They are only two studio albums into their career, but Crescent Lament have already carved out a strong aural identity for themselves in their chosen sub-genre. The indie Taiwanese metal band started out playing traditional symphonic gothic metal (Behind the Lethal Deceit, 2011), before switching to oriental gothic metal on their most recent album, Elegy for the Blossoms (2015).
Making the stylistic switch was an excellent move on their part — their current sound not only suits the geisha concept of Elegy for the Blossoms to a tee, but is also an exemplar of East Asian, erhu-infused metal. This is not to suggest that the band’s non-aural features are not noteworthy, though. One need only peruse the lyric booklets of Elegy for the Blossoms to see that Crescent Lament take their poetry and history seriously. In this interview, founding member and drummer Komet Chou details the historical basis of the lyrics of Elegy for the Blossoms, and his translation of the lyrics from Taiwanese to English.
Who wrote the lyrics of Elegy for the Blossoms?
The original (Taiwanese) lyrics were mainly written by soprano Muer, with help from keyboardist Warose. Muer created the semi-fictional story of Elegy for the Blossoms, which was written in a movie-script style — with 10 songs, each representing a scene — to reconstruct lives of Taiwanese geishas in the late Japanese period and earlier Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) period in Taiwan’s history. Historical documents from the time were used as important references. For example, the suicide of a geisha as told in the song “Once Blossomy” was based on the suicide of a well known 23-year-old Taiwanese geisha Khe Hu-ti, and the radio news broadcast in the song quoted a poem written by poet Tan Hong-goan at the time: “Calmly I embark on a journey to death as if returning to my dwelling, for that I have long realized my dreams are vanishing (從容就死儼如歸，早覺煙花夢已非).” As for research on the historical details, I, Komet, was the one to check that the story and the lyrics are historically correct based on documents found in the National Taiwan Library.
Why did Muer write lyrics that tell a melodramatic love story of a fictional geisha?
Before answering this question, please allow me to introduce Taiwan’s modern history first.
Taiwan’s modern history could be divided into the Qing period from 1683 to 1895, the Japanese period from 1895 to 1945, and the post-1945 Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) period. Foreigners may find it hard to understand why the Taiwanese commonly hold a rather positive image of the Japanese period. For the Taiwanese, it was the 50-year governance of the Japanese that helped propel Taiwan out of her poverty and backwardness during the 19th century: it brought advanced and prosperous living conditions, hygienic habits, a fair education system, and social order to the island. As the first colony of Japan, the Japanese government put in a lot of effort into governing Taiwan, with the intention to prove that they were as capable of having colonies as their Western competitors.
On the contrary, although officials in the Qing Empire and the KMT regime may have shared the same ethnicity as the majority of people in Taiwan, their attitudes were very disappointing. For the Qing Empire, the purpose of occupying Taiwan was only to take over a potential domain for the anti-Qing forces (such as Koxinga and his regime). The Qing Empire believed that the less Taiwan is developed and the more economically disadvantaged the Taiwanese are, the easier it is to keep Taiwan under control. For the KMT regime, officials regarded themselves as conquerors — soldiers robbed and killed civilians, officials seized private properties while illegally taking over government assets. Moreover, in the Chinese Civil War from 1946 to 1949, the KMT government disregarded the basic needs of the Taiwanese people and shipped crops, food, and necessities to China to support its losing war. Famine, inflation, cholera — all these problems that never occurred during the Japanese period or even World War II broke out in Taiwan in 1946, and continued to get worse in the following few years.
Taiwanese use a proverb to describe the political change from the Japanese era to the era of KMT rule. We say: “Dogs left (Japanese left), pigs come (Chinese come). Dogs will at least guard the house for you, but the only thing pigs can do is eat.” As an inevitable consequence, the 228 Incidence broke out in 1947. However, the KMT government carried out a brutal, extensive military massacre to respond to the people’s request. Within 2 months, the KMT army executed about 30,000 Taiwanese citizens. To prevent further organized resistance by the Taiwanese people, elites such as doctors and lawyers were intentionally eliminated. Later, during the prolonged period of martial law from 1949-1987 (called “White Terror” in Taiwan’s history), an additional 140,000 innocent citizens were imprisoned or executed. Through 228 Incidence and White Terror, the KMT government completely restricted the Taiwanese people’s freedom of thoughts. Under the dark repressive regime, a citizen could become a political prisoner just for talking about their lives in the past, or remembering their history. People could even be punished for speaking their own native language, which was Taiwanese. In this atmosphere of hostility, the government intentionally erased the early history and culture of Taiwan.
