Finding Dylan In “Translation”


Bob Dylan in 1963

I’ve busked a few Bob Dylan numbers in my time. I’m one of those people who ruin the end of parties by bringing out their acoustic guitar. In my twenties, I used to play regularly at folk clubs and open mic nights. One of my favourites is “Boots Of Spanish Leather”. And I do a mean “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – or at least I think I do.

It’s not just Dylan songs. I have an anachronistic love of singer-songwriters from the 1960s and early 70s, so I like singing songs by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen too. And, until about five years ago, I would always sing them with a North American accent – the same sort of approximate, hybrid North American accent that most British artists resort to when they sing.

On “Tangled Up In Blue”, for example, I would go to town trying to imitate both the standard and less standard features of Bob Dylan’s idiosyncratic accent (“Finno-Hebraic Minnesotan, by way of Greenwich Village”, according to journalist Graeme Wood). I would g-drop right from the opening line (“Early one mornin’…”). I would drop the yod from “Lord knows I’ve paid some dues”. I’d elongate most of stressed monopthongs, like the “e” vowel in “offered meee a pipe”. I would reduce the /aɪ/ dipthongs in “I” and “my” to “ah” and “mah”. I’d reduce the unstressed “of” (for example) in “I seen a lot uh women” to a schwa. And so on.

It wasn’t until someone asked me once why I was singing in an American accent that I started to question it. I realised it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was automatic. I was trying to recreate “Mr Tambourine Man” as perfectly as I could – note for note, word for word. So, in some ways, it made sense to copy every phoneme too.

Then, I got a bit more into folk music. I started to listen to English folk musicians like Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy. They, like almost everyone on the folk scene, sing unashamedly in their own accents. It’s actually something of an unwritten rule among folk singers (often attributed to 20th century folk revivalist Ewan MacColl) that you only sing songs in a language or dialect that you speak.

Later, I studied linguistics. I found out that accent, and dialect more generally, is just one part of what sociolinguists refer to as “style” – the part of language, which is not about “what you say” but rather “how you say it”. Sociolinguists posit that our linguistic style is intrinsically linked to our social identity. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, it’s almost impossible to say anything to anybody without them making some kind of judgement about who you are – where you are from, where you were educated, what you do for a living, and so on. And, just like we can code-switch between languages, within our personal repertoire, we can style-switch depending on whom we are talking to, and what sort of identity we want to project.

It made me realise the obvious – that when I sing in an American accent, I’m not being myself. I’m taking on someone else’s identity. I’m being the one thing that the folk singers of the 1960s were aiming to avoid: inauthenticity. I’m being a fake.

It took a long time to unlearn the habit, a bit like a golfer having to change their swing. But these days, I only sing covers of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in my own accent – a sort of generic South-East England British Standard English with the odd Nottingham vowel thrown in.

However, when the guitar comes out, I’m still left with a problem when it comes to Bob Dylan. The reason is that Dylan didn’t just sing in dialect, he wrote in it. His songs are not only full of phonological markers of his Woody Guthrie-influenced Midwestern dialect. His identity is marked both lexically and grammatically in the lyrics.

Take “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” for example. Across the four verses, there are particular forms of address (“honey”, “baby” and “gal”) that I would never use. There are archaic forms of goodbye (“fare thee well” and “so long”) and North American terms like “rooster”. There’s the addition of the prefix “a-” to present participles, which somehow makes me think of Mark Twain, concurrent with the frequent g-dropping (“a-thinkin’ and a-wanderin’”). There’s the contraction “I ain’t”, which isn’t part of my dialect (I’d say “I’m not”). There are bare adverbs (“you treated me unkind”), and grammatical constructions (“it ain’t no use to”), that don’t exist in British Standard English. There’s the North American use of simple past where British English would use the past perfect, and some nonstandard conjugations (“the light I never knowed”). In fact, probably the only stylistic feature in the entire song, which I would also use in speech, is the contraction of “kind of” to “kinda”.

Because of all the wonderful lexical and grammatical stylistic features, it turns out, there are very few Bob Dylan songs that I can sing without putting on someone else’s identity.

There’s only one solution. It’s the same thing you would do if you wanted to sing something written. You have to rewrite the lyrics in your own dialect. You have to attempt some sort of “translation”.

Of course, that’s not a trivial thing to do. Change just one word of a song, or one syntactic construction, and you can screw up the rhyming pattern or scansion. More fundamentally, you are faced with the same challenge all translators are faced with when changing one language for another: finding a replacement word or phrase (say, for “gal” or “it ain’t no use”) that doesn’t completely wash out any sense of identity entirely.

But, with a bit of effort, you can do it. Here’s how I now sing the first verse of “Don’t Think Twice”:

There’s no point sitting, wondering why, love
If you don’t know by now
There’s no point sitting, wondering why, love
It doesn’t matter anyhow
When your alarm clock rings and it’s a brand new day
Look out your bedroom window, and I’ll be gone away
You’re the reason that I just can’t stay
Don’t think twice, it’s OK

I’m definitely not saying it’s as good as the original. But it’s still recognisably the work of the Nobel Laureate – and I can sing it while remaining true to my own suburban, English identity.

