Between Translation and Tradaptation: An Interview with Daniel Kahn, Berlin, January 2017

Marianne Windsperger


For a pdf of this arti­cle click here.

On “Tradaptation”

Marianne Windsperger: You use the concept of “tradapation” in order to describe your work as translator and performer. Could you please explain what this means exactly for your work?

Daniel Kahn: If my work is tradaptation, it means it doesn’t have to be a translation. It liberates me from the task of the translator. In translating, I try to apply all of the tools that I use when I am writing an original song. Or as many as I can. To make the translation work as well as a new song, you have to find just the right word in the inter-language. The right word would maybe be further away from the original. It’s a million decisions… I don’t have a consistent methodology of when to go one way or the other. The things that I adapt, I adapt because I think that they are good and if I think that they are good, they can withstand being adapted. I won’t do any damage to Itzik Manger or Bertolt Brecht.

About falling in love with Brecht in English and encountering German

Marianne Windsperger: I guess there is a connection between your work as a translator and your own songs. Is there?

Daniel Kahn: Certainly, becoming a song translator has changed some of the kinds of songs I write: I think that my original songs are a little less local than they used to be. I used to be a real American singer-songwriter and part of that had to do with that I was living in America and then I moved abroad – twelve years ago now. I do a lot of writing for theater and I do a lot of writing for my band and my band has a particular intercultural milieu or function. And I do write multilingual songs, I write songs that go freely between languages, mixing in German and Yiddish and other things. So, I guess the practice of singing multilingual songs or of polyglot performances, of seeing songs in an original and in a translation, opened the door for me to writing songs in more than one language. And we all live in more than one language. In Europe today, everyone lives in at least two languages.

Marianne Windsperger: If you choose to translate, for example, a Bertolt Brecht text into English, do you have any ideas about who the audience might be?

Daniel Kahn: Yes, this would be any of my audiences outside of the German speaking realm as well as audiences in the German speaking realm who might be interested in how I adapt Brecht. And it is also important in that case that I fell absolutely in love with Brecht in English. I was into Brecht for ten years before I spoke a word of German and I did many Brecht plays in English, I performed many Brecht songs in English. Brecht in English gave us Bob Dylan. Dylan wouldn’t have been the writer that he was had he not encountered Pirate Jenny [German: Seeräuber Jenny; a ballad in Bertolt Brecht’s play Dreigroschenoper/ The Threepenny Opera, 1928].

Marianne Windsperger: Talking about encountering works in different languages: What happens then when you encounter the original in German of a Brecht text, for example?

Daniel Kahn: […] there is a hard border between literary German and verbal German between the way people talk and the way people write, for example in the theater where people write plays that are like books and actors aren’t trained to speak on stage the way people speak in life. That’s changing a bit and there are different movements. One thing that I can say is that, growing up with American literature, the American tongue, the American way of speaking, is the heart of American literature, like for example Huckleberry Finn. And you see that in the songs; the English singer-songwriter traditions are full of colloquialisms and speech idioms, everyday talk. And I think you see the same thing in Yiddish. I mean, there are different registers, like old sweatshop songs, old revolutionary songs, they are not written the way people talk, but that’s because they wanted to sound German. So there are different registers and you try to mirror the register of the original in the register of the translation. You try to achieve a similar voice gesture, it’s the same character in the song just doing it in a different language context.

On the productivity of misunderstandings

Marianne Windsperger: Do you draw on experiences with misunderstandings, irritations, interruptions, and false friends in your performances? Or how about interferences between German and Yiddish when using supertitles?

Daniel Kahn: German and Yiddish are false friends. They can be very good friends and they can be very false friends to each other. In the false friends’ meaning of false that falsch doesn’t mean false, it means wrong. Falsch in German means wrong and false in English means fake… sometimes they are fake friends.

