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  • How Mimi Perrin Translated Jazz Instrumentals into French Song
  • Benjamin Givan (bio)

“Just like the th at the beginning of they and at the beginning of theater.”

“What’s different about the sound of theater and they?”

“Say them again and listen. One’s voiced and the other’s unvoiced, they’re as distinct as V and F; only they’re allophones—at least in British English; so Britishers are used to hearing them as though they were the same phoneme.”

—Samuel R. Delany, babel-171

—Prenez par exemple, en français, le C de cure et de constitution.

—Quelle est la différence?

—Répétez chaque mot en vous écoutant bien. Le premier est palatal, articulé sur le

sommet du palais, et le second vélaire, sur le voile du palais. Il s’agit simplement de variantes combinatoires dues à l’environnement.

—Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17, translated by Mimi Perrin2

Translating prose from one language to another can often be a thorny task, especially with a text, such as the above extract from Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, whose meaning or literary effect is inseparable from its voiced sound. For the French edition of this 1966 science fiction novel, its translator, Mimi Perrin (1926–2010), had little choice but to completely recompose Delany’s paragraph. Where the English original contrasts “they” with “theater” to illustrate voiced and unvoiced phonemes, she instead cites the French words cure and constitution to demonstrate palatal and velar pronunciations of the consonant c, meanwhile omitting Delany’s comparison of American and British English. To convey the author’s argument about interlingual phonetic perception, she had to forgo his text’s literal word-for-word meaning and transpose its fictional setting [End Page 87] to a French cultural context.3 These sorts of logistical challenges and creative possibilities—questions of what to retain, change, add, or omit that inevitably arise when translating such concatenations of meaning, speech, and sound—were lifelong preoccupations of Perrin’s, not only in her prolific work as a professional translator but also in her equally fruitful musical career as leader of one of the postwar era’s most successful jazz vocal groups: Les Double Six.4

Perrin’s accomplishments with Les Double Six, which she founded in 1959 and disbanded when illness curtailed her performing career in 1966, have to date received little attention from Anglophone jazz researchers.5 (The only academic scholarship on her musical oeuvre has been by French authors, Eric Fardet and Isabelle Perrin, her daughter, both of whose work provides an essential grounding for the present study.)6 This may be in part because, from a US-centered perspective, Perrin appears to lie somewhat on the fringes of the jazz world. A white, European, female practitioner of a male-dominated black American musical idiom, she specialized in the distinctive performance practice known as “vocalese,”7 in which jazz singers take recorded instrumental improvisations (usually well-known commercial discs by famous soloists), set them to words, and reperform them, note for note. (Vocalese, whose name was coined by the British critic Leonard Feather, first became popular during the early 1950s and ever since has typically taken the form of an accessible, engaging entertainment more than an unambiguously earnest art form.)8 Furthermore, Les Double Six were renowned for meticulously rehearsed arrangements and elaborate postproduction recording techniques rather than the sorts of live, spontaneous improvisation or compositional innovation that jazz critics and scholars have tended to esteem most highly; the group’s name itself signaled their use of six singers, overdubbed to create the illusion of twelve voices, on each of their four albums.9 Yet the main reason for Perrin’s marginalization by Anglophone jazz scholarship is that her principal enduring musical contributions were as a lyricist, and she wrote in French.10

Nevertheless, Mimi Perrin’s strikingly original and sophisticated artistic legacy offers us a uniquely illuminating, transnational perspective on the interrelationships between music, language, and culture. Working alongside major American artists such as Quincy Jones and Dizzy Gillespie, not to mention many leading French singers and instrumentalists, she composed vocalese lyrics with acute sensitivity to the sorts of phonetic subtleties noted...


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