Transcription, Translation, and Operatic Tenors

Guest blog post by Marcus Cederström

In the fall of 2018, Jim Leary sent me an email with plans to track down and reissue all of the songs from Wallin’s Svenska Records. It was just an idea at that point and Archeophone hadn’t even signed on to the project, but Jim had already started identifying discs needed for the set. Having grown up in a bilingual Swedish-English-speaking household and having spent years researching a Swedish American poet, Jim asked if I could help with transcription and translation. Like a fool, I said yes. 

Transcribing and translating lyrics is hard. There’s really no way around it. It takes time and patience and more stubbornness than I care to admit. Thankfully, not every song from Swede Home Chicago: Wallin’s Svenska Records, 1923–1927 needed to be fully transcribed. Some of the Wallin’s sleeves included lyrics, and others could be found in hymnals or songbooks like Dalkullan Sångbok, which was published just down the street from Wallin’s music store. Even still, the musicians often sang different versions, adding lines here, dropping entire stanzas there, thus requiring careful listening to ensure accuracy. Of course, most challenging were the songs that had no lyrics to be found, which meant that before any translations could happen, transcription had to happen. And for transcription to happen, the records had to be tracked down so that the team at Archeophone could begin to transfer and restore the songs. Luckily, Jim Leary is a dogged researcher and with the help of many people along the way was able to track down all but one disc.

Dalkullan Sångbok, published in 1923, down the street from Wallin’s music shop. (Image courtesy Swedish American Museum)

Once Archeophone had begun the restoration process, I began the transcription process. Slowly but surely, hours of listening and re-listening led to a full set of lyrics for the many songs missing any lyrical documentation. It’s no easy feat transcribing anything, really. It’s especially difficult when dealing with old recordings from the acoustic era and varying degrees of sound quality of songs sung in Swedish from at least 100 years ago and the sometimes challenging “operatic tenors warbling pious hymns and patriotic anthems,” as we say in the album notes. Those operatic tenors, such as Folke Andersson and Knut Öhrström, are great listening, but their style, their range, and the musical accompaniment made for challenging work that required snippets of the lyrics to be transcribed one at a time.

Like a puzzle slowly taking form, what emerged, though, was a wonderful whole as these songs allowed us to better understand what Gustaf Wallin and his customers around the region were listening to in the 1920s. There are those pious hymns and patriotic anthems, but there are also comedic songs, songs speaking to the immigrant experience of loss and longing, and classic folk songs. Beautiful in their own right, together these songs can also help us understand not just Chicago of the 1920s, but Swedish America of the 1920s. 

To ensure accessibility to the many listeners and Swedish Americans who may not speak Swedish, Archeophone chose to publish both the original lyrics and the translations. Rather than work to make the translations singable or to mirror the rhyme scheme, for example, we chose to move forward with relatively literal translations. Doing so, we hope, allows people to better understand the Swedish original, while also giving people an opportunity to make the translations their own. Translations are living documents. Especially when they are translations of songs and poetry. They exist to be sung and recited. They exist to be put to new music and rearranged. And so, they exist to be changed. These translations and transcriptions are sure to be changed as listeners and musicians look at these literal translations and begin to sing them for themselves. Maybe even working them into their repertoire to be performed in and around Swedish America today. 

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