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 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.

Berg 7 Early Songs

I’ve just finished translating the lyrics for Berg’s “Seven Early Songs” and “Das himmlische Leben” from Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which the RSNO will be performing on the 8th and 9th May.

The texts are very different. I tackled the Berg songs first for two reasons: it’s the bigger text, but it comes in smaller chunks. The 7 poems are written by some of the biggest names in German poetry, such as Hauptmann and Rainer Maria Rilke.

There is some really beautiful writing here. I particularly connected with Hauptmann’s “Nacht”. As a keen mountain sportsperson, I loved his depiction of a mountain landscape. I also loved Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Traumgekrönt”. He really is one of the best German writers of the turn of the 20th Century.

The music is really sumptuous, too. I heartily recommend going along to listen to these songs. Why not have a look on the RSNO website:
which will be given by my good friend, Ursula Heidecker-Allen.

To whet your appetite, here is Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Traumgekrönt” with my translation:

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
Das war der Tag der weißen Chrysanthemem,
Mir bangte fast vor seiner Pracht…
Und dann, dann kamst du mir die Seele nehmen
Tief in der Nacht.
Mir war so bang, und du kamst lieb und leise,
Ich hatte grad im Traum an dich gedacht.
Du kamst, und leis’ wie eine Märchenweise
Erklang die Nacht.

Crowned in a Dream
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

It was the day of the white chrysanthemums,
I all but trembled at its radiance…
And then, then you came and took my soul,
Deep in the night.
I was so afraid, and you came lovingly, gently,
I had just thought of you in a dream,
You came, and softly, like a fairy tale,
The night resounded.

It’s that last line – it is so laden with meaning!

The Mahler text was a completely different and, I think, greater challenge. The challenge is to translate the text in a way that preserves the innocence and naivety of the words and yet doesn’t sound silly in the target language. The hardest bit was the verse where St. John allows his lamb to escape whilst Herod lies in wait. Quite brutal and yet totally innocent at the same time.

As a translator, I also have to remember that the audience (or at least some of them) will read my translation whilst they listen to the concert. I therefore like to try and make it easy for them to hang onto the German text as it is sung. A little bit like subtitling, this means picking up on words that sound similar in both languages, sometimes playing around with the word order and, as far as I can, trying to keep line lengths pretty similar.

This is where being a musician helps. You have an innate sense of flow and rhythm. It’s a huge challenge, but I love trying to make this balancing act work.

How did the questionnaire respondents rate my translation?

Naturalness of language: On the whole, respondents rated my translation as more natural than either the source text or Ellis’ translation Only one German speaker rated the source text as more natural sounding than my translation and another three rated it equally. All but one respondent rated my translation more natural than Ellis’.This meets my aim of a more accessible text, although it could be argued that there is a consequent mismatch in style between the ST and translation.

Ease of understanding: whilst the new translation is still not an easy text, nobody rated it in the most difficult range and retrieval of pronoun reference was much easier than in either the source text or Ellis’ translation. Sentence length, too, was more easily manageable.

Across all these categories, academic readers found the text easier on the whole than those with a lower level of musical qualification. This would match my primary readership of 3rd year undergraduates and postgraduates. People also commented, though, that the new translation was more accessible across all readership categories. Again this matches my aim of increased accessibility to the text.

I also aimed to prioritise information retrieval over style. Many respondents felt they didn’t have time to summarise the passage, but of those who did, scores on information retrieval were generally quite high. Again, there was a correlation with academic ability, although the relatively small numbers here made it difficult to draw clear conclusions.

Generally readers liked having the German terms included in the text and preferred to have footnotes rather than in-text explanation.

As expected, I could not always match source text style and facilitate information retrieval. some respondents criticised inconsistency of style. I felt this was particularly true in more complex passages. It could be argued that Ellis translation is, in fact, a better match on style.




All but one respondent had a preference for my text, and even that was qualified dependent on the prospective use of the text. It was felt that Ellis translation may give a better feel for the complex syntax and vocabulary of Wagner.

I seem to be fairly much on target with my audience,  although I maybe would’ve liked to see a better response for undergraduates. However, I didn’t specify that I was aiming at final year students, so that may explain the result.


All in all, I feel that I was pretty much on target with my aims for the translation and so far have had some good feedback on it. Thanks again to all who have helped.

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!

Looking closely at the Source Text.

The Source Text (ST) is what translators call the text they are working from, which will be translated into the Target Text (TT). One of the things a translator needs to determine is, which features can be transferred from the ST to the TT. In doing this, they need to look at the “Receiver’s Profile” of both ST and TT and see where they differ.
In the case of Wagner’s text, the ST and TT audiences are clearly separated by a long period of time – 1852 to the present day. This means the TT reader may not necessarily be so familiar with the cultural background to the book, for instance 19th century philosophy and metaphors that were widely used in the writing of the time. These are factors that I may need to consider and compensate for in my translation.
I also need to consider who is reading the text and why. Wagner was aiming at a generally well-read reader who was interested in philosophy of the arts. My target reader is most likely someone who is studying music academically or who has a strong personal interest in Wagner and his music. They may not necessarily be so well-read in the arts as a whole.

My research shows that quite a lot of my readership have a working knowledge of German and so may welcome seeing some of Wagner’s key terms in the original language.
Whilst the modern reader may be more disconnected from 19th century thought, Wagner is now, obviously, an established musical figure. There is no dispute over the fact that he was immensely important in music history. However, we need to remember that at the time he was writing “Oper und Drama”, he was still fighting to establish himself and to make himself understood. This may have a bearing on how the translator balances stylistic and informational aspects of the text.
Another time I’ll expand on the main difficulties for me in translating the text.