What is this?
An ongoing* project to translate the David Bowie album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars into classical Latin. All of these translations are original. They are in no way stolen, plagiarized, or otherwise unethical.
I was inspired to do this when I was feeling very bored one day, and I realized that I had enough Latin sitting at the back of my head to translate Soul Love without having to look up more than a handful of words. Thus was the project born.
This is my attempt to pay homage to an album that I consider to be among the finer things made in the past century. Ziggy Stardust is at times poignant, at times aggressive, at times vibrant and at others melancholy, suffused with metaphor, allegory, and meaning, and eminently musical.
Before you start reading these, take a look at Latin pronunciation. Correct pronunciation is important to have if you want to have an accurate idea of how I meant these to sound.
If you want to listen to these songs, you could try lala, although you'd need an account.
The songs (Those with Latin titles have been completed.)
- Five Years
- Soul Love
- Moonage Daydream
Diesomnium Aetas Lunaris
- It Ain't Easy
Non Facile Est
- Lady Stardust
- Hang On To Yourself
Ipse Te Obtine
- Ziggy Stardust
- Suffragette City
Nearly impossible — I advise not holding your breath
- Rock 'n' Roll Suicide
The story, and some interpretation
Ziggy Stardust and the Rise and Fall of the Spiders from Mars is a concept album. That is to say, it's an album with a coherent story, told through music. Take the rest of what I say in this section with a grain of salt: it's partially my interpretation of the album, and dependant on listening to the songs in the order that they appeared on the album. Bowie himself stated that he enjoyed rearranging the songs to see what new meaning would come out of it, and that the original arrangement might as well be arbitrary.
The Earth is doomed. We don't quite know how. The album opens with Five Years, about people's reactions to the news, which has just been announced. The speaker watches people wailing, fighting, finding religion. He himself cries out for his mother, and seeing a woman in a café, speaks two lines that I think express volumes about this character and the message of the album: "Your race, your face, the way that you talk — I kiss you, you're beautiful, I want you to walk!"
The album then goes on in Soul Love to talk about different kinds of love: stone love, which is the love for the dead (seen through a mother mourning at her soldier son's grave); new love, which is pure and unashamed (seen through two young lovers who can't bear to sleep and lose time together); idiot love, which is irrational yet gives forth new hope for humanity; and soul love, which is the love of faith for a God that might not exist (seen through the eyes of the narrator). Ziggy Stardust represents a new sort of love, one that takes the best of all of these and renews humanity.
After this, we hear from Ziggy for the first time, in the form of Moonage Daydream — a song he writes inviting the youth of Earth to join him and throw off their preconceptions, that he can redeem them and save the Earth. We then listen in Starman as one young person, hearing the song, sets out to follow a new star — Ziggy's spaceship, landing that night. This is where the all-important allegorical side of the album first becomes evident. Ziggy is Christ and Orpheus, making his message through music — he believes that it is his best chance to make the children believe in him.
The next song, It Ain't Easy, wasn't written by Bowie, and (I've been told, and this seems to be borne out) does not have thematic relevance to the rest of the album. Still a fun song.
We then see Ziggy for the first time in Lady Stardust. His first performance is met with mocking laughter and derision, for he is both feminine and masculine — a creature of grace, strength, and great beauty. However, as he continues to sing, young folk begin to believe in him: boys find their voices and the strength to explore their femininity, strong women step forth from the shadows. The narrator voices two extremely important lines. The first, "I smiled sadly, for a love I could not obey," echoes Oscar Wilde's reference to the love that dare not speak its name. The second, "Oh! how I lied, when they asked if I knew his name," echoes Peter's denial of Jesus.
Star then explores the nature of the rock 'n roll star, a central issue for Bowie himself. One has to keep in mind that for a good long time during and after the making and release of this album, Bowie thought of himself as Ziggy Stardust. He adopted the life of the whizbang musical hero: strong, energetic, enigmatic, deeply sexual. The song asks us whether life would be better as a star — would the fame and money make us happy? Could we reconcile our new persona with the person we used to be and the goals we used to have? In Ziggy's case, the answer is no. He begins to spiral downwards, drawn inexorably on by the gravity of his stardom.
