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!)

Berg 7 Early Songs

I’ve just finished translating the lyrics for Berg’s “Seven Early Songs” and “Das himmlische Leben” from Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which the RSNO will be performing on the 8th and 9th May.

The texts are very different. I tackled the Berg songs first for two reasons: it’s the bigger text, but it comes in smaller chunks. The 7 poems are written by some of the biggest names in German poetry, such as Hauptmann and Rainer Maria Rilke.

There is some really beautiful writing here. I particularly connected with Hauptmann’s “Nacht”. As a keen mountain sportsperson, I loved his depiction of a mountain landscape. I also loved Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Traumgekrönt”. He really is one of the best German writers of the turn of the 20th Century.

The music is really sumptuous, too. I heartily recommend going along to listen to these songs. Why not have a look on the RSNO website:
which will be given by my good friend, Ursula Heidecker-Allen.

To whet your appetite, here is Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Traumgekrönt” with my translation:

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
Das war der Tag der weißen Chrysanthemem,
Mir bangte fast vor seiner Pracht…
Und dann, dann kamst du mir die Seele nehmen
Tief in der Nacht.
Mir war so bang, und du kamst lieb und leise,
Ich hatte grad im Traum an dich gedacht.
Du kamst, und leis’ wie eine Märchenweise
Erklang die Nacht.

Crowned in a Dream
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

It was the day of the white chrysanthemums,
I all but trembled at its radiance…
And then, then you came and took my soul,
Deep in the night.
I was so afraid, and you came lovingly, gently,
I had just thought of you in a dream,
You came, and softly, like a fairy tale,
The night resounded.

It’s that last line – it is so laden with meaning!

The Mahler text was a completely different and, I think, greater challenge. The challenge is to translate the text in a way that preserves the innocence and naivety of the words and yet doesn’t sound silly in the target language. The hardest bit was the verse where St. John allows his lamb to escape whilst Herod lies in wait. Quite brutal and yet totally innocent at the same time.

As a translator, I also have to remember that the audience (or at least some of them) will read my translation whilst they listen to the concert. I therefore like to try and make it easy for them to hang onto the German text as it is sung. A little bit like subtitling, this means picking up on words that sound similar in both languages, sometimes playing around with the word order and, as far as I can, trying to keep line lengths pretty similar.

This is where being a musician helps. You have an innate sense of flow and rhythm. It’s a huge challenge, but I love trying to make this balancing act work.

Mahler 4 Translation


Following on from my Mahler 8 translation for the RSNO last season, I’m delighted to say that I’ve been commissioned to write the translation for Mahler 4 for the concert in May 2015. The text is from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”, so once again a text from the 19th century tradition.

Mastersingers of Nuremburg programme note

Written for RSNO, season opening concert 2014-15:

Overture to The Mastersingers of Nuremberg
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

“Its splendour seems truly magnificent […] and the burghers’ dwellings seem to have been built for princes. Indeed, the kings of Scotland would be glad to be housed as luxuriously as the ordinary citizens of Nuremberg.” It is this vision of 16th century medieval Nuremberg that Wagner seeks to convey in The Mastersingers Overture.

Unusually for Wagner, who generally drew on mythological material, this opera is based on the real-life guild of Mastersingers whose rules and contests were depicted in Wagnenseil’s Nuremberg Chronicles of 1697. He even went so far as to use real historical figures such as the cobbler Hans Sachs and the marker Beckmesser.

When Wagner began work in earnest on the The Mastersingers of Nuremberg in 1862, the first two operas of The Ring cycle were complete and he had recently composed Tristan and Isolde. Around this time, he was influenced by the philosopher Schopenhauer, who believed music to be the superior art form. One of the themes of The Mastersingers is music as a craft and perhaps Wagner needed to reflect on how a more opulent musical style might support dramatic action prior to writing the final two great operas of The Ring cycle.

In The Mastersingers, the young knight, Walther is in love with Eva. Hearing that she is to marry the winner of a song contest the following day, he seeks to enter the guild of Mastersingers. Beckmesser, also in love with Eva, rejects his application, but Sachs is impressed by the young man’s art and undertakes to tutor him in the ways of the guild. Beckmesser secretly learns Walther’s song but lacks his artistic flair. Walther duly wins the contest and the opera closes in celebration of the enduring nature of German art.