The joke that I make is that a German-speaking audience understands sixty percent of the Yiddish and sixty percent of the English—so they understand a hundred and twenty percent of the song. […] There are also macaronics all the time, Psoy [Korolenko] and I do that a lot. Those kinds of misunderstandings can be fruitful, and they can help you in life. Years and years ago Arkady Gendler, who was a wonderful Yiddish songwriter… I had translated a song that he taught us, a Berditchever song, I translated it into English and this was in the days when I was translating Yiddish, but I had not really spoken it. […] He said to me: “du darfst lernen zikh yidish” and I was learning German at that time, so I understood: “Du darfst Jiddisch lernen.” [lit. “You are allowed to learn Yiddish.”] Though he was talking to me in Yiddish what I really needed to hear was the German, I needed to hear that I was allowed to learn Yiddish, I needed to be given permission to learn Yiddish, so it was good that I misunderstood that.

Marianne Windsperger: In literature and literary theory there are scholars discussing the connection of Yiddish and English. American English has been described as the New Yiddish. Can you relate to these discussions?

Daniel Kahn: American English is becoming everyone’s Yiddish, not insofar as it’s a Jewish language, it’s also a Hindi language and a Muslim language. It’s just becoming everyone’s language. It’s the language of the moment, there is no language in all of history that has been so widely sort of spoken as English, not Latin, not French, not Spanish, not Greek, not as a native language or as a second language. […]

Marianne Windsperger: What is the role of the audience, the concrete space or the context of the performance? Which role does translation play in your performances?

Daniel Kahn: I try not to go crazy about how things are received in the audience. As a musician I will almost never write a set list before I get to the venue and I at least know what kind of a space it is, who is going to be there, how many people are going to be in there, what language they speak, and then I will decide which songs to sing. Like in the case with my program with Sasha [Lurje, program Strange Love Songs], it will determine which language the supertitles are and there is a great deal of faith that you need in order to sing in front of an audience in a language they don’t understand, because you need to be comfortable with them not understanding you… Which was something that went through my head when I first decided to start singing in Yiddish, because I came to Germany as an English-language singer-songwriter and I would play these gigs where I could just feel people not listening to me, even if they were enjoying the show, even if they were getting some sort of gesture of it, they weren’t really listening. And I kept talking to people, because I was this American singer-songwriter and they would say: “Oh yeah, I really love Bob Dylan and John Mellencamp,” because for them it’s two American guys with a guitar. […] And you still find people who love Bob Dylan and do not understand any of the lyrics. Or I went to see Bruce Springsteen whom I love and there are about 30.000 people all singing along, it was at the Olympiastadion [in Berlin], and I started listening to what they are singing along to and they have no idea what his songs are, they have no idea what the words are, they love him and it’s great […] Springsteen’s soul is in his storytelling, in his poetry and in him, it’s a whole package, but when this central component of cognition is missing, there is a great power in that and there is a great danger in that. I am not comparing myself to Bob Dylan or John Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen, but I found that when I was sitting in bars in Berlin playing a guitar, playing my songs and people were sort of into them or not, I realized that they were into them because of the gesture of the songs, because of the style of the songs and not so much because of the content and then I just figured – as I was getting into Yiddish – since people are not going to listen to what I am saying, they might as well not listen because it’s in a language they don’t really understand at all. They might as well not understand it in Yiddish and so I became fascinated by what that meant that people listen to a language like Yiddish where they may understand some words, but not the meaning. I think that something interesting happens then, I hope – and I do detect it in myself – now, when I listen to things in, say, Russian, where I understand a few words – and what it really tells me is that I want more, I want to get closer, it doesn’t shut me out, it engages me, it fascinates me…. Sometimes it shuts me out, but whether it shuts me out or not does not depend on the language, it depends on the gesture, it depends on what the performer is communicating in everything except for the language. And so Psoy calls it spell-art – in terms of casting a spell, but also spelling. When he and I would do a song that’s in three languages, English, Yiddish, and Russian, and we will do the same song in front of different audiences, let’s say we are playing somewhere in Vermont in America, there you have an audience where the language of cognition is English, the language of maybe a little bit of knowledge – if it’s a Jewish public – is Yiddish and for them Russian is a completely musical, kind of exotic Russianisms. And then we perform in Berlin or Moscow and there are totally different constellations, there are always these three languages: And the brain does different things depending on the language, so if you switch all the time between those languages, not in any kind of bordered way, different people will sort of turn on and off at different times, and you can look at the audience and tell, which people speak which language, just by the way they are listening and that’s fun, that’s totally interesting […] So, I don’t know, it feels like there is something subversive about the whole thing… maybe not.

