Daily Yomiuri On-Line

Pair to translate Japanese songs into German

Gesine Denker / Yomiuri Shimbun Frankfurt Bureau

"Old Europe" is the cradle of classical music. Lots of Japanese music students go abroad to take singing lessons, especially in Germany and Austria, home of many famous composers of classical lieder like Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann.

The work of these old masters is well known in Japan. Songs like "Lorelei" are translated into Japanese and used in music classes in schools there. But it has been a one-way flow: There is not a single song from Japan commonly known in Germany.

A new project has been started to offset this imbalance. Pianist Matthias Graff-Schestag, 45, and a Japanese friend, Toru Tanabe, 42, a classical baritone who has lived in Germany for about 16 years, want to publish a book of Japanese songs translated into German.

"We want to open this one-way street to oncoming traffic," says Graff-Schestag, who teaches at colleges of music in Frankfurt and Darmstadt in central Germany. Advancing the process of mutual cultural exchange is the aim of their project: "I want to bring Japanese culture closer," Tanabe says, "and make it more comprehensible."

Both men are convinced that the language barrier--compounded by totally different writing systems--is the main reason that Japanese culture plays a minor role in Germany, and in Europe in general. This has been Tanabe's experience as a professional Japanese singer in Germany.

"If you have the opportunity to sing Japanese songs, people like it, but they like it because it's exotic," he complains. "If you don't understand the language of a song, you don't understand the music. You can only feel the atmosphere--and from my perspective I've always thought this was not enough."

Consequently, the two musicians decided to put together a selection of 31 songs that they translated together over the course of a year.

An earlier effort had been made by Swiss tenor Ernst Hafliger. Around 1990, Hafliger recorded a CD of classical Japanese art songs translated into German.

However, Tanabe and Graff-Schestag's project has a different objective. "We want Germans to actively use this Japanese songbook, sing the songs themselves," Graff-Schestag explains.

They had no interest in producing a dusty museum piece. "We want people to compare something vivid from everyday Japanese life with their own everyday lives," Tanabe says.

Hence, the book consists of more than the equivalents of classical lieder, and presents a cross-section of songs from the repertoire of common people. The content ranges from traditional songs like "Sakura, Sakura" (Cherry Blossoms) and "Kojo no Tsuki" (Moon at the Ruined Castle) to emotional enka songs and modern karaoke hits like "Kita no Yado Kara" (From the Old Inn in the North) or "Ii Hi Tabidachi" (Good Day for Departure).

Public reaction to a recital in May last year, where Tanabe and Graff-Schestag presented a bilingual program for the first time, gave an initial hint that their concept of cultural mediation might work. Tanabe recalls, "While I was singing in Japanese people listened with some kind of curiosity, but when I switched into German, they visibly began to understand and started nodding their heads approvingly."

This concert led to the idea of compiling Japanese songs into a German-language songbook. Graff-Schestag, who founded his own small music publishing company, Thiasos, in 1996, was enthusiastic about the idea, especially since he is more interested in the "cultural mission," he says, than in economic gain from this enterprise.

While working with Tanabe on the translating, he soon felt the linking of the cultures. Graff-Schestag shaped Tanabe's literal translations into words matching the rhythm of the music by playing and testing around 100 variations. Sometimes, however, he could not grasp the associations inherent in the original text. The song "Kita no Yado Kara," for example, required some explanations by Tanabe.

In this award-winning song by Harumi Miyako, the heroine makes herself up alone late at night, longing for her absent lover. "I could not understand why this woman should put on makeup for the night. So without further ado I eliminated that," Graff-Schestag laughs.

Later, he realized that this was essential to understanding the song's protagonist's yearning for death. "We consider it important to maintain these Japanese associations in the translation and not replace them with German ones," he emphasizes.

The songbook Alte und neue Lieder aus Japan (Old and New Songs from Japan: ISMN M-50087-920-6) will be published in an edition of about 250 copies distributed via the Internet and music shops. It will debut in a concert in Frankfurt Thursday. There are plans to follow up with a CD as well.

With the language impediments sorted out, and the music itself "not as exotic as I had expected," Graf-Schestag says, "people might even join in."

Tanabe at least is confident: "Any German can sing Japanese enka."

Copyright 2003 The Yomiuri Shimbun