Status: I am on a lonely road and I am traveling.
Sitting in the Los Angeles sunshine almost makes me forget the heaviness that hangs in D.C. It feels lighter here. It might be the dry air compared to the damp, humid chill of the swamp. It might just be me. It might just be everything else that 2018 has bestowed upon us.
I’ve come here to attend Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday celebration concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown LA. She might not even be in attendance, but she hand-selected the artists who will gather together in celebration of her life and work and sing her songs. I bought the best seat I could cop in the cheapest section, and I will be going alone. To many, it might just be a concert. But this, to me, is a pilgrimage.
JONI 75: A Birthday Celebration Live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion | Source: © BUZZ/YouTube
The first Joni Mitchell song I ever heard was “Both Sides Now,” a song that she wrote when she was 21 years old, one that has stood the test of time. When I was a child, my mother once sat at the keyboard in our little apartment in Tokyo, Japan, and sang the opening words:
…bows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air, and feather canyons everywhere… I’ve looked at clouds that way…
And as she kept singing, I heard a kind of nostalgic yearning that only comes with time and growth, something that I could feel but not yet understand. What did it mean, looking at things from both sides?
Sometimes I think I know, but I also think I haven’t lived enough yet. I just turned 27.
Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now 2000 lives | Source: CHAN seeseeyin/YouTube
Joni Mitchell’s Blue album cover | Source: Wikipedia
When Joni was 27, she was writing the songs that will become Blue. When my mom was 27, she was getting ready to move to Japan, for what she thought would be a year. Thirty years later, she’s still there.
I turned 27 a week before Joni’s birthday. I am a millennial with a great job, no savings, no life plan, still subscribing to the beautiful confusion that is being bicultural, queer, and gently mentally ill in Trump’s America.
In Japan I was raised to be an American girl with the freedoms that come with it in a culture where gender roles and societal rules have been established for thousands of years with little wiggle room. But being an American citizen abroad isn’t nearly the same as understanding what life is like in America.
That’s where Blue comes in.
It was 2010 when I listened to it for the first time, haphazardly with a music-head friend in college. But it wouldn’t be until 2014 that I really, truly listened to it and made sense of everything associated with the color blue for myself.
Blue in the melancholic sadness that we can’t name,
blue in the waves of depression and anxiety in our brains that won’t correct itself,
blue in beauty,
blue in the acquisition of words for things we couldn’t place in times past,
blue in the light of our many screens,
blue in the haze of our 20s,
blue in the sadness when we lose someone we love,
blue in the peace that we find when we fall in love,
blue in the pool of tears we wish we could have collected to look back at our own sorrows,
blue in every case of someone who knocked us over,
blue in the ink of a tattoo,
blue in the way that veins look under my light skin,
blue in the cloak of my lover’s pain,
blue in the eye of a person who broke my heart,
blue in the eye of a person whose heart I broke,
blue in the distance between me and the place of my birth,
blue in the distance between my family and me,
blue in the losses my parents have endured,
blue in the fear of losing them,
blue in being a woman in Japan,
blue in being a woman in America,
blue in the boxes we’re thrown in when we’re little that we spend a lifetime breaking out of,
blue in this color that our eyes trick us into seeing in nature,
blue in the sky that isn’t any color at all,
blue in the ocean that is clear.
Blue is limitless. It’s loaded. It’s also Joni Mitchell.
The lyrics pack an endless chasm of meaning, but what is phenomenal about Joni Mitchell’s work isn’t just the lyrics, but the entirety of her soundscapes that fulfill her childhood dreams of being a painter. She paints songs and brings them to life, regardless of whether or not you understand what she’s saying. The magic is in how she’s saying it, and the music with which she brings forth feeling in essence.
Which got me to thinking, how does Joni translate in other languages? How would translating Joni Mitchell lyrics — particularly from Blue — into Japanese, the language of my childhood home, enhance, change, or diminish from the original English? Or grow? And what if I were the one to take on that task, ferrying the depth of Blue from one tongue to another? Obviously I couldn’t necessarily sing word for word “All I Want” in Japanese and achieve the same plea and declaration of love… but couldn’t I?
Joni Mitchell – All I Want (Live) | Source: MrGrapeKoolayd/YouTube
Blue in Japanese is a deeply symbolic color, one that harnesses the ocean and the peace and the power and life-giving force it provides the ancient archipelago. Blue is in the blinding lights of Tokyo, in the ever-present flashing screens that cast a glow on the busiest crosswalk in the world. Blue is in the discord of cultural acceptance. Blue is in the deeply embedded history of xenophobia, born of the tug-of-war between cultural preservation and cultural superiority. Blue is in the calm waves of a history long, long untouched by foreigners. What are blue songs in Japan like if tattoos are taboo? These things I would very much like to discover.
Let’s talk about some characteristics of Japanese in contrast to English (henceforth known as the language of Joni), for a hot second. We can call them fun facts with some fun references for those of you who want to geek out on Japanese linguistics.
- Unlike English, which typologically is a Subject-Verb-Object language, Japanese subscribes to a Subject-Object-Verb word order.
- Japanese has five pure vowel phonemes (a-e-i-o-u), whereas English, depending on the dialect, accent, and pronunciation, has anywhere from 14-24. Thanks a lot, English!
- Japanese is a pitch accent language. That’s right. You heard me. Pitch accent. Not tonal, like Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai, or Vietnamese to name a few, but pitch accent. That means that certain words (or sounds) are emphasized, understood, or changed based on their pitch within the context of a sentence. I know. I didn’t say this was going to be a totally digestive list.
- Japanese is an equal stress language. That means every syllable of every word should be pronounced with equal stress. So when you find yourself saying “ko-NI-chi-wa”, check yourself for a moment and register that it ought to be “kon-ni-chi-wa” to a point where it may even sound like the first syllable is being stressed. Same with “Hi-ro-shi-ma”. English tends to stress penultimate syllables of words unless there are only two syllables in a word.
- Japanese has very few instances of consonant clusters.
Let’s talk about some characteristics of my particular flavor of Japanese, which involves an impressive amount of code switching, applying aspects of Japanese grammar to English sentences and the inverse. For emphasis and onomatopoeia, of which there is much in Japan, I’ll pop in a Japanese word in a fully English sentence no matter who I’m speaking with. It just makes my point come across easier. Likewise, there are some words in English that you simply can’t replicate or translate… most have to do with foul language and millennial language (acronyms and millennial-inside-joke-memes).
In Japan I was raised to be an American girl with the freedoms that come with it […] But being an American citizen abroad isn’t nearly the same as understanding what life is in America.
What I am trying to say is that my Japanese is subpar at best, but my appreciation for it is tenfold, and I want my level of comprehension to grow and ripen with age, just like Joni’s songwriting skills and her artistic journey. So, here’s what I’m proposing to myself in the name of my TWO cultures and my connection to this music. I’m going to translate one Joni Mitchell song from Blue a month (starting in the new year, I’m feeling really good about 2019) and see how things change. Maybe it will help me learn Japanese and maintain what I haven’t lost since my time in the United States. Maybe it will help me hone into my own tiers of cultural honesty and clarity. Maybe my “map of Canada with your face sketched on it twice” looks and sounds different in Japanese and brings with it a different kind of loss. Maybe there are phrases in Japanese that can’t be translated. Maybe there are sentiments that Joni paints in English that can’t be translated. Maybe they can do better in bringing out that sense of yearning and nostalgia that I heard in “Both Sides Now” all those years ago. Maybe it will make more sense to me. And maybe, just maybe, I will be able to look at life from both sides of my cultural identity with the added tilt of a blue Joni Mitchell perspective.