dylan knew it in the version of John Jacob Niles, who was a musicologist and balladeer with an uncanny voice. Dylan says about him in Chronicles [that] “Niles was incredible, he sang like a Shakespeare witch,” which is absolutely accurate. Listen to John Jacob Niles and you get the idea. This is the sound of the witches of Macbeth. So, you think the song is very city-like but it goes way, way back. And some of the expressions that we associate with the songs of the 60s are almost unknown today. They fell out of use. I remember this from when I was writing my book on Dylan, which appeared in 2001. The third edition was published this year. I was translating for my book some lines from “Like a Rolling Stone,” and I was trying to figure out what “don’t let other people get their kicks for you” meant. I was teaching at NYU at the time and I didn’t want to ask a professor, but rather someone who was living in New York. So, I asked the secretary of the department without telling her that I was translating Dylan. And she said, “Whoever wrote this is certainly not a native speaker.” Dylan uses expressions that are apparently common, very sophisticated, and very strange. Even when he uses street language, it’s almost never literal street language. There’s always a twist.
DR: How does the music or the melody affect the meter of the translation?
AC: When you translate a song, you don’t just translate the lyrics, you also translate the rhythm and the voice. The voice sometimes gives an inflection to certain lines and gives them an interpretation. The voice interprets what it is singing. You have to think of how Dylan is singing certain lines to get them in translation. The rhythm is extremely important. Sometimes I had to readjust the Italian lines because they were too long. I had to avoid the service translation effect. There’s a huge literature on that. I read an attempt of an Italian writer to translate certain books of the Bible that way and unless you are a Bible scholar, you cannot go past page two. It’s just impossible. So, we have to accept the fact that we have to re-create things in a different way. And besides, Italian has its own rhythms. The most common Italian line is eleven syllables, which is close in a way to the iambic pentameter. If you think of the iambic pentameter in Italian, you think of it as a ten-syllable line. But Italian has abandoned Latin meter, which was quantitative. Italian uses just the number of syllables and the way the accents are placed, which is variable. You can have different patterns of accents. So, in a way you have a great variety of rhythms that you can use. For the short songs I wanted to write short lines. But for narrative songs like “Hurricane” and “Brownsville Girl,” or even “Idiot Wind,” I felt free to translate them almost in prose.
DR: What is the most difficult aspect of Dylan’s lyrics to translate?
AC: He never says exactly what it seems he is saying. There is always a backline behind the line. Sometimes you understand that, sometimes it’s hidden in the song. It’s hidden also—and this is something you discover thanks to the bootleg series—because what is on the official recording is sometimes not the final version of the song, or even the best version of the song. There are songs that have had a very complicated gestation. If you read only the final version of the official version, there are lines that are almost incomprehensible, and they become comprehensible if you look at the previous versions. There is sort of a mega text. For example, a song like “Foot of Pride.” Thanks to the latest installment in the bootleg series, we now have two previous versions under a different title—“Too Late”—and two versions of “Foot of Pride.” If I were to go back to “Foot of Pride,” which is a very mysterious song, because it seems to be telling many different stories at the same time, I think I could do a better job by comparing the four versions and considering them as one. So that in the final version, what is mysterious can be explained by what was cut off in the previous versions. In Dylan, nothing is definitive. There are songs that he never changed. He never changed the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone.” He never changed the songs of John Wesley Harding or Oh Mercy. Those songs are very written. They are written in a tight scheme, a rhythmic scheme, so it’s not easy to change that. But for example, with Blood on the Tracks, we have several versions that are very different from one to another and you have to consider all of them. Even recently, Modern Times was a nightmare for me because that record was made in a haste. If you listen to it closely, there are some mistakes. There is a wrong note played by the guitar in the final song and they could have easily corrected it. But Dylan being Dylan, they didn’t. And then I found out that the lyrics of Modern Times are one thing and then there’s the same song in another bootleg series with a very different text. And then there’s the printed text in the American edition of Lyrics, which is often completely different from what he sings. Of course they illuminate each other if you compare them. As for my edition, I had to choose one. And I was thinking of someone who is listening to the record with the Lyrics book open. The reader wants to read the same lines that Dylan is singing. On the other hand, I had to stick to the text printed in the lyrics because that is what I’m supposed to translate. Therefore, I copied all the stanzas that Dylan is singing but are not printed, and I put them in the notes. So, if you go back and forth between what Dylan is singing and what is printed, and what I put in the notes, you can reconstruct the song. It’s a very long process. You have to be very in love with Dylan to do that. But this is how it works. The difficult thing is to understand that sometimes what he says is not really understandable, because it’s the revision of a revision of a revision. And that whole process of writing the song must be understood as one single work.
DR: And also an evolution, right? Because as a songwriter, he’s seeing different possibilities over time.
DR: Dylan is a performance artist and for most admirers and audiences, the songs are alive in his voice. Do you translate with the idea that your readers will compare the Italian version to the original recordings?
AC: Yes and no. Because to compare the translation with the original, it should follow the same rhythmic pattern. For myself, I translated sixteen songs that I can sing. Many years ago, I was a folk singer and a singer-songwriter, so I published an album and some scattered songs. Those sixteen Dylan songs, I did them for myself and for occasional performances. But I didn’t publish those translations, because they veer away from the original. In my written edition in the book, I wanted to have a literal translation. So I don’t think the reader necessarily wants to compare my translation with the original. The reader wants to understand what the song means.
DR: In the interview on 8thofmay.wordpress.com—“My Voyage in the Labyrinth”—you speak of Dylan’s use of anaphora. You quote your Italian version of “Where have you been my blue-eyed son?” from “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and the repetition of “With your” in “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Do you look for this kind of rhetorical device to frame your translations?
AC: I had to use that of course. It had to be respected. You will find the same in my translations. But I translated “blue-eyed boy” as “mio figlio diletto,” “my favorite son,” in a way. I rely on scholars of the English ballad. This seems to be the meaning. So, it’s not literal. It’s a typical way of referring to my favorite son. In Italian, I consciously used the most common translation from the Bible. When God says “This is my chosen son,” the exact expression is “Questo è il mio figlio diletto,” so I wanted to use the same when I could find a reference to a common Italian translation of the Bible.
DR: Do you think of yourself as a re-shaper of the literal lyrics? Or, in contrast, do you think of your lyrics as reflecting the source semantics and, in translation-theory terms, “functioning as target-language literary texts”?
AC: It would be presumptuous on my part to say that I am a re-shaper. I would be a re-shaper if I had decided to do a rhythmic version of all the songs for the performance, but I did it only for specific songs, not for all of them. So yes, the last definition that you used is the right one.