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Conference Morsel: Is Translation Blasphemy?

(An excerpt from the interest session “What Language Shall I Borrow? Singing in Translation,” presented by Daniel A. Mahraun during the 2014 ACDA North Central Division Conference)
 
       While we have all done it at one time or another, there is still drummed into many of our minds the view that the performance of vocal music in translation a form of blasphemy.  The arguments can usually be reduced to:
       1.  The text and music are too carefully wedded by the composer to consider altering either. 
       2.  Translations are provided in the printed program.
       3.  The audience can’t understand the words anyway, especially if performing with an orchestra.
       4.  Good English versions are rare if not non-existent.  They’re usually filled with archaic language, forced feminine endings, strange word order, impossible vowels to sing, lines that bear no relationship to the meaning of the original, or are just plain generic and meaningless.
 
Consider, however, the advantages:
       1.  Singing in our native language saves rehearsal time.  As base and utilitarian as this argument may sound, it is true.
       2.  As a result, the audience will be spared the distraction of reading translations, often in the dark, often without the original language printed alongside, all while trying to actually listen to the performance.
       3.  Historically speaking, the increased availability of inexpensive printed music in the 19th Century and, in England and the United States, the translation of works into English, made hundreds of works accessible to performers and listeners—works that otherwise would likely have been forgotten.
       4.  As conductor Roger Doyle wrote in his 1980 article in the Choral Journal, “We must not prove the genius of [a composer’s] art only by his [or her] skillful text underlay.”
 
on June 5, 2014 5:03am
As a native speaker of French, and having had a reasonable degree of exposure, both through church and school, of ecclesiastical Latin, and later in life taking courses in Spanish and some German, I admit my bias in this instance.  That said, here are my takes on the supposed "advantages":
 
1.  Base and utilitarian, indeed.  Enough said - and how much of an American approach.
2.  Reading translations can occur BEFORE concerts; if they're there to listen to the music, the audience will be patient enough to wait.
3.  And how many of those 19th century, Victorian translations fall into the category of disadvantage No. 4?  Based on my experience (the worst being "Cantique de Jean Racine"), most of them.
4.  Eh?  What's Doyle's point?  That the words have little impact or importance, or that we shouldn't let the words get in the way of proving the genius of the composer?  The whole POINT of marrying words and music is their interplay.  But to ignore or downplay the value of the words and the subtleties of that interplay can only be shown when the two work together seamlessly.  I strongly submit that the glory of this art is that genius IS shown by that interplay.  Please note the long and thoroughly mindless text of the Narrator during the crucial card game scene in "The Soldier's Tale" by Stravinsky.  The lyricist's "poetry" (his last name I believe was Ramuz, a Swiss) was so awful that when we mounted this production at Middlebury College in 1974, I proposed (as the Narrator!) to cut all but the first two lines - and that essentially eliminated 2 1/2 pages' worth of text - oh, two blocks of "poetry" per page, mind you - and just let the music and the dance tell the tale at that point.  Worked wonderfully; and my yapping these mindless words would have been precisely the proof that, sometimes, the words get in the way.  In this case, Stravinsky didn't need the words, in no matter WHAT language - and yes, I did it in the original French.  But even my love of my native language couldn't have helped for a second turn a bad text into a useful element.  
 
Bottom line:  make the effort, folks, to do proper courtesy to the composer's original choice of language.  If it's not great to begin with, translation won't make it any better.
 
Ron