The Overture to The Mastersingers was first performed in 1862, six years before the opera’s premiere and was immediately hailed as one of Wagner’s best works. It opens with the pompous music of the guild, including brass fanfares that expand into a luxurious full orchestral passage. The quieter middle section recalls the rich harmonies of Tristan and Isolde, as we hear the love themes of Walther and Eva played by the strings. Gradually the mood becomes more frivolous as the apprentices and townsfolk appear with an irreverent version of the opening theme in the woodwind, taken up by the strings. After a short climax, Wagner cleverly combines the opening theme, Walther’s prize song and the apprentices’ music. The excitement builds once more and the music ends in a blaze of glory.

Pre-concert talk on Arvo Pärt

One of the things I really love about giving pre-concert talks is being able to share new discoveries of mine with the RSNO audience, and hopefully enthuse them to go searching for new musical worlds themselves.

Last week was a real voyage of discovery for me. I’d previously felt a little put off Pärt’s music for two main reasons:

Firstly, the tag of “sacred minimalism”: I admit, I’m no great fan of minimalist music and, on top of that, this particular tag comes across to me as being a little trite. However, whilst Pärt’s music often uses simple textures and small units of music, it doesn’t have that incessant twitchiness and rapidly revolving short motifs that I find hard to cope with in other minimalist composers’ music! Rather it has a stillness and meditative quality about it which is really quite peaceful and beautiful.

Secondly, I don’t mind admitting as a viola player, that Pärt can be quite painful to play, as a lot of it involves static muscle-use! Sometimes it’s hard to get beyond that pain barrier and into the music itself.

The other revelation for me was that Pärt was more associated with the avant-garde in his earlier music. The Third Symphony that the RSNO performed last week is a transitional work between these styles. It was also dedicated to Neeme Järvi and in exploring the links between the two men, I came across Credo, the work that led in part to both musicians leaving Soviet-occupied Estonia. It was such a mind-blowing piece that I listened to it twice through in succession. 






Completion of Mahler 8 translation

I’ve just completed and submitted my translation of Part 2 of Mahler 8 for the RSNO’s concert in May.

As with any translation, it’s been quite a voyage of discovery, so I thought I’d share some of the decisions I had to make along the way.

I always find it takes me a while to really slot into the register of the text, and it’s one of the things that I always need to revisit once I’ve got into the text. In this text I had to decide to what extent I wanted to reproduce the nineteenth century style of the text in translation. This became an issue particularly with regard to the biblical sections of the text. Should I use pronouns such as “thee” and “thou” or should I go for the more modern “you”? In these sort of scenarios, the translator really needs to go back to their skopos or brief. As my primary goal was to go for a semantic translation, I decided on  “you”. The translation is designed to be followed by someone listening to the symphony and I want them to be able to follow the meaning of the text quickly and easily without it distracting them from the music. The musician side of me coming out, I guess!

My secondary goal was to get across some of the artistic content of the text and to respect its poetic register. To that end, I sometimes omitted the pronoun altogether: “You Merciful One” just does not sound right in context!

At risk of opening myself up to being accused of inconsistency, the desire to replicate the poetic aspects of the text meant that occasionally I’d use more “opaque” terms. One of my readers asked if they were allowed to use a dictionary to check what “amosite” was. (If you’re interested, it’s an “iron-rich amphibole asbestos, mined in South Africa”!). I asked her if she’d rather I used the more transparent “asbestos” to translate “Asbest” and straight away she said no! Sometimes words have slightly different connotations in the two languages or their meaning and usage has shifted over time. In this case “asbestos” would have sounded fairly incongruous in a poetic text as we tend to think more of garage roofs when using that word!

I used unrhymed free verse for my translation. I did use a thesaurus fairly extensively, but I was quite surprised that it wasn’t too difficult to produce a text that had a fairly even rhythm. I think there are two factors at play here: a) German and English belong to the same language group and b) I think as a musician I have a more developed sense of rhythm in a text than other translators. I also enjoy looking for that feeling of flow, which also helps.

