The Fourth Wall: The jingle-jangle of language isn't always twice-blessed
Nobel laureate Robert Zimmerman, of course ... although it loses something in translation from the original Klingon.
The common-denominator experience of “Mr. Tambourine Man” is the 1965 take released by The Byrds, who sidelined the vast majority of Dylan’s opaque verses and focused their cover on the jaunty jingle-jangle of the chorus.
Hearing that version, with its ’60s-infused instrumental and harmony vocals, is a world apart from the song’s troubadour beginnings. Dylan (who, after all, wrote and left unfinished the chorus of the open-mic earworm “Wagon Wheel”) has never seemed particularly protective of his compositions from interpretation ... but “Mr. Tambourine Man” in particular has become recognized as twin songs of different mothers of reinvention.
The basic notion — stripping down the language of the artist to make it accessible to a wider audience — can be found within all cultural endeavors, leaving it up to the individual to determine whether the reconstruction stays true to the intent or strays past the point of no return.
Consider “Play On Shakespeare,” the effort launched by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” the Bard’s 39 plays into modern English. Versions of the works had readings at a New York theater company this spring — although those behind “Play On” note that not all were in shape for full-stage productions.
For those who went through school in towns that weren’t home to theater companies, Shakespeare appeared as a perilous bridge to safely cross on the way to a diploma. It wasn’t just the language (although that can be tricky in and of itself), but the pacing, the rhythm of the speech that had developing minds teetering over the abyss.
That bridge first appeared in front of me in sixth grade, when Miss Hurley devoted most of her English class to an introduction for little princes and princesses of New England still struggling with Frost and Dickinson.
The class was split in half, each with a soliloquy to master — Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” lament, or (as in my case) Portia’s “Quality of Mercy” speech from “The Merchant of Venice” — and then perform by the end of the school year.
Being but 11 or 12 years old, the majority of us took this as a memorization test, akin to the multiplication tables, and recited our assignments with little of the passion (and none of the understanding) within the words.
If the meaning itself was somewhat lost on our developing minds, however, we did understand that this was a higher form of communication, and should be appreciated in the way that we’d look at the paintings during the annual school trip to an art museum or in a textbook — you know, like that one of the woman with the big forehead who might or might not be smiling.
“Play On,” of course, has made it a core objective to strive to maintain the integrity of Shakespeare’s works, even as the language itself has veered toward the contemporary.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, are the internet outlets where you can find “Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirate’s Daughter” and the rest of the canon reduced to tweets. Even at the expanded character allotment, the minimization strips bare the poetry and leaves behind a Cliff Notes version for the age of social media.
But do we really need, or should we really want, stripped-down versions of complex works? Would a “translation” of “Howl” or “Gravity’s Rainbow” or “Ulysses” really do anything more than just give readers a mile-wide, inch-deep understanding of the text? Shouldn’t how the writer presented the material be as important as the material itself?
The evolving nature of language has led us to a time in which we not only don’t want to actually communicate — but when we do, we want to do so in as dumbed-down a fashion as possible.
Gretchen McCulloch, the Canadian “internet linguist” whose new book is “Because Internet,” said in a recent National Public Radio interview that depending on our connected devices to speak to each other has necessitated the creation of a language in and of itself.
She told NPR that texting and tweeting has led to common folks texting with the sort of “exquisite levels of social nuance” usually associated with more formal forms of communication.
Whether or not you agree with McCulloch (whose book is subtitled “Understanding the New Rules of Language”), the author said in an interview with Vox that the exponential growth in internet slang will eventually necessitate that school children will need to be taught how to communicate within these “New Rules.”
“Language has changed and is always changing. There’s not one right way to communicate,” McCulloch told Vox. “We don’t speak the way Shakespeare did, and Shakespeare didn’t speak the way Chaucer did.”
Of course, while evening’s empire has returned into sand ... those rules might not be written in Sanskrit.
Droppeth emails to Mail Tribune copy desk chief Robert Galvin upon the place beneath