The work on Opera and Drama continues!



After taking a big breather after submitting my Masters Dissertation, I have made the decision, with support and encouragement from my friends in the Wagner Society, to carry on translating Oper und Drama.

Part III is most familiar to me, so I plan to continue with Chapter V, the other chapter I considered doing for my dissertation. I will update you with progress!

In the meantime, I am also busy writing an article for the RSNO for their Vaughan Williams 5 concert programme.

How did the questionnaire respondents rate my translation?

Naturalness of language: On the whole, respondents rated my translation as more natural than either the source text or Ellis’ translation Only one German speaker rated the source text as more natural sounding than my translation and another three rated it equally. All but one respondent rated my translation more natural than Ellis’.This meets my aim of a more accessible text, although it could be argued that there is a consequent mismatch in style between the ST and translation.

Ease of understanding: whilst the new translation is still not an easy text, nobody rated it in the most difficult range and retrieval of pronoun reference was much easier than in either the source text or Ellis’ translation. Sentence length, too, was more easily manageable.

Across all these categories, academic readers found the text easier on the whole than those with a lower level of musical qualification. This would match my primary readership of 3rd year undergraduates and postgraduates. People also commented, though, that the new translation was more accessible across all readership categories. Again this matches my aim of increased accessibility to the text.

I also aimed to prioritise information retrieval over style. Many respondents felt they didn’t have time to summarise the passage, but of those who did, scores on information retrieval were generally quite high. Again, there was a correlation with academic ability, although the relatively small numbers here made it difficult to draw clear conclusions.

Generally readers liked having the German terms included in the text and preferred to have footnotes rather than in-text explanation.

As expected, I could not always match source text style and facilitate information retrieval. some respondents criticised inconsistency of style. I felt this was particularly true in more complex passages. It could be argued that Ellis translation is, in fact, a better match on style.




All but one respondent had a preference for my text, and even that was qualified dependent on the prospective use of the text. It was felt that Ellis translation may give a better feel for the complex syntax and vocabulary of Wagner.

I seem to be fairly much on target with my audience,  although I maybe would’ve liked to see a better response for undergraduates. However, I didn’t specify that I was aiming at final year students, so that may explain the result.


All in all, I feel that I was pretty much on target with my aims for the translation and so far have had some good feedback on it. Thanks again to all who have helped.

What the questionnaires told me about William Ashton Ellis’ translation.

The fact that Ellis’ translation (TT1)  is close in style to the  source text (ST), emphasises the literary aspect of the text above the informative. However, if the goal is a modern accessible translation, then TT1 is inadequate in terms of readability and clarity, as evidenced in questionnaire responses: “I’d submit that in 99% of cases, as here, the loss (in vivid communication of ideas) is decisively greater than the forensic gain.”

Questionnaire respondents commented that they often needed to re-read the text and that even this did not help their comprehension. They also mentioned idiosyncrasies, such as “manifestment” [Kundgebung] and that the text was “long-winded”. Ellis’ tendency to translate the component parts of Wagner’s neologisms literally without explanatory notes rendered them “unfathomable” according to one respondent. “Word-Tone-speech” [Worttonsprache] is one such example.

Oper und Drama is a serious theoretical/philosophical work, yet some questionnaire respondents found Ellis’ style almost comical: “the effect is a mixture of confusion, unintended humour and distraction.”  Newman, too, noticed that “unfortunately the peculiar kind of English he employs in his versions of the prose works and some of the letters gives a touch of the ridiculous to them that is not in the original” (Cormack, 1993, p.9). Clearly this is a distraction from the purpose of the text.

Several questionnaire respondents found TT1 awkward and unnatural. Respondents commented on the use of “unnecessarily obscure words”. Cormack (1993, p.7) also speaks about “pedantry of punctuation, stiffness of style, those archaisms, and that unexpectedly quaint turn of phrase”. All respondents commented on sentence length and there was no discernible difference between those who spoke German and those who did not.

It is, however, interesting to note that when asked about naturalness, fluent German speakers rated TT1 as more natural than those who spoke little or no German, and found the text on the whole less difficult to understand. This may point to the fact that TT1 adheres more closely to German syntax.

One respondent commented that “there are those who would consider that this [syntax] sheds relevant light on the writer’s thinking” but another felt that “the effect is not so much to convey a sense of the feel of the original, as to give the impression of its having been translated word-for-word.”

It was suspected that, because German marks for gender, Ellis’ literal translation of pronouns by “it”, further compounded by his use of dummy “it” would lead to confusion in retrieving pronoun reference. However, there was no clear pattern of agreement on this amongst questionnaire respondents. In any case, some pronouns are specified by nouns in TT1. Another feature drawn from German is the use of capitalisation for nouns which were felt to be intrusive without serving any real purpose.