My final act before submitting the translation was to listen to the symphony and follow the text with my translation. It was a really satisfying thing to do actually, and I felt a real sense of achievement from it. I feel so privileged to be able to combine my two great loves – music and the German language. I hope that other people enjoy my translation as the RSNO performs Mahler 8. 

If you live in central Scotland, please do come along. The concerts are in Edinburgh on 30th May and Glasgow on 31st May

Translating the final scene of Goethe’s Faust for Mahler 8 Programme.

I’ve just started work translating the German part of the text of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, which is taken from the final scene of Goethe’s Faust.

Wow, what a challenge! Apart from the linguistic challenges of  a 19th Century literary text, texts such as this have a translation history all of their own. I can’t just translate in a void.

So how do I go about this  task? First of all, I have to agree with the commissioner what kind of translation they want. For this text, I could concentrate on conveying the meaning or focus more strongly on artistic aspects of the text, such as rhyme and rhythm.

Obviously (at least to me as a musician!) I need to listen to the musical setting of the text to get some understanding of its context. I also need a bit of history around the text of “Faust” as a whole and I need to know the outline of the story so that I know what this passage is referring to.

Every text exists in a relationship to other texts, something that is known as “intertextuality.” For example, this scene contains biblical references. I need to read those references so that I understand the context in “Faust.”

In a literary text such as this, there may be words that are familiar to me, but in this context I may need to find alternative translations for them. In other words, I need to be sensitive to the register of the text.

So far I’ve translated two stanzas very, very roughly. At this stage I try to translate quickly, getting an overall feel for the text. Often I will pencil in several alternative translations which I will revisit later.

I’ll keep you posted as the translation progresses!

RSNO Opening Concert Article

I promised you the article I wrote for the RSNO’s season opener. It was an exciting concert and James MacMillan’s Third Piano Concerto went down really well  with the audiences. Personally, I was absolutely blown over by it. I’ve always been a MacMillan fan and it’s really interesting to see his style maturing. When I wrote the article, I hadn’t heard the piece, but I think this is definitely one that’ll stay in the repertoire.

Hopefully my “Insight” article helped people understand what it’s like for an orchestra to learn a new piece:

It’s been a busy summer for the RSNO. Highlights have been our performances at the BBC Proms and the Edinburgh International Festival. These performances were particularly special as they included world premiere performances of Naresh Sohal’s “Cosmic Dance” in London and Tod Machover’s “Festival City” in Edinburgh. We continue the first performance theme tonight with the UK premiere of James MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No. 3, so I thought I’d share with you the performer’s perspective on a new orchestral work.


The first step with a new piece is always to get a part from the orchestra library. We’ll come to the work with varying degrees of knowledge. James MacMillan’s music is, of course, familiar to us, so we have some idea of what to expect:  likely tempi and styles of playing. Sohal and Machover were unknown quantities to us. The latter included lots of special effects on both conventional instruments and electronics. Despite working with Machover back in May, it was hard to imagine from the viola part alone how these effects would fit into the whole. At this stage, it’s really a question of getting notes under fingers.


And so onto the rehearsal phase. There’s always a sense of anticipation before rehearsing a new piece. Often it’s hard to understand a piece on a first play-through. We don’t have any “gathering points” if something goes wrong and sometimes it’s hard to work out who has the important line. Gradually, however, we find our way around the piece. I love seeing how it grows into something coherent. As you become less fixated on your own part, interesting lines and sounds emerge as we learn what material is important and when we need to accompany.


The audience, too, has a certain sense of anticipation before a new piece. That was particularly true with Machover’s “Festival City” as they, too, had contributed to the piece by sending sounds of Edinburgh to the composer. A premiere requires so much concentration. We have one shot at performing a piece we only played together for the first time a few days previously! We owe it to the composers to give you, the audience, the best possible experience of their work. Not everything we play will pass into the repertoire – you only have to look at the back of a 19th century orchestral part to see how much music passes into obscurity – but now and again you get to play and  listen to a piece that you know is going to stand the test of time and that’s exciting!