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 http://www.rsno.org.uk/whatson/?c_id=129&action=Read+More&month=3&year=2014 and Glasgow on 31st May http://www.rsno.org.uk/whatson/?c_id=127&action=Read+More&month=3&year=2014.

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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!