Cormack (1993, p.8) comments that the strangeness of TT1 shows “conceptual and receptive differences” between Ellis’ audience and the contemporary reader. It is possible that the modern reader is less willing to invest time and effort in understanding the text. One questionnaire respondent felt that “it costs too much energy to read and make sense of text A.” Others mentioned that they found the style “alienating” and the chair of one Wagner Society doubted that many of their members had engaged with the prose works in the Ellis translation.

Ellis, however, does still have his supporters. Several respondents agreed that TT1 conveyed some of the historical aura of the original: “Text A does illuminate more of how the German original works syntactically, and to that extent takes us closer to the writer’s own mind in a forensic sense.”

Another day I’ll tell you what the questionnaires said about my translation!

German terms in the texts

Now  and again I stumble across something that surprises me, even at this relatively late stage in my research.

Today I was comparing my use of German terms embedded in the translation with the ones that William Ashton Ellis retains. I’d expected a lot of overlap, but surprisingly only 3 overlap:  Werdens, Stabreim and unbestimmt bestimmende.

Obviously, the big question is, “Why the difference?”I think it arises from our different strategies. Ellis seeks to produce something close to a word-for word translation. He therefore feels the need to elucidate on any terms that he can’t find an exact English equivalent for, such as compound nouns and abstract nouns. He also seems to insert the German word if he is unsure of a translation. Thanks to technology, it is easier for me to search around for difficult words. There are extensive online dictionaries and corpora and I can easily compare translations of a term and decide on the most suitable. Additionally, I have a lot more Wagner scholarship to draw on than Ellis!

My strategy differs from Ellis in that I am seeking to produce a more accessible, fluent translation. I am less interested in translating word for word and more interested in translating the sense of a clause. Also, I am writing primarily for an audience of musicians – students, performers and connoisseurs! They are most likely to be interested in Wagnerian terms to do with his musical theories, so these are what I have included.

Take a look at the table below (TT1 = Ellis, TT2 = me) – it’s quite interesting:

Source Text terms retained in Target Texts





einig (footnote) single Versmelodie verse-melody
gefühlsnothwendige emotional  significance Ahnung presentiment
reale physical Gedanke concept
künstlerisch Auszuführendes something to be thought or worked out by the artist Erinnerung reminiscence
Vorzuführendes to be carried on Erscheinung appearance, phenomenon
ein Seiendes a Being Absicht intent
  dichterische Absicht Poetic Intent
Werdens Becoming, organic growth Werdens Becoming [or the creation]
an ihrer gedachten Dichtung its thinking work of composition Sprachgedankens spoken thought
Äusserung exterior Sprachverse spoken verse
Lebenslagen predicaments Empfindungsmomentes emotional moment
die unbestimmt bestimmende the indefinitely determining language unbestimmt bestimmende indeterminate determiner
Inhalt Content Tonsprache tone-speech
Kundgebung emanation Wortsprache language, word-speech
uneiniger discordant bereits tönenden Wortsprache already resonant spoken language
Gefühlswegweisern guides-to-Feeling Wortsprachdichter poet
vielgewundenen labyrinthine Worttonsprache fusion of melody and verse
Zusammenhang co-ordination Tonsprachorgan tone-speech

Stabreim form of alliteration (footnote)
  Worttonsprachausdruck melodic/poetic expression
in Nichts setzen to set it at naught Einheit des Inhaltes unity of content
  Wortphrase intoned speech
Das in Zeit und Raum nothwendig Getrennte (footnote) the severed by the necessity of Space and Time Raum und Zeit place and time (+ footnote)
Einheitsstücken “Unity-Pieces”

Wagner and Philosophy

This is one of the more challenging aspects of the text. As they were closer in time to the text, Wagner’s original readership would probably have found the references in Oper und Drama to 19th C philosophy a little easier to retrieve than modern audiences. Also, Wagner wrote for a literary and philosophical audience, not just musicians. My research shows that my prime audience is likely to be musicologists and those generally interested in German culture.

I have to say that, although I had heard of Kant, Feuerbach and Schlegel, I couldn’t have told you much about them and my knowledge of Greek Drama is verging on the embarrassing! However, as a German and Music graduate, I am probably fairly typical of my target audience, so I need to consider whether to give them additional help with the philosophical aspects of the text.

An additional problem for a translator is that, as this is a semi-literary text, I need to respect the language in it: that is, I can’t translate for information alone, I need to consider the style, too. A difficult balancing act!

Looking closely at the Source Text.

