The Music of Language

The biggest hole in my education is the knowledge of other languages, besides my native English.  Seriously, it is a wide gaping expanse that you could drive a truck through.  I know just enough Italian, German, French or Spanish to start a bar fight in some of the best pubs and cafes in Europe.  My lack of fluency in languages really slows down my study of operas, where the music is adding so much meaning to the words being sung, words I cannot comprehend without some provided translation.  Fortunately, librettos with English translation are easy enough to find for popular operatic works.

IMG_1280What I have found is that not all translations are created equal, nor are they meant to serve the same purpose.  Some of the most commonly encountered translations are those seen in subtitles on video, or supertitles projected above the stage during live opera performances.  These are usually invaluable to my quick understanding of what is going on at a given moment of the drama.  They are however, not without flaws.  The translations are made to be concise, to be read quickly and give an impression of what is being sung.  One wants to watch the performance, not be glued to reading the projected text.  Sometimes, the complete spirit of the libretto is not expressed in supertitles, and worst of all, sometimes the punchline of a joke is projected before it is performed on stage.  There is an art to the timing of subtitles and supertitles.

The standard sort of printed translations are found in opera shops or provided with recordings.  These give a more complete prose translation of the text, but often without a certain inflection or soul of the original.  Nuance and texture are often lost, and so much of the drama portrayed in the music is in the nuance of the text.  This is where the composer is giving his interpretation and portrayal of the dramatic action.  Oh what an advantage, to be a native speaker of the original language!

The absolute worst versions of translated text are those intended to be sung in English, for an opera created in Italian or some other language.  The words are given in English, but mutated, malformed and distorted into lines of text that fit operatic melodies composed for another language.  The results often murder the meaning of the libretto, all in service to creating a rhyme and rhythm to fit the musical line.  As much work as it is for me to read a synopsis, follow a libretto with translation, or glance at the super titles, I only want to experience an opera in the language it was composed.  There is nothing like the original.

To give an example of the varying translations, here is the original Italian text of Figaro’s first aria in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Figaro:   Bravo, signor padrone!
Ora incomincio a capire il mitero,
E a veder schitto
Tutto il vostro progetto.
A Londra, e vero?
Voi ministro, lo corriero,
E la Sussanna–
Segreta ambasciantrice.
Non sara, Figaro il dice.

In the the edition published by Dover publications in Three Mozart Libretti, the translation by Robert Pack and Marjorie Lelash reads like this:

Figaro: So that’s your game, my Lord!  Now I’m beginning to understand the mystery, and to see your plans all too clearly.  So we’re going to London?  You as minister, I as courier, and my Susanna — as secret ambassadress.  You’ll never succeed– Figaro has spoken!

Met bookA similar, but not precisely identical translation is found in The Metropolitan Opera Book of Mozart Operas:

Figaro:  Bravo, my lord and master.  Now I’m beginning
To understand the mystery … and to see all too clearly
Your entire scheme: So we’re off to London are we?
With you as the minister, me as your courier and Susanna as
Your secret ambassadress…
Well that shall never be: Figaro has said so.  

j-d-mcclatchyJ.D. McClatchy has taken a slightly different approach to translating the libretti of Mozart’s operas in the book Seven Mozart Librettos, A Verse Translation.  McClatchy recognizes that an opera libretto contains sections of both prose and verse (i.e. poetry).  He has rendered what was verse in Italian, into a comparable English verse that tries to preserve the spirit and lyrical qualities of the original.  His efforts have been well respected.  Our little section of Figaro’s aria may not be the most illustrative example, but in McClatchy’s translation it looks like this:


Figaro:  Bravo my Lord!
Now I begin to understand all the fuss … and see what’s behind
your scheme.  To London, eh?  You as minister, I your lackey, and Susanna
your “private secretary.”  It won’t happen! Figaro’s on to you!

Just for giggles, I plugged the Italian into Google Translate and it returned a passable English version like so:

Figaro: Bravo, my lord!
Now I begin to understand the mystery,
And to see schitto
All of your project.
In London, and you?
You minister, the courier,
And Sussanna–
Ambasciantrice secret.
It will not be, says the Figaro.

There is no one definitive translation of the text, especially when the libretto is set in poetic verse.  For an even greater degree of separation, I could go back to the original play by Pierre Beaumarchais.  It is titled Le Folle Journee, ou Le Mariage de Figaro, and is in French.  Lorenzo Da Ponte distilled a libretto in Italian for Mozart’s operatic version, and then I have to translate it into English to understand it!  Makes my head spin!

Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, “Bravo, Signor padrone”


7 thoughts on “The Music of Language

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  1. Couldn’t agree more. I do speak fluent English, French, and German, the languages that the libretti are usually translated to, and some half-decent Italian, so I get the original more or less (although obviously some of it are -8th century expressions that are not being used any more).

