Translating the Classics

As a musician-translator, one of the real joys for me is translating CD booklets. My reasons for this are:

– As a translator I like being able to engage with a longer text in my specialist area
– As a musician it maintains my knowledge of music history
– As someone who is passionate about audience engagement it gives me great pleasure to share German recordings with a wider audience.

Recently I’ve been translating booklets for CDs of Mozart and Beethoven. The market for these composers is quite saturated, so it’s relatively rare that I get to translate texts on them. Equally, I don’t get to do pre-concert talks on them so often as the late 19th century onwards tends to be more my cup of tea.

It’s good, then, to be able to refresh my knowledge of the Classical period, in both English and German, as well as getting some fresh perspectives on the music from some of Germany’s best scholars and musicians.

As a viola player myself I have an intimate knowledge of the subject area, especially in chamber music, which helps me to find “der treffende Ausdruck”, or ” the most appropriate expression”.

If you want to see my work, visit TACET records and buy a CD!


Translating for TACET – Part 2 – Press Releases

The second part of my blogs on working for TACET records focuses on the press release.

Press releases tend to be short and pithy and I often get asked to translate them at fairly short notice.
Often they are quite informal in tone and include direct appeals to the reader:
Lassen Sie sich überraschen… [Allow yourself to be surprised…]

However, even though the text may be informal, that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to translate. TACET like to use imagery in their press releases. Take this example, where I’ve highlighted some of the difficult phrases in the text:

Peng! – ein Luftballon platzt. Peng! – ein zweiter. Und dann purzelt eine Menge bunter Melodien von der Bühne des Concertgebouw Amsterdam. Das Nederlands Philharmonisch Kammerorkest spielt frech wie kleine Kinder auf der Straße. Der langsame Satz glüht innig. Dem Publikum geht das Herz auf. Ist das wirklich Charles Gounod, der Langeweiler mit dem Ave Maria? Alle lauschen gebannt einem Feuerwerk aus Ideenreichtum, Instrumentationskunst und Spielfreude und staunen, wie es dem Geiger Gordan Nikolic gelingt, in all dies eine Atmosphäre des Geschehenlassens hineinzuzaubern, die den Hörer zu nichts zwingt und doch unwiderstehlich ist.

Firstly, we have an onomatopoeic word, Peng! At least that’s not too difficult: Bang! Then, we have quite an idiomatic phrase, which I have translated as  “The audience’s hearts are filled with joy.”

The remaining highlighted passages display one of German’s most characteristic linguistic features: compound nouns, where two or more nouns are stuck together to make a new word. Often these require a phrase in English. My translations are as follows:

einem Feuerwerk Ideenreichtum, Instrumentationskunst und Spielfreude                           [a cascade of rich ideas, artful instrumentation and the sheer joy of playing.]

eine Atmosphäre des Geschehenlassens                                                                               [an atmosphere of simply letting it all happen]

My final translation of this press release looks like this:

Bang! A balloon bursts. Bang! A second one. And then a whole bunch of colourful melodies tumble from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw stage. The Netherlands Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra plays as boldly as little children in the street. The slow movement glows inwardly. The audience’s hearts are filled with joy. Is that really Charles Gounod, the boring one who wrote that Ave Maria? Everyone listens spellbound to a cascade of rich ideas, artful instrumentation and the sheer joy of playing. They are amazed how, in the midst of all this, the violinist Gordan Nikolic manages to conjure up an atmosphere of simply letting it all happen, which doesn’t demand anything of the listener and yet is completely compelling.

The example above displays why a translator needs to be well-trained in recognising linguistic differences between Source and Target Languages (SL and TL), but once again, it is also important that the translator knows the music industry well. Take the following example:

Auszeichnungen wie 5 Stimmgabeln von der französischen Zeitung Diapason

Anyone checking the word Diapason in a German to English dictionary would discover exactly the same word in English. As this is not a particularly well-known word, you may decide to look for an English definition: “An organ stop sounding a main register of flue pipes, typically of eight-foot pitch” or “A grand swelling burst of harmony.” (

An alternative check on the French translation yields: tuning fork” ( In fact, it is this word that yields the award of “5 Stimmgabeln” [5 tuning forks]. So the unwary may have translated the above phrase as “awards such as the 5 tuning forks of the French magazine ‘Tuning Fork'”. Not exactly wrong, but I’m sure you would agree with me that this sounds faintly ridiculous!

In actual fact, the magazine Diapason is well-known in the classical music world and therefore does not need to be translated. I agonised a little over the 5 Stimmgabeln. The English press more usually award “5 stars”, but the “5 tuning forks” reflect the title of the magazine and also the graphics used in their reviews. Not all translators have agreed with me, but I decided to keep the literal translation with the more usual English expression in brackets:

has already received numerous awards on CD, such as “5 tuning forks” (5 stars) from the French magazine Diapason.

Hopefully this has given you a flavour of my work with TACET and highlights once again the need for a sound knowledge of the relationship between SL and TL as well as a specialist knowledge of the subject area the translator is working in.

Translating for TACET – Part 1 – CD Booklets

As I approach the summer holidays, I thought I’d reflect a little on my work for one of my principal translation clients, TACET records, based in Stuttgart, Germany.

I started working for TACET back in November and my work for them encompasses CD booklets, press releases, website material and the odd bit of editing.

Today I’m going to talk about my work translating CD booklet texts. So far I have translated articles for the Scarlatti series that TACET are recording with Christoph Ulrich and for an upcoming double bass CD.

This is probably my favourite work for the company, as it’s here that I really get to combine my skills as a translator with my in-depth knowledge of classical music.

I believe it’s absolutely vital that the translator in this field should have specialist knowledge. For example, one of my texts on Scarlatti talked about how his keyboard sonatas were early examples of the genre, and how these were to later develop into the Classical period of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Sometimes the text will comment on a musical example, and it is much easier to find a suitable translation if you can read the musical quote, too, and thus set it in context.

Occasionally I come across a well-known quote from music history. A recent one was Schumann’s heralding of Brahms as the next great thing. A musician would recognise this as a famous quote and I would always check how it has been translated in the past and whether a given quote has a “stock” translation. A translator with no musical background may not pick up on this.

Terminology is also an important area of my work, as it is for many (if not most!) translators. An obvious example is musical terms. Musicians the world over use Italian for most of their musical directions. Often these appear embedded in the German text and it is important to know when these should be left as they are and when they should be explained further. Likewise, some composers, such as Mahler, give their instructions in German. Sometimes I may choose to keep the original German in the text with a translation in brackets.

Ornamentation is a key feature of Scarlatti’s music and something which TACET’s artist, Christoph Ulrich, talks about a lot. Again, my knowledge of musical styles helps me to select the best possible English term for these ornaments.

I hope I’ve given you a quick flavour of how translating for classical music isn’t just a question of finding an equivalent word in the dictionary. It really is important that the translator knows about their subject matter.

Equally, it’s not enough to be a musician who speaks German. Often these CD booklets have long, complicated sentences. Even my German musician friends have commented on the density of these texts. The skill of the trained translator lies in understanding the different structures and ways of building a text between the two languages and how to make a successful and flowing target language text from the original German text.

You can view TACET’s recordings here:

(Please note, though, that not all the translations on TACET’s website are mine!)