Programme notes in a digital age

For the last couple of months I’ve been busy writing programme notes for the RSNO. One of the issues being debated at the moment is, “Do we really still need commissioned programme notes in the digital age?” After all, can we not just look information up on Wikepedia or Google? Well, you could, but I think you’d be missing out on a lot, and here’s why:

  • Every concert is carefully put together – programme notes reflect this, making reference to other works in the concert and any links between them.
  • There may be a narrative to the season – for instance the RSNO and Prokofiev are both in their 125th Anniversary seasons. To celebrate this, they are performing a complete cycle of the Prokofiev piano concertos across two seasons.
  • Programme notes can maintain the ongoing narrative of this series.
  • An orchestra may have other events around a particular work or composer. These can be advertised alongside the programme notes.
  • By using the same writers on a regular basis, the audience come to recognise and trust individual writers.
  • House style – commissioned programme notes mean the orchestra has some kind of control over the style of writing, meaning the notes can be pitched how the orchestra would wish.
  • If, like me, the writer is also a performer, it is another way of building personal links between musician and listener.
  • Practicalities – if someone chooses to read programme notes on their phone or tablet during the performance, it’s horribly distracting for those around them.

So remember that by buying a programme, you are buying a “personalised” approach to that evening’s concert, which can only enhance your experience of the music.

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!


Der zweite Teil meines Blogs über TACET konzentriert sich auf die Pressemitteilung.

Pressemitteilungen sind in der Regel kurz und prägnant und müssen oft kurzfristig übersetzt werden.Oft sind sie ziemlich informell in Ton und umfassen direkte Appelle an die Leser:

„Lassen Sie Sich überraschen …“ [Allow yourself to be surprised…].

Aber auch wenn der Text informell ist, ist er nicht unbedingt leicht übersetzbar. TACET verwendet gerne in ihre Pressemitteilungen Bildsprache. Beispiel:

„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.“

Erstens haben wir eine lautmalerische Wort, „Peng!“ Mindestens ist das nicht allzu schwer zu übersetzen: Bang! Dann gibt es eine Redewendung: „Dem Publikum geht das Herz auf“. Ich überzetze das folgendermaßen: The audience’s hearts are filled with joy.

Eine Besonderheiten der deutschen Sprache ist das Kompositum: Oft benötigt das einen ganzen Satz auf englisch:

„Einem Feuerwerk Ideenreichtum, Spielfreude und Instrumentationskunst“ [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]

Also, die ganze Übersetzung dieser Pressemitteilung ist:

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.

Das obige Beispiel zeigt, wie Übersetzer/innen sowohl in der Quellsprache als auch in der Zielsprache gut ausgebildet sein müssen, aber es ist auch wichtig, sich mit der Musikindustrie gut auszukennen. Beispiel:

„Auszeichnungen wie 5 Stimmgabeln von der Französischen Zeitung Diapason“.

Wenn man das Wort „Diapason“ im Wörterbuch sucht, entdeckt man das gleiche Wort auf englisch. Da es kein bekanntes Wort ist, suchte man vielleicht eine Begriffsbestimmung: [An organ stop sounding a main register of flue pipes, typically of eight-foot pitch] oder [A grand swelling burst of harmony]. (

Wenn man im französisch-englisches Wörterbuch sucht, ergibt es: [tuning fork]. ( So könnte man den obengenannten Satz als [awards such as the 5 tuning forks of the French magazine ‘Tuning Fork‘] übersetzen. Nicht ganz falsch, aber das klingt sein bisschen lächerlich auf englisch !

Tatsächlich ist die Zeitschrift Diapason in der Musikwelt gut bekannt und daher braucht es keine Übersetzung. Ich war nicht so sicher, ob ich „5 Stimmgabeln“ lokalisieren sollte. In der Regel ist es 5 stars auf englisch, aber 5 tuning forks erinnert sich an den Zeitschrift-Titel und auch an die verwendeten Grafiken. Nicht alle stimmen mir zu, aber ich beschloss, die wörtliche Übersetzung mit dem üblicheren englischen Ausdruck in Klammern zu halten:

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

Hoffentlich haben Sie jetzt einen Eindruck von meiner Arbeit für TACET und Sie verstehen auch die Wichtigkeit einer guten Sprach- sowie Fachkenntnissen im Bereich der klassischen Musik.

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!)


A key part of my MA is the questionnaires, which will help me compare translations of Opera and Drama and assess their readability and accessibility. I’ve spent a lot of time working on these today. Why not have a look under the tabs above? If you feel like answering the questions, you can copy and paste it into Word, then email it back to me.