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.
What 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–
Non sara, Figaro il dice.
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!
A 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. 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,
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!