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.

How is Music Translated Today? Intersemiotic, interlingual, intralingual and intersensorial transfers across musical genres. Translating Music Project – London 15th July 2015

I attended the above conference a week ago in London. It was a great opportunity to meet fellow translators, musicians and researchers in this specialised field. For me it offered a mixture of revisiting translation theory from my MA and some new ideas to explore, especially in the area of accessibility.

Dinda Gorlée presented a paper on “Intersemioticity and intertextuality: Picaresque and romance in opera”. Focusing on Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt, she explored how, whilst the music remains unchanged, the meaning of the text can alter over time due to cultural changes and the text’s relationship to other texts (intertextuality). This operates both forwards and backwards in time. The composer may already view the text in a different light to when it was originally written (vis à vis Wagner’s use of Teutonic myth). Equally, an opera text may require a modernising translation to appeal to a new audience. It is therefore important that the translator should be aware of all pertinent intertextual elements when translating and/or adapting the text.

Marta Mateo’s lively talk on “Film musicals across the continents: the role and form of translation” opened up the many issues and dilemmas facing the translator in this genre. As most musicals use a mixture of dialogue and song, the translator has to deal with multiple channels: visual, verbal and aural. There is also a choice to be made between subtitling or dubbing, the norms for which can vary between countries. Sometimes a song is so well-known in the source language that it seems best to leave it there and subtitle it, even if the dialogue is dubbed into the target language. Due to differences in voice, this can lead to problems of coherence, sometimes with comic effect.

Many of the translational choices apply to song translation more widely:

• Leave song untranslated
• Translate the lyrics in isolation from the music
• New lyrics to the original music
• Translate the lyrics and adapt the music
• Adapt the translation to the music. (Based on Franzon, 2008).

Translational decisions need to be made according to:
• Mode of presentation
• Text genre
• Function of translation
• Target context.

Much of this paper was also relevant to my work translating texts for orchestral concert programmes.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the day for me was the two papers on accessibility issues. Exciting because they were something that I hadn’t really thought of in the context of translation (but perhaps should have!) and also because I can see many ways in which they could be applied in my audience engagement work as an orchestral musician.

Pierre Schmitt presented a paper on “Singing/Signing to the Music. Sign Language translations for a shared experience of music.” As well as practical issues such as where to place the signer if also using subtitles and the position of the signer on or off the stage in performance, this talk also opened up for me the very exciting idea of using sign language as an integral part of the performance itself. Definitely something I’d like to try with the RSNO’s contemporary music group, Alchemy.

Perhaps the talk that had the biggest impact on me was Louise Fryer’s paper “Audiodescribing music: what’s not to hear”. As a musician, I’m very much focus on sound and tend to forget just how important the visual element of a concert is. This starts the moment you walk into the concert hall. Factors such as the appearance of the performers and the instruments they are playing may seem fairly obvious. Less obvious is the social aspect of concert-going: what are other people looking at, laughing about and talking about? It’s also easy to forget the visual impact of, for example, a string section bowing in unison. Again, these are ideas I can take home and apply in audience engagement.

The day finished with two papers on contemporary song translation by Sylvain Caschelin (“Translation Trials: Anarchy in the UK revisited”) and Sebnam Susam-Saraeva (“Translation and cover songs in popular music”). Linking with many of the cultural and practical issues raised in the first two presentations of the day, there were some very interesting issues of culture arising from the specific song examples shown in these talks. The issue of using a third language as a mediator when translating songs into multiple languages was also raised. I found it interesting to see how different songs are attractive to different cultures and how their context can alter when moving between cultures.

In summary, the conference provided me with lots of inspiration for my own work as a musician and translator. Music translation was a pretty small part of the taught element of my MA, so it was great to have some contact with other translators working in this field and to see how much there is to explore in this field.

On the practical side, the accessibility talks opened up a whole new area of work for me and are something I would definitely like to explore and put into practice.

For more information on the “Translating Music” project, see here: