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.


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.

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!