A Nobel for Dylan: Not all right

I’m a big Bob Dylan fan – I still have my LP and cassette versions of Blood on the Tracks among others, and that was the first CD I ever bought when the technology came out here in Japan – but a Nobel Prize in Literature? Since when is music literature? Unlike non-laureates Keats or Wordsworth, say, Dylan’s lyrics are written to be heard, not seen. These are not poems but lyrics, and that’s not a criticism. You can’t recognize one without the other. I thought the lesson was learned with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1932, which was presented to Of Thee I Sing lyricist Ira Gershwin and the show’s book writers while pointedly leaving out composer George Gershwin. (The Pulitzer people have corrected their ways since.) Those lyrics were not written in a vacuum; they’re inseparable from the music that accompanies them. It’s the same with Dylan, who of course writes both together. A Peace Prize would have made more sense – or maybe Chemistry in honor of the reaction that occurs when music and lyrics gel into one perfect whole. Dylan is amply deserving of something, maybe a new Nobel Prize for Culture. But let’s not put him on the level of Faulkner, any more than we should give Faulkner a prize for lyrics. 

Most interesting were the words of Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, who referred to Dylan’s “brilliant way of rhyming, putting together refrains, and his pictorial way of thinking”. Rhyming? This is a guy who rhymes “my friend” and “blowin’ in the wind” in his most famous verse, and that’s a mild example. I assume she’s comparing him to Abba, which might make sense, but I hope the Academy’s judgment was more informed than this. If they’re just looking for clever rhyming and innovative song structure, they’d be better off with Stephen Sondheim – and I’m sure his supporters will be pushing hard now that the floodgates are open.

On a somewhat related topic, this reminded me of my surprise in reading parts of Chinese writer Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain after he was awarded the Literature Prize in 2000. The Chinese passage that my friend sent me was this:

有一座石桥?没有石桥?就顺着溪涧进去?还是走大路的好?走大路就远了?绕点路心里明白?心里明白了一找就到?要紧的是心诚?心诚就灵验?灵验不灵验全在运气,有福之人无须去找?这就叫踏破铁鞋无处寻,寻来全不费功夫!

The last sentence was translated in English as “if you wear old iron shoes you won’t find it anywhere and to look for it would be a total waste of time.” That’s not quite what’s being said here; the idiom being referenced says that you can wear out iron shoes in fruitless searching and suddenly by sheer luck find what you were seeking. The odd translation changes the tone significantly, making me wonder if the translator understood it. I’ve only seen this passage and can’t speak for the work as a whole, though numerous other errors have been pointed out online – for example, the word for “sea level” is mistranslated as a place name, seconds become hours, a 50-year-old becomes fifty people and such. Maybe none of this matters in the context of the entire novel, but what occurred to me was: the Nobel folks actually gave a prize at least partly on the basis of a novel that they misread. Are these guys really qualified to render judgment on works in languages that they can’t understand? Then this year they give a prize to Bob Dylan for rhyming. All very curious.

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