Hang Onto Yourself continues the theme of the sexual energy in Ziggy's music. Shot full with sexual references and insinuations about idol worship, the song tells us how Ziggy's concerts have begun to border on the profane and orgiastic. We hear of a sexually predatory woman who prays to the light machine. "Tigers on vaseline" is an almost mocking echo of the line from Lady Stardust about Ziggy being the creature fair who entices people into discovering themself. "Come on" and "hang onto yourself" are repeated almost mantra-like: we're pulled along for the ride, but if we don't stay in control, we'll be lost in the excitement and miss the point.
Ziggy Stardust is most likely the most famous song on this album. Told from the view of one of Ziggy's bandmates, we see Ziggy as a being of pure love and music, twisted and dragged down by his fans and his own burgeoning ego, mutating from the fair Lady Stardust into a leper messiah. There are two lines which I think are particularly expressive, as they occur at the same place in the refrain, and are similarly worded, but clearly come from two very different times in Ziggy's career. The first: "So we bitched about his fans, and should we crush his sweet hands?" The second: "When the kids had killed the man, I had to break up the band." Although the first line speaks for itself, the second evokes the fact that Ziggy's entire reason for being a musician was to make contact with the youth and influence them. Unfortunately, the opposite happened.
Suffragette City seems a little out of place to me with its tone for where it is in the album. I've always taken it to be showing us the other side of Ziggy's decline: his expanding taste in women. Although he arrives as a creature that is both completely sexual and completely asexual, he has become a stereotypical rocker, foisting off his bandmates for the latest "mellow-thighed chick" to come down the pike.
The album closes with Rock 'n Roll Suicide, a painfully sad, eloquent song in the form of a plea to Ziggy from an unnamed narrator. We see Ziggy at the end of his rope — uncaring, unknowing, full of pain and misery. Powerful imagery of suicide and assassination suffuses the song. The song opens with Ziggy unable to smoke a cigarette, and the mention of walls, recalling images of firing squads; proceeds to him stumbling in front of a car not entirely by accident and being distracted by the rising sun. He's "too old to lose it, too young to choose it" — he wishes for his own death, but can't bring himself to it. The song closes with the narrator pleading a battered, humiliated Ziggy Stardust to take his hands, to open up and take comfort from the people who care about him. Ziggy has been metaphorically crucified by his own hubris and stardom, and because it is all in his tortured, knife-scarred mind, cannot heal himself, and chooses death.
For me, Rise and Fall is an album about alienation, about how, despite our inherent desire to connect to each other, we build barriers of glitz and pretention. We, like the inhumed son, like the soldier with a broken arm, like Ziggy himself, only have so long on this planet to make our mark. If we can't stand up and say, "These things — these people — matter to me, more than fame, more than sex, more than material goods," we're already dead.
Although Bowie's voice (and by that, I mean word choice and sentence structure) often lends itself to Latin — he has a quirky affectation that speaks volumes about his education and intellect — he is also extremely fond of slang, untranslatable flavoring particles, the occasional neologism, and ungrammatical phrases that convey tone and mindset in a way that just doesn't lend itself to literal translation.
Depending on the song, my approach to these challenges was either to invent new words, such as diesomnium in Moonage Daydream, to find a more verbose, formal translation (this I try to limit as much as possible to songs which sound more formal anyway, such as Soul Love), to find a Roman equivalent of whatever modern concept is giving me trouble, or to throw caution to the wind and do a literal translation. These last two both occur frequently in Five Years, which mentions any number of things that a Roman would not know about.
Throughout David Bowie's music, there is a joy in wordplay, in rhythm, in the intricacies of language that any of the great (and most of the not-so-great) Roman authors also understood. This project gave me a chance to emulate the great writers of the past in the small way that I am capable of in thinking constantly about word choice, word order, and plenty of grammatical niceties as I tried to make the Latin speak to me in the same way that the original English does. I'm sure that if I had the knowledge, I could find plenty of rhetorical or structural methods in my translations that have fancy Greek names. I can't really claim credit for this. It all flows forth from what I know of Latin and what David Bowie intended in his songs. The credit lies with him, with Ovid, with Virgil, with George Carlin, and with all of the other great artists of language. I'm just glad I was able to be the instrument of this project.
Please, if you find any mistakes in translation, tell me! I want these to be perfect.
As always, I would like to politely request that the people systematically going through these writeups and downvoting them tell me what their complaint is, so I can actually try to fix it. Otherwise, I'm kind of offended.
*Ongoing meaning, of course, that I'm not done.