Translation and Interpretation, Part 1

German, Dutch, English, Japanese, Italian, and French editions of Gödel, Escher, Bach.

There are some interesting similarities and differences between ‘interpretation’ and ‘translation.’ They both involve a transformation of some kind, where information (and by extension, meaning) is preserved between a source domain and a target domain. With translation, the success of the move is seemingly measured by the extent to which we recognize the original in the target domain. The emphasis, though, seems to be on what is preserved between the two domains, whereas with an interpretation the emphasis seems to be on the extent of the differences between the two (e.g. “the rhythmic transparency of Glenn Gould’s performances”).

What interests me is the threshold between those characteristics associated with interpretation versus translation when it comes to a musical performance. Clearly they aren’t interchangeable words or processes, but since their meanings have some overlap it has led me to think about where and why we draw distinctions (e.g. “the score didn’t translate well as a jazz trio”).

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter is a seminal work in cognitive science. It was my gateway to studying music cognition, and has remained a personal favorite for some 20 years. GEB contains several dialogs, between Achilles and the Tortoise (à la Lewis Carroll), which are rich in word-play and linguistic nuance. The structure of one dialog in particular, Contracrostipunctus, harbors a double acrostic. Taking the first letter from each turn in dialog yields the following sentence:

“Hofstadter’s Contracrostipunctus Acrostically Backwards Spells J.S. Bach.”

This is a self-referential statement, which is further encoded as a backwards acrostic (starting from the end, with the “h” in Bach):

You can read the original dialog here.

When the publisher expressed interest in issuing foreign-language editions of GEB, there was an initial concern about whether the book was even translatable: how could the “essence” and “meaning” of a book so rooted in word-play (among many other things) be preserved in translation? Hofstadter himself described the kinds of special problems and solutions he encountered during the French translation of GEB, in an essay titled: “The Search for Essence ‘twixt Medium and Message: When Hidden Messages Count More Than the Surface Message” in Traductio: Essays on Punning and Translation, edited by Dirk Delabastita, St. Jerome Publishing, 1997.

In terms of Contracrostipunctus, the character and capacity of each language necessitated the creation of a new acrostic (which, by extension, required a new second-level backward acrostic as well). But the translation still needed to be a faithful rendering of the original dialog; the word-play had to be supported both linguistically and culturally (e.g. puns, etc.) In other words, the dialog also had to be interpreted in terms of the target language.

In music, one is more likely to use the word “interpretation” rather than “translation.” For example, we might speak of a violinist’s interpretation of the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin. In that instance, it seems the source domain is the score, and the target domain is the performance; we discard the common denominator between the two (the notes themselves) and evaluate the extent of what’s left: the interpretation (i.e. how the notes were specifically performed).

When we speak of translation in music, we tend to discard the differences (the vagaries of individual performances) and measure the extent of what is left in common between the two domains (i.e. the notes themselves), and evaluate things based on how much of it has been preserved between the two. For example, a polyphonic piece written for keyboard would require something akin to a translation in order to be performed on a single flute: some music would have to be cut which could drastically alter the identity of the piece. Listening to the flute performance for the first time, the focus would likely be on whether the essence of the piece has been preserved (i.e. is it recognizable as being the “same” piece), rather than on the qualities of the interpretation. And if the flute piece strays too far from the original, then one might say it failed to “translate”—yet it could still be enjoyable on its own terms, as an interpretation.

Could you simultaneously be a bad translator and a good interpreter? How about at the United Nations?

Musical translations such as the one mentioned above are usually referred to as arrangements or even transcriptions (“transcribe”, from Latin transcribere, from trans– ‘across’ + scribere ‘write’). Yet writing an arrangement requires the ability to translate; the arranger needs to be familiar with the the capacities and characteristics of the ‘language’ of music, the ‘language’ of performance, and the ‘culture’ of each instrument or else the arrangement will seem to fall short on one level—no matter how good the interpretation.

Part two of this post will discuss some musical excerpts, and how some parts seemingly required translating before they could be interpreted.

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10 Responses to Translation and Interpretation, Part 1

  1. “The extent to which we recognize the original in the target domain”: a curious thing though is that in some cases the reader has no access to the original — as with, say, most readers of the Gilgamesh story. But even then, a translation can be so persuasive in its own right that it seems to be carrying across the spirit of the original.


    • Sean says:

      The Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker had a motto with regard to tonal music: “semper idem sed non eodem modo” (always the same, but never the same way). This kind of reminds me of Gilgamesh, insofar as how The Flood is a common element in the narrative of so many cultures and religions, but often different in its particulars.


