Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize was a surprise, not because he didn’t fully deserve the honor but because he did and because the Swedish awards committee fully understood this.
Dylan’s Nobel should remind us of Yasunari Kawabata, who won the literature prize in 1968. How did that happen? Japanese is notably not a Scandinavian language.
Kawabata was lucky to have had a gifted translator, Edward G. Seidensticker. In turn, his American translator was lucky to have had Kawabata, whose difficult-to-translate prose was a fit medium for him to reveal his own literary skill.
Did Dylan have a Seidensticker to translate his American English into an idiom that the Nobel Committee could understand and honor? I think he did. The translator could well have been Christopher Ricks, the author of “Dylan’s Visions of Sin.”
Before he undertook the critical task of improving our understanding of Dylan, Ricks was already an established scholar, known for his meticulous editions, authoritative anthologies and delightful insight-filled essays in criticism. His edition of “The Poems of T.S. Eliot” was published last year.
By explaining how sin figures in Dylan’s lyrics, Ricks gave the committee a writer it could cotton to: one as God-obsessed as the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. There is no monstrous “spider God” in Dylan’s songs, but there’s no overlooking his religious concerns.
Ricks also illustrates how Dylan gives new life to American English, how he burnishes cliches into poetry. “Lay lady lay,” Ricks points out, “has that lovely languorous assonantal stretching.”
Not quite John Keats, but not too shabby either.
The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.
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