Reflections on Translations – II: Music and the Superfluousness of Comprehension

Can one listen to a song, not understand its lyrics, and still appreciate it? The answer to this silly question is a straightforward ‘Yes’, and I don’t think I would be alone in saying so.

As the endearing popularity of The Best–or Most–Misunderstood Lyrics meme, and the persistent faux complaints about Incomprehensible Lyrics show, we are used to hearing and appreciating songs whose words we only dimly understand. In the case of the Misunderstood Lyric, we impose our creative–often more-satisfying and more-entertaining–interpretation on the words and carry merrily along; in the case of the Incomprehensible Lyric, we sometimes mouth substitutes, sometimes we move our lips in despair, struggling to find traction somewhere, anywhere, in that slippery mass of mumbles, moans, grunts, all in a supposedly familiar language. But we don’t stop listening; no one ever hits the ‘off’ button in frustration at incomprehension.

Sometimes, as was evident to me some twenty years ago, when I saw University of Maryland students ‘dancing’ to Ice Cube‘s  “Wrong Nigger To Fuck With”, we can vaguely, dimly, understand the lyrics, and perhaps push their fully comprehended significance away from us so we can get on with the business at hand viz. dancing. In this case, I have in mind the last verse of WNTFW, which reads:

Don’t let me catch Daryl Gates in traffic
I gotta have it, to peel his cap backwards
I hope he wear a vest too, and his best blew
goin up against the Zulu
Break his spine like a jellyfish
Kick his ass til I’m smellin shit
Off wit the head, off wit the head I say
And watch the devil start kickin
Run around like a chicken, grand dragon finger lickin
Yo, turn him over wit a spatula
Now we got, Kentucky Fried Cracker
Mess with the Cube, you get punked quick
Pig, cause I’m the wrong nigga to fuck with!

Dunno if these are lyrics to dance by, exactly.

But most importantly, we listen to songs in other languages, whose words are all Greek–or Spanish, or French–to us. We hear the words, we respond to their sounds, their physicality; the lack of a connection with their meanings does not appear to faze the listener. Here, music ceases to be the lyrical word, and becomes purely expressive again. Sometimes this lack of connection with meaning can be a relief; we can get on with the business of simply reacting to the sounds. (I enjoyed Plastic Bertrand‘s Ca Plane Pour Moi for years before bothering to look up anything about it.) My favorite instance is Fernanda Abreu‘s Katia Flavia, which I’ve been listening to for some eight years now, all the while wrapped in utter incomprehension about the song’s lyrics, their meaning or supposed significance. I like the sound of Portugese, especially when deployed by such a strong, funky voice; I respond, immediately, to the cadence, the urgency and insistence of Abreu’s peformance. And I find no desire whatsoever to translate, to push back on the opacity of the lyric.

It’s not because I think I will be disillusioned; it’s just because, at this stage in my enjoyment of the song, comprehension seems besides the point.

2 comments on “Reflections on Translations – II: Music and the Superfluousness of Comprehension

  1. David Barry says:

    This post reminded me of a great moment from Bulgaria’s Music Idol (it has 12 million views, so you might have already seen it):

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