simon prentis


random notes

Reprinted from "Zappa!", published in '92 by Keyboard and Guitar Player magazines:

Simon Prentis, Semantic Scrutinizer:
Humm.. How Show "Yellow Snow" in Kanji?

When Simon Prentis, at age 24, an exile from his native London, ended up in the ancient agricultural town of Kawagoe, Japan, the only other guys who spoke English were Mormon missionaries, and he wasn't about to hang out with them. He retreated, therefore, into an Aikido dojo, where he slowly learned the Japanese that gave him his present vocation: interpreter for Occidentals trying to understand Orientals and vice versa. 
Translator, in particular, for Frank Zappa, who states that Prentis is the only translator working on the numerous foreign language versions of his material that he trusts totally.

        How long until he felt at home linguistically? "A year," Simon recalls. "But it was two years before I felt really comfortable." He supported himself during that time as an English teacher for adolescents who did not want to learn. "So they didn't," he states, "and I learned Japanese." After moving to Tokyo, Prentis joined a translation company, and learned to read and write Japanese, which took another three years.

        How long till he felt at home psychologically in Japan? "Seven years!" he exclaims. "One day I was walking down the street, and I had one of those moments that you sometimes do when you realize something. I thought, this isn't a foreign country any more. But that has to be prefaced with the fact that I never really felt at home in my own country."

        An English major at Oxford, Prentis hated the stuffiness of academia and found that his literary taste veered towards the satire of Jonathan Swift, with whom he feels Zappa has much in common. "I think Frank compares very closely with Swift. In 'Tale of a Tub,' Swift uses the tub as his metaphor for a preacher's pulpit. He was doing satire in 18th Century England the way Frank does his stuff on all those TV evangelists: 

        A classical music devotee, Prentis became interested in rock and roll only after hearing Zappa During his years in Japan, his enthusiasm for his music never diminished. "I'm a fan," he states. "I don't think there's anybody who compares with Frank in his span across the range of expression that is available in the late 20th Century. When I went to Japan, I suffered Zappa withdrawal symptoms. I only had Sleep Dirt with me, the last thing I bought before I got on the plane, and it was the only thing I had for about a year." Digging through the bootleg counter at a department store, Prentis found half a dozen Zappa albums he'd been trying to find for ten years. Surprised to see liner notes in Japanese, he tracked down the author, and the two became friends.

        "His name was Yasuo Yagi," Prentis states, "and he used to do the artwork and packaging. In 1982, I was going to the United States, and we agreed that I should interview Frank, which he arranged. I was so nervous. I don't remember anything about it. We talked for about an hour. The interview appeared on a Japanese record sleeve, and the guy who runs the record company told me it was the first interview he'd read with Frank that blew him away."

        In '86, Simon returned to the West. "I had done nearly eight years in Japan as an adult, and I knew how Japan worked more than I did about my own country," he explains. "So I decided I really ought to go back and find out about England." He stopped once again in the United States to interview Frank, the result again published in Japan. A call from Gail Zappa asking for a translated copy led to more contact.

        Today, Prentis's most rewarding moments are in overseeing the translation of Zappa's Iyrics into Japanese. The re-release of the entire catalog began six years ago, in a land where cover bands mimic every Zappa dialect parody with eerie accuracy regardless of their lack of fluency in English. His translations of Iyrics are in a language where there is no concept of rhyme, in an alphabet that is pictographic and not phonetic, and are distributed to a society where the television news once played "Sinister Footwear" as backup music to a story of a maniac who laced chocolates with poison.

        Gail and Frank asked Simon to take over after they found out that a lot of the earlier translations were wrong. "You think you know what Frank's Iyrics mean," he states, "but when it comes down to putting them into another language, you really have to think, especially with Japanese, which is about as weird as you can get. I use one guy who does the rough translations, and he can get 90% of it right. It's the 10% that he doesn't get that is the critical area of nuance- the stuff that makes Frank's Iyrics interesting.

        "In translating, you really only have two options: To find a cultural equivalent or a linguistic one. If an aural pun exists, like 'horse' and 'whores,' you have to come up with something that feels the same, that's going to make people laugh in the same way, and then you just footnote it. It's surprising what you can do if you put your mind to it. It's more important to get across what it means."

        When uncertain, Prentis doesn't guess. "If you don't know what it means yourself," he continues, "how do you put that into Japanese? So I fax Frank and ask him, and he's been sending back these little definitions and explanations."

        Asked for examples of recent linguistic chuckholes, Prentis points to the line from Joe's Garage- "the white zone is for loading and unloading" (referring just to an airport, to something with deeper philosophical overtones, or both?); from "Penguin in Bondage": "She come up to you on the strut" ("walking  with a swagger" or "riding a strut assembled across the bed"?); from "Bebop Tango": "Okay, just relax, put your head back, here comes the drill" ("calm down before the test" or "put your head back, here comes the dentist's drill"?).

        Sometimes literal translation is impossible. For ". . . they lived by a code which is probably SMPTE," on "baby Snakes," an equivalent with the same linguistic effect had to be created using another word altogether that still had a dual meaning that would produce a similar effect. Footnotes explain that such alterations have been made.

        "Until you think about it," Prentis states, "it doesn't really seem to matter, but it does matter. Just having to work on the translation means that you've got to fine-tune. There's an image that Frank uses about the 'project object'- any particular work. Imagine the head of a pin engraved in some incredible little detail, and imagine whole continental areas covered with heads of pins; that's what the deal is. It's those little details about his work that I like that maybe nobody's ever going to find out, but that are there. On one fadeout, he's got someone singing in falsetto in Japanese, "Don't worry about it." Now who is going to know that? The way the intonation is, probably no Japanese would recognize it, but it's in there. This is the kind of thing I like about his work. It's like fractal geometry- another world suddenly opens up that you didn't know was there. And it's the details like that that are great, so it would be good just to say that Frank Zappa cares enough about his music to have authenticated Japanese translations with footnotes, and that he and Gail put the Barking Pumpkin stamp of approval on it. They even gave me a plaque: 'Simon Prentis, Semantic Scrutinizer."'  



frank zappa: the crux of the biscuit
    (2016, cd, usa, zappa records zr20020)

fz_cruxofthebiscuit.jpg (32468 bytes)




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