Let’s take the Taiwanese geisha as an example to realize the severity of cultural destruction in Taiwan. The Taiwanese geisha is actually not a product of Japanese culture: it existed in Taiwan in the mid-19th century, decades before Taiwan’s period of Japanese rule. As the Japanese government gave tacit consent to it, the trade reached its peak during the Japanese era. Taiwanese geishas “sold” their artistic skills but not their bodies; they were good at poetry and music, and were able to give cultured talks. In Taiwanese society at that time, local intellectuals especially admired the geishas. However, the geisha culture that existed around the country from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries eventually disappeared when the new ruler — KMT government — arrived in 1945.
When we made Elegy for the Blossoms in the 21st century, we were surprised to find that it was almost impossible to find complete documentations about these Taiwanese geishas. We could only try to understand how they lived and worked through a few research papers in the National Taiwan Library. It’s really saddening that traces of Taiwanese geishas, who were once popular for nearly one century in Taiwan, were almost completely wiped out by the KMT regime through decades of mind control, brainwashing, and censorship of historical facts.
Therefore, Muer chose to tell the story of Taiwanese geishas in Elegy for the Blossoms to preserve a slice of Taiwan’s history and culture, and pass it on to posterity with her own effort. The story she tells in Elegy for the Blossoms also hints at the helplessness of the Taiwanese — after all, although A-hiong and Bîng-hong both survived World War II, their happiness was ironically destroyed in 1946 (just a year after the war ended).
Why did you do an English translation of the Taiwanese lyrics?
Although being a sovereign and independent country, Taiwan is still rejected by the United Nations due to many historical reasons. In addition, because of China’s diplomatic blockage and military threats, Taiwan is often forced to be mute in the international community. Therefore, “letting the world hear the voice of Taiwan” has become one of our ideas in creating our music. Thus, the common language of the world — English — has become an important tool for us.
Our first album Behind the Lethal Deceit is an English album expressing our anti-war ideology that followed a Western musical style. Our sophomore album Elegy for the Blossoms, on the other hand, blended in Taiwanese and Japanese folk instruments, and has lyrics written in our native tongue, Taiwanese, to recreate the atmosphere of the old Taiwan from the 1930s to the 1950s. Although the style is oriental folk metal, we’ve always regarded our friends around the world as our target audience, so translating the lyrics (and the story behind them) into English has been a goal of ours since the beginning. We hope to put Taiwan on the world stage through music, so that more people can understand Taiwan’s history and culture, and support Taiwan’s independence and freedom.
I visited Taiwan once. While there, I did not speak English at all because most locals seemed to only speak either Taiwanese or Mandarin Chinese. Which languages are in use in Taiwan?
The current official language of Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese, but Taiwanese is commonly used among the public, with some Hakka speakers in certain areas. There is also a large Japanese-speaking population. Although English is a required subject in all exams and tests, it’s not a commonly used language in Taiwan. Its pronunciation and grammar are very different from other commonly spoken languages in Taiwan, so it’s not easy for Taiwanese to learn English.
How long did you take to translate the lyrics?
I spent two months of my spare time translating the lyrics of Elegy for the Blossoms from Taiwanese to English. Well, if English is not a commonly used language in Taiwan, how did I gradually become fluent in it? I should start by introducing my job as an attending doctor at a medical center. The medical industry is a bit “special” in Taiwan, because all the doctors in Taiwan are trained to use English as the main language in their profession. Of course, doctors all around the world would follow the latest medical developments in English. But in Taiwan, doctors are additionally asked to use English in their daily work. Medical records such as admission notes and examination reports are purely written in English. This leads to a very odd situation: when a patient applies for a copy of his own medical record, he would get a document written completely in English, which he would not be able to understand. Also, in case of a lawsuit concerning medical malpractice, the court needs to hire someone to interpret the “English” medical documents to find out which party holds legal responsibilities.