    It is really surprising how different the several translations are. Usually by averaging out these translations I get he best idea of what’s going on. It also depends on the period of the translation, some may be a century old, some aren’t more contemporary.

  2. I definitely agree with you. Wether poetry, opera, or literature the saying holds true that “much is lost in translation”. I would add that sometimes it’s not just in the translation of language where meaning is lost, but also in our experience/understanding of cultural context. So much communication happens between the lines, and without cultural context to guide us, we often miss the more subtle message.

  3. A serious issue for opera lovers — and for people who want to drag their friends to operas, despite protestations that “you can’t understand what they’re saying,” as if you can understand one word on a pop radio station! 😦

    When I was quite small, I wanted to write operas and became dejected thinking I would have to learn a foreign language first, or several, since I knew of no opera written in English at the time. It is a pretty unsingable language, for sure — all those schwa’s. Layer that on the doggerel pomposity of the average singer’s translation and you would be justified in wondering why anyone could sit and listen to it. I used to take the Schirmer librettos, which ponied the actual text with one of those gruesome English versions pegged to the melodic line, and use my skimming familiarity with Italian and German along with a good dictionary to write a crib in the white space. I still lend these to people going to an opera for the first time.

    Bonus translate-a-thon opera: Salome! Wilde, an Irish speaker of the English language, writes it in French as a dare to his boyfriend, Bosie Douglas turns it into English, and then it becomes an opera libretto rendered word for word into German. And seems to make more sense in that language than in either of the other two.

    I did hear a version of Offenbach’s Orpheus recently (Virginia Opera Company) using a quite recent translation into lively English couplets. It took liberties, but wasn’t offensive.

  4. I agree that the meanings and context of something can be completely lost in the translations. Such as jokes, they don’t have quite the same impact without knowing and understanding the language, as you mentioned! 🙂

  5. Losing some of the essence of what is communicated in translation is a greater problem in lyrics and poetry, because the closest translation no longer fits with the rhythm. Many of the nuances of poetry – sound similarities such as use of alliteration and consonance, or devices for comic meaning such as puns, and irony – are often lost.
    However, even if you knew fluent Italian some of these same thing would be lost listening to a 18th century play or opera like the Marriage of Figaro. Language changes because people want it to change. A new pattern of speech and use of humor belong to each new generation. They change the syntax and terms used to mark themselves as “modern” or “with in.” The irony is the more current a librettist or playwright is in own period, the more out-dated the language seems to people of later generations.

  6. Subtitles are definitely an art form in their own right. I don’t follow opera, but I run into it in poetry, where the voice of the translator becomes as important as the voice of the original poet. Translations of Bei Dao’s work, Pablo Neruda’s, and especially translations of Rumi, I find I gravitate towards certain translators because while those translators may not translate literally (in fact, it is almost impossible to do this while maintaining the mood, depending on the form of the original language), they maintain the ‘mood’ and ‘flow’ of the piece. To do that, sometimes words have to be swapped for synonyms, or sentences have to be flopped around. For giggles, watch a movie originally in English, but turn on the English subtitles sometimes. I also like a fair amount of foreign films, and often you’ll have one that was originally subtitled, but then they went back and dubbed it. The dubbing and subtitling seem to very rarely be the same translation, and the subtitles are generally more precise. That’s because in a dub, efforts are made to make the word forms, or at least the length of sentences, match the time a character’s lips are moving. We all remember those old dubbed kung fu flicks, where a character’s mouth would be moving for many seconds after the line had been translated – the nature of the beast when English words tend to be shorter than their Japanese counterparts!

    I also should have taken the time to learn languages. I took Spanish and Italian in high school, but never progressed beyond that (1 yr of Italian, 3 of Spanish), and didn’t use it after that. Even so, I recognize enough words when I hear them that I can piece together a surprising amount of conversations. If you can identify the subject, the noun, and the verb, it’s usually fairly easy to guess at the rest of the sentence with reasonable accuracy. So I say, it’s never to late to learn! Sure, you might not become fluent in all of those Operatic languages, but learning even one romance language makes you able to piece together large chunks of others.
    I once worked for a company run by Italians with many Spanish-speaking workers. The Italians would speak Italian, the Hispanics would speak Spanish, and with very few exceptions they were able to communicate without having to learn one another’s languages at all. They didn’t pick up entire sentences, but they got the gist, because enough of the words were quite similar.

    That ended up being a long reply! Yeesh, but seriously, with the internet being what it is now, if you wanted to develop a basic, functional understanding of that educational gap, you could totally work at it from the comfort of your own home, in your free time.

  7. The translation examples made me chuckle and think of the 20-text berating I received from my Spanish tutor when I sent her a paragraph I had run through my translation app. I so enjoy the emphatic cadence of Italian and the rrrrollll of Spanish. Even more, it’s fun to know enough of a few languages to have access to words and phrases for those moments when a poem I’m writing in English needs a dash of elan, something beyond ordinary language.

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