  2. musicalassumptions says:

    Luckily interpretation is not set in stone, and unlike a translator, who feels that s/he can find the “best possible” translation given time and experience, the interpretation of a Bach Sonata, Partita, or Suite can change with the tides, with age and experience, or particularly with the thousands upon thousands of emotional connections a player has with the music.


  3. mmmusing says:

    In regard to musicalassumptions’s comment, I’d be surprised if any translator honestly feels there’s a “best possible” translation, especially as the language of the target audience is always evolving. Creating an effective translation is an art unto itself (especially where poetry’s involved – and in good writing, it’s always involved!), and there’s certainly nothing that can be set in stone about the process. Hofstadter talks a lot about the art of translation in “Let ton beau de Marot,” my favorite of his books. But where the translation/interpretation analogy breaks down the most is that an interpretation is essentially required by the text – the text hardly means anything as music until it’s performed (interpreted). A literary translation, on the other hand, is not something requested or required by the original text, which only needs someone to read it for its purposes to be fulfilled. In fact, the musical interpreter is obviously much more closely analogous to the reader.

    That’s why I think a musical transcription is much closer in spirit to a literary translation than a musical interpretation is. In each case, the purpose is make the essential “whatever” available to a new group of “readers/interpreters.” Of course, musical transcriptions come in lots of shapes and size; translating from flute to violin is generally going to be MUCH more straightforward than going from Russian to English – in fact, the notation might not require any change at all! Will be interesting to see where you go with Part II….

    [Here’s a post of mine on the translation/transcription connection: ]


    • Sean says:

      Thanks for your comments, MM. I’ll tell you in advance that the excerpt I’m planning on discussing is the Bourrée 2 from the 4th Cello Suite by Bach.


  4. Stephen says:

    Thanks for featuring this book.

    I used to love “Mathematical Games” in Scientific American, and was delighted with Hofstadter’s “Metamagical Themas” successor.

    I spent (misspent?) many hours of my youth with Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. GEB is not an easy read. There are digressions which seem to call for years of study and investigation before returning to the text.


    • Sean says:

      Metamagical Themas as well as Le Ton Beau de Marot and Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies are excellent companion books, insofar as they treat several of his recurring themes in more detail. I’m looking forward to his new book, Surfaces and Essences, due this September. Years ago, I sought him out through e-mail, and he was very gracious and patient with my questions. And at one point, I was able to spend some time with him in Eugene, Oregon (the birthplace of GEB, by the way). He was guest-lecturing in the physics department and I was a music student at the time. One of the music faculty is also a friend of his, and I was fortunate to have some time set-up with him over the course of those two days.

      There was also a regional music theory conference being held there that same weekend, and he dropped by for the paper I was giving; that was a very memorable day. As much as I tried to resist, I had to be a little bit of a fan and ask him to sign a few of my editions of GEB.


      I don’t mean for this to sound like name-dropping. Instead, it’s often been surprising that all it has taken to meet with (and at times, even work with) some of the people who have inspired me, was just to ask. The worse they could say is “no”, but you never know, they might just say “yes”.


      • mmmusing says:

        Great story. When I read “Le Ton beau de Marot,” I must’ve made about a dozen translations of the little French poem that is at the center of the book – it’s an exercise Hofstadter encourages of his readers, sort of akin to the “digressions” Stephen mentions above. I ended up translating an entire French operetta, rhymes and all, into English largely based on the inspiration of that book. I always intended to send some of my translations along to Hofstadter (as I’m sure many others did), but never got around to it. Your story makes me wish I had. I love GEB, but “Le Ton beau de Marot” really changed my life.

        I know a lot of Hofstadter-ites and linguist types aren’t as thrilled with LTbdM as GEB since Hofstadter is swimming further out of his own area of expertise in the former – what are your thoughts?


  5. Sean says:

    I remember Doug saying that he was a little disappointed with the reception of LTbdM, because he saw it as a work on par with, or even above that, of GEB. I don’t want to parse his words, but my impression is that he reached a new level of understanding and clarity about analogy-making in LTbdM, which was very gratifying for him, but perhaps the emphasis on translation left the general audience wanting some more of the diversity found in GEB. I very much like that he wrote a book that has a more narrow focus — something that deeply explores a (seemingly) single topic. If you divided GEB into 10 books, each one would still be the pinnacle of most authors’ life work, and here he went and wrote it all himself.

    Both books are ‘beautiful’, but I think there is an exceptional sense of beauty to LTbdM. If GEB is unmitigated virtuosity, then LTbdM is akin to a love-letter, both literally and figuratively.


  6. Pingback: Translation and Interpretation, Part 2 | Contrapuntalism

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