Music and Translation in Opera, Music Theatre and Popular Music

9th June, Birmingham – Organised by ITI WMG and MAT group.


When the Music and Translation workshop in Birmingham was advertised earlier in the year, it went straight in the diary: my specialist field is music and so this was a not-to-be-missed and rare opportunity to get some CPD in my area of expertise.

I had a concert the night before, so despite being up at the crack of dawn, I unfortunately missed the first session. This was “Singing with Other Voices – translation in opera and music theatre” with John Lloyd Davies, an opera and theatre director, designer and dramaturg who has worked in many of the world’s leading opera houses.

After a quick coffee and a résumé of John’s talk from my (as always) friendly colleagues, I was straight into the hands-on activity of translating a song in our language groups. I really enjoyed translating as a group, learning from the various strengths that we each brought to the table. We had people working in the creative sector, who came up with alternative versions to fit the music better, and people with a strong religious background in both languages who helped with the text-type:  we needed to decide whether it was appropriate to use “thee and thou” and whether or not the German was based on a standard version of the psalm. If it had been, we may have felt we should try to stick closely to the standard English “Book of Common Prayer”. As a musician, my biggest input was probably how singable our efforts actually were!

We rounded off the morning session with a choir singing through both the original versions of the songs and our translated versions. We were working under a lot of time pressure, but given that, I don’t think we did too badly!

operdramThe afternoon session was led by Klaus Kaindl, Professor in Translation Studies at Vienna University, where he specialises in opera and popular music translation. His excellent and wide-ranging presentation looked at the linguistic aspects of opera translation, singability of texts and the opera in changing cultural contexts. He also looked at popular song in translation and how the image of the artist is of primary importance here. This was nicely illustrated by Elvis Presley’s “Surrender” – actually a version of “Torna a Surriento”!

The day ended in mixed language groups, where we looked at different translated versions of “La Paloma”. These differed widely according to the different traditions and conventions of the target cultures.

You can see some samples of my own translations of musical texts on my website,

Many thanks to Dr. Ulrike Nichols and Juliet Hammond-Smith for organising such a stimulating workshop and making the long trip down so worthwhile.


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!)

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.

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!

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!