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.


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!

German terms in the texts

Now  and again I stumble across something that surprises me, even at this relatively late stage in my research.

Today I was comparing my use of German terms embedded in the translation with the ones that William Ashton Ellis retains. I’d expected a lot of overlap, but surprisingly only 3 overlap:  Werdens, Stabreim and unbestimmt bestimmende.

Obviously, the big question is, “Why the difference?”I think it arises from our different strategies. Ellis seeks to produce something close to a word-for word translation. He therefore feels the need to elucidate on any terms that he can’t find an exact English equivalent for, such as compound nouns and abstract nouns. He also seems to insert the German word if he is unsure of a translation. Thanks to technology, it is easier for me to search around for difficult words. There are extensive online dictionaries and corpora and I can easily compare translations of a term and decide on the most suitable. Additionally, I have a lot more Wagner scholarship to draw on than Ellis!

My strategy differs from Ellis in that I am seeking to produce a more accessible, fluent translation. I am less interested in translating word for word and more interested in translating the sense of a clause. Also, I am writing primarily for an audience of musicians – students, performers and connoisseurs! They are most likely to be interested in Wagnerian terms to do with his musical theories, so these are what I have included.

Take a look at the table below (TT1 = Ellis, TT2 = me) – it’s quite interesting:

Source Text terms retained in Target Texts





einig (footnote) single Versmelodie verse-melody
gefühlsnothwendige emotional  significance Ahnung presentiment
reale physical Gedanke concept
künstlerisch Auszuführendes something to be thought or worked out by the artist Erinnerung reminiscence
Vorzuführendes to be carried on Erscheinung appearance, phenomenon
ein Seiendes a Being Absicht intent
  dichterische Absicht Poetic Intent
Werdens Becoming, organic growth Werdens Becoming [or the creation]
an ihrer gedachten Dichtung its thinking work of composition Sprachgedankens spoken thought
Äusserung exterior Sprachverse spoken verse
Lebenslagen predicaments Empfindungsmomentes emotional moment
die unbestimmt bestimmende the indefinitely determining language unbestimmt bestimmende indeterminate determiner
Inhalt Content Tonsprache tone-speech
Kundgebung emanation Wortsprache language, word-speech
uneiniger discordant bereits tönenden Wortsprache already resonant spoken language
Gefühlswegweisern guides-to-Feeling Wortsprachdichter poet
vielgewundenen labyrinthine Worttonsprache fusion of melody and verse
Zusammenhang co-ordination Tonsprachorgan tone-speech

Stabreim form of alliteration (footnote)
  Worttonsprachausdruck melodic/poetic expression
in Nichts setzen to set it at naught Einheit des Inhaltes unity of content
  Wortphrase intoned speech
Das in Zeit und Raum nothwendig Getrennte (footnote) the severed by the necessity of Space and Time Raum und Zeit place and time (+ footnote)
Einheitsstücken “Unity-Pieces”