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.

Mahler 4 Translation


Following on from my Mahler 8 translation for the RSNO last season, I’m delighted to say that I’ve been commissioned to write the translation for Mahler 4 for the concert in May 2015. The text is from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”, so once again a text from the 19th century tradition.

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