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.

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.

The work on Opera and Drama continues!



After taking a big breather after submitting my Masters Dissertation, I have made the decision, with support and encouragement from my friends in the Wagner Society, to carry on translating Oper und Drama.

Part III is most familiar to me, so I plan to continue with Chapter V, the other chapter I considered doing for my dissertation. I will update you with progress!

In the meantime, I am also busy writing an article for the RSNO for their Vaughan Williams 5 concert programme.

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”

Questionnaire deadline

For those of you who took paper or email questionnaires, I set tomorrow (31st May) as the official deadline. However, the online questionnaire at

will remain online until 8th August and I will continue to check it.

Student replies have flooded in in the last couple of weeks – many thanks to friends and acquaintances at Manchester, Glasgow, Oxford and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland who have filled in questionnaires themselves and cajoled others into doing so.

Also many thanks to the Wagner Societies of Scotland, Ireland and London. Your help and support is invaluable and you bring a broad range of skills, knowledge and experience to my work as well as sharing a deep love of the music of the man himself. London members, I know your help is yet to come after your July journal is published – it is still very much needed!

BUT (yes, there’s always a BUT!)


Any replies gratefully accepted!

Wagner outlines the Leitmotif

Today I have been polishing my translation of the section where Wagner outlines what we would come to know as the “Leitmotif.” Actually, Wagner himself never used this term. “Oper und Drama” was written in 1852 and it’s believed that the first use of the term was in 186o, by Ambros. Wagner’s own term is “melodische Momente”. I haven’t quite decided whether to call these literally “melodic moments” or “melodic ideas” just yet.

The main challenges for the translator in this section are how to deal with the terms Ahnung and Erinnerung. Wagner uses a lot of repetition in his writing and sometimes it becomes a little confusing: you feel like you can’t see the wood for the trees! Because of this, I’ve added a few phrases to make the links between these Leitmotif terms more specific. It’s vital that the reader understands the argument here. Some of Wagner’s sentences are enormously long, so I have split some of them. The danger then is that you lose the causal links between them.

Anyway, here is a little taster of work in progress. Please leave your comments – I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts:

Those melodic moments must also be conditioned by the Poetic intent using the presentiment [Ahnung] or reminiscence [Erinnerung] in such a way that they direct our emotions solely towards the dramatic character and those things connected to or emanating from them.[1] We should perceive these moments, laden with presentiment or reminiscence only in the sense that they complement the appearance of the character that either cannot or will not express themselves fully before our eyes.

These melodic moments, well-suited to maintaining the emotions at the same level, become in a sense emotional signposts in the orchestra, appearing throughout the drama’s whole convoluted structure. In these melodic moments we become permanent confidants of the Poetic Intent’s deepest mystery and direct participants in its realisation. Between them, as presentiment and reminiscence, is the verse-melody acting as both a supported and supporting entity. It is conditioned by an emotional environment consisting of the emotional stirrings both of itself and others, those already perceived and those yet to be perceived. These allusive moments supplementing the emotional expression recede once the individual themselves enters onto the scene and brings these allusions to full expression in the verse-melody. Then the orchestra supports this verse-melody in its most illustrative capacity, only to supplement once more the general emotional expression through portentous reminiscence  when the verse-melody’s colourful expression  recedes again into mere intoned speech [Wortphrase].  At  the same time it determines  the necessary transitions of feeling arising from our own, always keenly maintained participation.

These melodic moments, in which we recall an earlier presentiment whilst turning this reminiscence into the presentiment of what is yet to happen, necessarily blossom only from the most important motives in the Drama.  The most important of them in turn correspond with to those motives which, according to the poet, concentrate and reinforce the basic motives of the plot forming the pillars of his dramatic structure. He uses these fundamentally not in confusing multiplicity, but in easily moulded, limited numbers suited by necessity to an easy overview. In these basic motives that are in fact not sentences but easily manipulable emotional moments, the poet’s intention is most easily understood when it is perceived as emotion. The musician, in realising the poet’s intent, has therefore to arrange these motives compressed into melodic moments in order to be in fullest accord with the Poetic Intent. So  the most unified musical form arises from the well-defined  repetition between verse and music – a form that  was previously composed  arbitrarily by the musician but which can only be formed into an essential, truly unified form, (that is, one that is comprehensible), from the Poetic Intent.

[1] Translator’s note: This is the crux of Wagner’s argument, outlining what would eventually be termed Wagner’s Leitmotiv technique, though this term was never used by the composer himself. It possibly originated with Ambros in 1860 (Grey, 1992, p.234).

Questionnaire progress.

Many thanks to those people who have helped with the questionnaire so far.

I really need more replies from students though. If you think you can help, please click on and look for the link highlighted “here”.  Download the form to your computer, open it, click “sign” and “add text”. At the end click “done signing,” and save the file again. Do not go through the Echo-sign process, as you’ll need to register. Instead, email the signed version to me direct at

I can also email the questionnaire to you directly either as pdf or doc if you want to email me.

I look forward to some interesting answers!

Translating Chapter VI Part iii

Opera and Drama, written in 1852,  plays a key role in understanding The Ring as it is here that Wagner lays out his theories for what he terms die einheitliche künstlerische Form (unified artistic form). I have chosen to translate Chapter VI in Part III. One of the reasons for this is that here Wagner explains how music and drama combine to give unity of expression, conveying the emotion of the dichterische Absicht (Poetic Intent) as well as its content. This is pretty much the crux of his argument. He also outlines the role of the orchestra in supporting and clarifying the action on stage through its use of motives that both recall [Erinnerung] and foreshadow [Ahnung] the dramatic action.

You’ll have noticed my inclusion of the German terms! This gives a clue to why I chose this chapter from a translator’s perspective. Wagner’s terms are just one of the linguistic challenges I’m facing. More on this another day.