In such a “special” work environment, I’ve been constantly trained to use English: in my first three months as a medical intern, I was required to turn in a case record each day to be edited for terminology and grammar by English specialists appointed by the hospital. Therefore, though I’ve never studied abroad in an English-speaking country, I’ve lived in an environment where English is regularly used, enabling me to translate the lyrics of Elegy for the Blossoms.
The traditional Chinese version of the lyrics appears to be shorter than its English translation. Is it because they contain certain names or ideas that are expressed in 2–3 Chinese characters, which cannot be expressed in an equal or smaller number of words in English?
When writing the Taiwanese lyrics for Elegy for the Blossoms, Muer used a lot of classical poetry. One important feature of such poetry is that one single character may represent a larger metaphor, which created a lot of difficulties when translating. In order to maintain the beauty of words, the appropriate size, and the symbolism in the song, I gave up word-by-word literal translation; instead, I paraphrased the entire stanzas. A more detailed explanation of what I did was that, before translating a song, I would first understand the background of the music, and check details as described in the original lyrics. Next, based on the scenario as described in each stanza, I would paraphrase using a couple of key words under the English mode, hoping that people may have a better conceptualization of the lyrics via the English translation.
Taking “Lullaby of Sanctuary” as an example, the song describes A-hiong’s thoughts on her own mother at night when she was first adopted. In the first stanza of the original lyrics, A-hiong looked up to the moon through the window, reminiscing about her mother singing her to sleep. When translating, I used the key words “moonshine”, “lullaby”, “distant memory”, and “lonely nights” to recreate the scenario. The second stanza tells how her mother’s singing in her dreams made her cry, and when the nightly rain woke her up, she realized her mother was long gone. When translating this part, I also chose a few key words, but took into consideration the feelings of English speakers, and translated “the nightly rain that awoke A-hiong” into “a drop of crystal tear, then wake me up at dawn”. Such change of words also happened when translating song titles. For example, “Lullaby of Sanctuary” is “Moonlight through the Western Window” in Taiwanese, but that translation may lose the connotation of how much A-hiong missed her mother, so I took a few key words out of the translated lyrics and chose the English title of “Lullaby of Sanctuary” that may better fit the ideas as expressed in the song.
Every language has words/characters with connotations (known as “nei han” in Chinese) that are lost if they are translated into another language. What are some examples of such characters from the original lyrics of Elegy for the Blossoms that lose their connotation when translated into English?
In translation, some of the original meanings of certain vocabularies may disappear, and usually, these vocabularies would be related to some cultural heritage. For instance, a stanza of “Once Blossomy” describes a geisha’s last moment before committing suicide. The part was translated as “dressed in red, with beautifully combed hair, she ceased all the sufferings without being hesitant”. Although the translation is in line with the original lyrics, it did not explain the symbolism of a red dress. In Taiwan, committing suicide while dressed in red is a taboo: it means that the person is dying with a lot of hate. So, when we wrote the Taiwanese lyrics, we were trying to show that the geisha was extremely upset, but the translation could not pass on the message.
Also, in “Masked Doll”, the original lyrics tell how a geisha would dye her teeth in black before going onstage. But I only translated it as “perfect makeup”, because dyeing the teeth is a regional tradition that may confuse English speakers if the background is not explained. Black teeth have aesthetic symbolism in certain areas of Asia where black teeth represent beauty and nobleness. Therefore, both Japanese and Taiwanese geishas would dye their teeth black before performing.
Have you considered doing lyrics-translation as a part-time job? It seems like a potentially good source of income.
It’s a good suggestion, and an objective worth working for. But since I don’t have much spare time, I probably cannot be expected to be a productive lyrics-translator. I would want to translate a piece of work that I love to perfection. Elegy for the Blossoms is a piece of work that I like very much. It not only musically carries a unique Taiwanese folk metal style, but also lyrically passes on a traditional Taiwanese culture that now exists only in history. Therefore, it was joyful for me to spend two months translating it and going through all the trouble to research historical facts at the National Taiwan Library.
Beginning this year, the issue of transitional justice and the handling of the government’s wrongdoings since 1945 has been formally discussed. In addition, preserving historical objects, and saving cultural heritage that was once wiped out by the government, have also been brought under the spotlight. I’m especially interested in pursuing topics related to Taiwan’s history. As the attention on recovering the nation’s past grows in Taiwanese society, there may soon be another album that I’d love to translate.