Of course, hardcore Dylan fans will be screaming, “heresy!” But I would argue the opposite. Fans think of Bob Dylan as a true authentic: someone who never compromised, who was always true to his own, idiosyncratic self. I like to think, by “translating” Dylan so as not to compromise my own authenticity – I’m actually giving Dylan the respect he deserves.


This excellent book by David Pichaske includes an in depth discussion of Bob Dylan’s dialect. There are a couple of interesting papers in the journal Oral Tradition on translating Dylan into French and Spanish.

Image in the public demain downloaded here.


9 thoughts on “Finding Dylan In “Translation”

  1. I have mixed feelings about this.

    On the one hand, it’s perfectly normal for folk singers to adjust songs to fit themselves and their circumstances: it’s the folk process, as the musicologist Charles Seeger (father of Pete Seeger) called it. Folk songs cross national and language borders all the time, and evolve over years or centuries, picking up new tunes, new lyrics, even new themes. “The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies” began life as a grim ballad (Jean Redpath sings it) about a Scottish laird whose wife runs away, and when he brings her back, he walls her up in a tower for life. So what you are doing to Dylan’s work is transforming folk-style songs into actual folk songs. And that’s all right. Or okay, if you prefer.

    On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with singing songs in other languages (or varieties) if you do a decent job and aren’t making fun of them. The Weavers were perfectly entitled to sing “Tzena, tzena, tzena” in Hebrew, or “Wimoweh” partly in Zulu, and that didn’t make them fakes. It’s also okay to sing “O Tannenbaum” in German and “Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella” in French at Christmas time if you don’t like the English versions. (With all respect to McColl, I suspect he was primarily concerned to try to stop the English from trying to sing in Scots without knowing how.)

    But on the third hand, I don’t believe for a moment that Dylan’s “a-wanderin'” is “authentic” either, in the sense that that’s the way his family and community spoke. He was a middle-class son of Duluth, far away from the Appalachians where such forms were preserved, and born to an American-born father who had worked his way up the management hierarchy. When Dylan covered Little Richard (whose band he wanted to join at one point) and Elvis, do you think he sang like the boy from Duluth? Hardly. And when he wrote folk songs, he wrote them in Woody-Guthrie-ese, which may have been authentic for Woody, but not for Dylan. And that was all right too. All culture is to some extent fake culture, because although (to invert Marx) we do not make ourselves just as we please, we do nevertheless make ourselves.

    Anyway, thanks for the post: it inspired a lot of thoughts. Looking forward to the next one.

    (Technical note on flat/bare adverbs: In Old English the contrast between adjectives and adverbs was that the latter ended in -e, which was lost with the fall of all -e in Early Modern English. We might have ended up like German, with adjectives and adverbs the same, but instead we mostly switched to a new ending -ly < -lic plus the same -e. This -lic originally meant ‘body’, and is cognate to lich(-gate) and further north lyke(-wake). As such, it is oddly parallel to the Romance adverb ending -ment(e) < Latin mente, ablative of mens ‘mind’. Most flat adverbs have been displaced, but hard remains, and so do fast and slow, as in drive fast but walk slow). They are not, as such, ungrammatical: they are a stylistic feature of Standard English.)

  2. Thanks, John – great comments! Peggy Seeger’s comments on the Singer’s Club “rule” – hyperlink in the blog post – are quite interesting, and she makes a similar point as you. And there are lots of other good reasons for singing songs from other languages, dialects, cultures so long, as you say, as it doesn’t slip into parody, intended or otherwise. I was also conscious of the arguments against Dylan’s “authenticity” (and Joni Mitchell’s comments on the subject a few years ago were interesting!). Of course, Dylan imitated, copied, borrowed, stole – it’s a mark of his genius. And the overall point about adapting and translating being part of the folk process is absolutely true. I wonder whether that’s where folk and some other artistic traditions differ?

  3. Pingback: Finding Dylan In “Translation” — Word Jazz | dandycannes

  4. Although I would not follow your interesting advice, you ask the right questions, but your answers are not mine. Forging your own identity, that’s what it is all about, by imitating, translating, inventing and emulating, taking on as many faces as your spirit has shapes, until you start a yourney into your own soul, which is without limit and rooted at the same time… I for one have refused to be defined by my past and the place where I have come from, would I have done that I would have succumbed to the unimaginative surroundings of a Dutch calvinistic entourage… I Contain Multitudes is a hell of a song for me, that expresses in not a small way how I feel, and still I am working on novels that say even more what I am all about and how I view the world, and my language is my own, not that from my country or family, I forged it myself out of all influences that freed me. But thanks, you remind me of a good friend, who refuses to sing any other songs than those that are from the old folk tradition in Holland, even if no one knows them song anymore, he advocates them in a beautiful way, that’s his identity.

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