On folk songs and Volksmusik

Marianne Windsperger: Your music is set at the crossroads of different traditions; nonetheless, people try to put labels on everything: What do you think of labels such as World Music, Klezmer, Folk music (and what about the German term Volksmusik) – which connotations do these terms convey for you? Any label you would want to give to your music?

Daniel Kahn: If I turned on these “Sonntags-Schlager-Gartenparty-Shows” and they sing songs that I really love like Es waren zwei Königskinder [There Were Two Royal Children]... These are old songs that you can do anything with and so ultimately what people are allergic to is the kitsch of this sort, how sentimental and overly produced it is, the political culture of that music and not the thing itself. […] How many awful versions – I just opened this Deutsches Volksliederbuch – of Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär [If I Were A Little Bird] are there, but there are also some really amazing ones. I mean this is a very, very old song, it was published in 1778, this is a great song and it has corollaries in English, it has corollaries in Yiddish, it has corollaries in French. I love German folk music, because I love folk music, I’m a folky. That’s my thing. I like American folk music, English folk music, Yiddish folk music, German folk music… I like it all, because this is the way human beings communicate over long periods of time with each other. This is an amazing thing! Now, your treatment of it, how you use it or how you approach it, that tells us more about you than it tells us about it, so if what you are using it for is some “Heimatsgefühl Revue, then I am not interested in that, because it’s superficial and kitschy, but certainly there are ways of singing this song, of using this song in the way you build relationships with other people. And that’s what you do as a performer: you are building temporary relationships with a stranger. You are in a darkened room with a bunch of people who may not even know each other and you are communicating with them and you have that very special opportunity to speak to them and to give things to them. And so you can recontextualize, the way that Sasha and I are doing this flowers-rape-medley, where we are singing margaritkelekh and Röslein auf der Heiden [Rose on the Heath]. Now, I don’t particularly like either of those songs on their own, there are things about them that I like, other things about them that I don’t like, but we are trying to find a way, by combining them with each other and by performing them in a certain way that may have a subversive effect. Th1e goal isn’t to subvert those songs; the goal is to address another issue and it’s a little bit böse [lit. evil] and there we didn’t even enter into translation, there we are just singing two songs together. We translated the Yiddish into German in the supertitles… kind of elliptically.

Untranslatabilities – On Nabokov and translation

Marianne Windsperger: When composing multilingual songs, how do you end up mixing languages? Can you share your thoughts on the connection between rhyme and rhythm in translating texts and music?