The Source Text (ST) is what translators call the text they are working from, which will be translated into the Target Text (TT). One of the things a translator needs to determine is, which features can be transferred from the ST to the TT. In doing this, they need to look at the “Receiver’s Profile” of both ST and TT and see where they differ.
In the case of Wagner’s text, the ST and TT audiences are clearly separated by a long period of time – 1852 to the present day. This means the TT reader may not necessarily be so familiar with the cultural background to the book, for instance 19th century philosophy and metaphors that were widely used in the writing of the time. These are factors that I may need to consider and compensate for in my translation.
I also need to consider who is reading the text and why. Wagner was aiming at a generally well-read reader who was interested in philosophy of the arts. My target reader is most likely someone who is studying music academically or who has a strong personal interest in Wagner and his music. They may not necessarily be so well-read in the arts as a whole.

My research shows that quite a lot of my readership have a working knowledge of German and so may welcome seeing some of Wagner’s key terms in the original language.
Whilst the modern reader may be more disconnected from 19th century thought, Wagner is now, obviously, an established musical figure. There is no dispute over the fact that he was immensely important in music history. However, we need to remember that at the time he was writing “Oper und Drama”, he was still fighting to establish himself and to make himself understood. This may have a bearing on how the translator balances stylistic and informational aspects of the text.
Another time I’ll expand on the main difficulties for me in translating the text.

Wagner outlines the Leitmotif

Today I have been polishing my translation of the section where Wagner outlines what we would come to know as the “Leitmotif.” Actually, Wagner himself never used this term. “Oper und Drama” was written in 1852 and it’s believed that the first use of the term was in 186o, by Ambros. Wagner’s own term is “melodische Momente”. I haven’t quite decided whether to call these literally “melodic moments” or “melodic ideas” just yet.

The main challenges for the translator in this section are how to deal with the terms Ahnung and Erinnerung. Wagner uses a lot of repetition in his writing and sometimes it becomes a little confusing: you feel like you can’t see the wood for the trees! Because of this, I’ve added a few phrases to make the links between these Leitmotif terms more specific. It’s vital that the reader understands the argument here. Some of Wagner’s sentences are enormously long, so I have split some of them. The danger then is that you lose the causal links between them.

Anyway, here is a little taster of work in progress. Please leave your comments – I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts:

Those melodic moments must also be conditioned by the Poetic intent using the presentiment [Ahnung] or reminiscence [Erinnerung] in such a way that they direct our emotions solely towards the dramatic character and those things connected to or emanating from them.[1] We should perceive these moments, laden with presentiment or reminiscence only in the sense that they complement the appearance of the character that either cannot or will not express themselves fully before our eyes.

These melodic moments, well-suited to maintaining the emotions at the same level, become in a sense emotional signposts in the orchestra, appearing throughout the drama’s whole convoluted structure. In these melodic moments we become permanent confidants of the Poetic Intent’s deepest mystery and direct participants in its realisation. Between them, as presentiment and reminiscence, is the verse-melody acting as both a supported and supporting entity. It is conditioned by an emotional environment consisting of the emotional stirrings both of itself and others, those already perceived and those yet to be perceived. These allusive moments supplementing the emotional expression recede once the individual themselves enters onto the scene and brings these allusions to full expression in the verse-melody. Then the orchestra supports this verse-melody in its most illustrative capacity, only to supplement once more the general emotional expression through portentous reminiscence  when the verse-melody’s colourful expression  recedes again into mere intoned speech [Wortphrase].  At  the same time it determines  the necessary transitions of feeling arising from our own, always keenly maintained participation.

These melodic moments, in which we recall an earlier presentiment whilst turning this reminiscence into the presentiment of what is yet to happen, necessarily blossom only from the most important motives in the Drama.  The most important of them in turn correspond with to those motives which, according to the poet, concentrate and reinforce the basic motives of the plot forming the pillars of his dramatic structure. He uses these fundamentally not in confusing multiplicity, but in easily moulded, limited numbers suited by necessity to an easy overview. In these basic motives that are in fact not sentences but easily manipulable emotional moments, the poet’s intention is most easily understood when it is perceived as emotion. The musician, in realising the poet’s intent, has therefore to arrange these motives compressed into melodic moments in order to be in fullest accord with the Poetic Intent. So  the most unified musical form arises from the well-defined  repetition between verse and music – a form that  was previously composed  arbitrarily by the musician but which can only be formed into an essential, truly unified form, (that is, one that is comprehensible), from the Poetic Intent.

[1] Translator’s note: This is the crux of Wagner’s argument, outlining what would eventually be termed Wagner’s Leitmotiv technique, though this term was never used by the composer himself. It possibly originated with Ambros in 1860 (Grey, 1992, p.234).