Music and Translation. New Mediations in the Digital Age

Lucile Desblanche (2019)

Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 407, £74.99

Reviewed by: Stefania Taviano

Music and Translation offers us a fascinating and groundbreaking journey through the intersections and commonalities between music and translation while challenging traditional and well-established concepts of these two hybrid fields central to humanity and beyond. Professor Lucile Desblache’s work confirms the need for a truly interdisciplinary approach encouraging artists and scholars to broaden their views and address the interconnections between music and translation. In doing so musicians will appreciate how essential translation is for their creativity and performance while translation scholars acknowledge the impact that music has on translation.

The book is well-structured and divided in three sections. The first section focuses on the interrelation between music and translation starting from the very definitions of these two disciplines across times and cultures as well as their ability to address the tensions between the local and the global. In the second part the author investigates what is translated in music, ranging from the translation of lyrics to the transcreation of styles, genres, rhythm, tempi and beats, and how music is translated in terms of adopted strategies and the musical spaces in which these translations are embedded. In the third and final part Desblache examines the relationship between music and human activities and its ability to convey emotions across the arts and the senses, as well as exploring music by and for other species, thus the role of music as a mediating agent between human beings and the natural world.

Desblache’s clear and precise writing reveals many fascinating parallels between music and translation. The notion of music as an autonomous and untranslatable art, according to Western philosophical traditions, thus disconnected from social and cultural contexts, has parallels with early translation studies focusing primarily on texts, particularly those belonging to the Western literary canon. Such views have been and continue to be questioned in terms of scientific approaches to both music and translation - as in the case of ethnomusicology, addressing the social connotations of music - and sociocultural perspectives focusing on the political role of translation. The volume provides numerous and rich examples of music as a translational force, as exemplified by the Japanese accordionist Hiroko Hito. Her unique creations, appropriating and mediating different genres from jazz to tango, are a fascinating instance of music as a place for intercultural encounters and cultural translation challenging predominant stereotypes. Music, with its ability to give a global resonance to local values, is in fact transformative; it constitutes a platform for social change and identity construction through and together with translation.

The wealth of case studies, musicians, concerts, soundscapes and creative practices across the arts and beyond the human species explored in the book offer a rigorous and unprecedented treatment of the multiple exchanges between music and translation. Its three-fold structure certainly contributed to the overall clarity and extensiveness, although it can at times lead to the repetition of issues and topics addressed in different sections from a variety of perspectives. However, Desblanche’s inspiring and ground-breaking approach succeeds in engaging the reader through an exciting exploration of new ways to conceive music and translation, together and beyond different forms of art. While music is created, transformed and expressed through and across different cultural, social and geographical contexts, it has hardly been examined through transcultural lenses, in the same way as translation studies, with few exceptions, have failed to pay due attention to the centrality of music as an identity shaping force and a tool of intercultural mediation beyond borders and boundaries. The volume provides a new conceptual framework based on a broad understanding of translation, involving improvisation, creolization, fertilization, and appropriation processes. Such a view of translation, which defies the role of language as being associated with power and dominant voices, can contribute with and through music to challenge mainstream narratives, as politically committed Hip Hop does.

Desblache’s monograph thus fills a significant gap in research at a time when translation, and translation studies, are gaining attention and visibility. Moreover, her conclusion calling for a biocentric translation, while encouraging a focus on music and translation’s ability to forge relationships, has a strong political value in the present time. It is in line with current translation studies trends which focus on people, rather than texts (Polezzi 2012), on eco-translation (Cronin 2017), political translation (Doerr 2018) and encourage research with a social agenda (Boeri and Luchner forthcoming). The book is a must-read for students and scholars of music and translation studies, as well as anyone interested in inclusive and diverse forms of creative dialogue and exchanges beyond artistic, cultural, social and species’ borders. Music and Translation, through its prelude and coda, creates an open musical dialogue with its readers, like music does for its listeners, while offering an instance of socially and politically engaged academic work to treasure and take home as an inspiration for future research and interests.


Boeri, Julie and Delgado Luchner C. (forthcoming), ‘The Ethics of Activist Translation and Interpreting’, in K. Koshinen and N. K. Pokorn (eds), The Routledge Handbook on Translation and Ethics, New York, Routledge.

Cronin, Michael (2017), Eco-translation. Translation and Ecology in the Age of the Anthropocene, New York, Routledge.

Doerr, Nicole (2018), Political Translation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Polezzi, Loredana (2012), ‘Translation and Migration’, Translation Studies 5(3): 345–356.

©inTRAlinea & Stefania Taviano (2020).
[Review] "Music and Translation. New Mediations in the Digital Age", inTRAlinea Vol. 22
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