Daniel Kahn: Nabokov is always making that point that doing rhyming translation violates the original. […] Nabokov is smarter than everybody, so I am not going to get in an argument with a dead genius, but I can choose to violate him, violate his priorities: “There are three ways of translating poetry: 1) paraphrastic: offering a free version of the original with omissions, additions and distortions prompted by the exigencies of form, the conventions attributed to the consumer and the translator’s ignorance, ornamented, bloomed, camouflaging played bloomers, great pleasure domes erected on the morass of a mistranslated everyday term. 2) lexical: rendering the basic meaning of the words without any concessions to syntax […] and 3) literal: rendering as closely as associative and syntactical capacities of the inter-language would allow, the exact contextual meaning of the poem in the from-language. Only this is the true translation.” 1 1 Vladimir Nabokov, forward to Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, trans. Vladimir Nabokov, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), vii–viii. […] So there is no question that he would consider most all of what I do in the first category as he calls it […] “strangling the poet’s muse with my muse” 2 2 Ibid., viii. […], this image of killing the original’s muse. He is unforgiving. But then he shows his translation of Okudzhava’s song and here he is showing that sometimes the translation gods smile on you and you can do a rhyming translation and he says that : “It belongs to the popular Russian genre of sung poetry and it’s especially difficult to translate – which is why I chose it –, because its impact upon the senses derives not from direct verbal originality, but from an inspired combination of idiomatic clichés.” It’s a fair description of what folk music or folk style or folkstimlikhe poesie does. Yes, I like that: “an inspired combination of idiomatic clichés.” And I don’t draw a line between pop culture and folk culture. But the catch is: his [Nabokov’s] translation sucks. When he is rhyming, it doesn’t sing, it works all right on the page, but it doesn’t end up being an “inspired combination of idiomatic clichés,” it becomes an inspired combination of belabored, awkward, forced lines with – as Paul Simon said – “words that tear and strain to rhyme.” It’s just an exercise and maybe it has to do with overconfidence. Let’s say I’m translating a song into English, you know, I don’t consider myself Bulat Okudzhava’s equal, of course not, it doesn’t even come into question. On the other hand, I guess, I am conceited enough to allow myself the conceit of taking liberties in order to approximate his “impact on the senses”– to borrow that from Nabokov. If it’s about the impact on the senses and if it’s really about the inspired combination of idiomatic clichés, then I take the liberty to employ the clichés that I am most effective in delivering and those clichés may not be as inspired as the original and I don’t even want to take credit of putting them together even in one place because it’s the song that puts them together, but I feel that it’s effective and if it’s effective, it’s effective and you can tell when it’s not effective. Here is a book… I won’t say who it’s by, but these are totally ineffective singable translations [from Yiddish to English] and there is a tradition of good singable translations in Yiddish, turn on a Barry Sisters’ record! They would always sing a verse or two in English, because they knew their audience – they spoke English and Yiddish – and people could relate.

On translating songs and limitations

Marianne Windsperger: So you would not say that translating songs, the combination of music and text, does not limit the possibilities of the translator?

Daniel Kahn: Everything that limits you in translation can be an aid as well, because it gives you guidelines. [DK quotes from a song book] “On Fire, brothers, it’s on fire! Our poor little village is on fire.” I don’t know if I could translate that song better, I never tried. I only know that I could translate the songs that I have already translated and half of those I don’t even like anymore. But these are trying to be translations and not adaptations. We even recorded songs because they have bad translations. I love bad translations, they can be very, very entertaining. A lot of those Nazaroff translations are awful, that’s why we love them. We recorded the English version of the Hatikvah which is published here in this fireside book of folk songs and we recorded it very earnestly, this is why it was so funny, sort of cutting through some of the sanctimoniousness.

[…] And then there are some lovely translations, this is a lovely translation of Lilli Marleen [quoting/ singing from the book] “Underneath the lantern/ By the barrack gate/ Darling I remember/ the way we used to wait/ T’was there that you whispered tenderly/ that you loved me/ You’d always be/ my lilly of the lamplight/ my own Lili Marleen”

Marianne Windsperger: You translated it as well, right?

Daniel Kahn: I translated it into Yiddish. That was an act of subversion.

A final word on “Tradaptation”

Daniel Kahn: Now that I have read Nabokov again, it’s always beating in my brain and I am trying to come up with a fair argument against what he’s saying and I guess it would just be that a song’s function is to be performed, and the same is true with theater. If performance is the means of delivery and not reading, then it completely changes the function of the translation, and by his own standards, it does more damage to the original to have a more faithful translation that doesn’t work as well in the inter-language than it would to have a less faithful translation. […] And you can also take a lot of weight of the translation through the performance. It’s all about what you can pull off, what you can sell. I love Theo Bikel’s translations, but I can’t pull them all off. There are some of them – if I were trying to sing them – they would sound hackneyed, they would sound wooden, they would sound forced, but if you are Theo Bikel and you have that kind of koyekh, you can do it.

Windsperger, Marianne. “Between Translation and Tradaptation: An Interview with Daniel Kahn, Berlin, January 2017.” In geveb, December 2019:
Windsperger, Marianne. “Between Translation and Tradaptation: An Interview with Daniel Kahn, Berlin, January 2017.” In geveb (December 2019): Accessed Apr 22, 2024.


Marianne Windsperger

Marianne Windsperger is a research assistant at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies (VWI).