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Translation and jazz – getting into the groove

Louis Armstrong

Like everybody else, translators and jazz musicians have off-days, days when you have no inspiration whatsoever and the only phrases that come to mind are lame, uninspired and cringe-making, and “on-days”, when everything flows spontaneously from your fingers with no intervening thoughts cluttering up the process.

Every work(wo)man has their own particular tools, and jazz musicians are no exception. Their bag of tricks is full, not of spanners, screwdrivers or software, but what they call “licks”. Licks are musical phrases of varying length that typify the style of music to be played and that can be pulled out of the bag at an appropriate moment in the music, usually triggered by a specific chord or chord progression. Even classical composers have licks, which are part of their musical identity and enable listeners to distinguish, say, Mozart from Beethoven. Jazz licks are traditionally learnt not by reading a written score as in classical music, but via a process known as “lifting”, which involves listening to a recording, pausing and playing back as needed, and then either writing down the phrase using musical notation or playing it directly on your instrument, subsequently transposing it through the 12 keys to ensure you can play it in any position or key. The act of recalling these licks or patterns can be compared to the act of translating, where the translator searches her memory for words or phrases that correspond to the required meaning. Obviously, this also applies to copywriters, authors and poets etc., in whose case the “trigger” for the desired word or phrase may be an emotion, image or impression they wish to convey, rather than a word or phrase in a foreign language. The fact of having an off-day or on-day affects this act of recall, which is so essential for all of the aforementioned activities: on an off-day, a jazz musician will come out with pure drivel, play lame, clichéd, uninspired solos and be unable to get out of the rut. A translator might have no ideas for neat, punchy, zippy language and be forced to fall back on a more literal word-for-word style just to get the job done. A frustrating experience when you know that your bag of tricks, located somewhere near the back of your head, contains a goldmine of rich and appropriate language that you just can’t seem to tap into today!

So, what can you do about it? You arrive at the office (or piano), brain-dead, feeling terrible, no inspiration, no desire to press a key on any kind of instrument, no inclination to kick-start that mind-bogglingly complex neurophysiological process of taking thousands of micro-decisions per second… You need to stimulate your powers of recall, get your mind into the right groove, open the floodgates of inspiration and get those ideas flowing… (Over the Word translator and talented jazzman, Paul Kempson)

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