Tag Archives: song in translation

Translating poetry for song performances

This month sees the start of the 2015 Oxford Lieder festival. I’ve worked with the Oxford Lieder team since 2008, and have enjoyed giving many pre-concert talks on song programmes focused around French song. But this year’s festival is a little different. Called ‘Singing Words: Poets and their Songs’, it approaches the art song form from the perspective of the poet first. The programme includes concerts dedicated to song settings of poems by Eluard, Heine, Rilke, or Verlaine, and many more poets besides. Working with poetry in literary language, however, especially those which use old-fashioned vocabulary and phrasing, and doing all this in a foreign language, must surely be quite alienating for audiences not fully conversant in those languages, or that type of literary language?

One of the ways round this, to help audiences engage better with what is being sung on stage, is to include translations in programme booklets. In fact, just this week, I’ve translated another 7 French poems for Oxford Lieder, all texts selected by Berlioz for songs which will be performed at a lunchtime recital on 24 October 2015. The commissioning turnaround time was quick, so I submitted them to the Oxford Lieder team with the caveat that ‘they’re hardly the most aesthetically beautiful literary translations, but they do capture what’s going on in each of the songs’. It’s perhaps a lazy get-out clause which forestalls any critique of my translation work. But if I’d had more time (or skill), what would I have done instead?

Translating poetry for song performances is not straightforward, and I wanted to share some of these issues here:

Who am I translating for?
In commissioning any translation work, it’s important to factor in who the readers of the translated work will be. Am I translating for teenagers who have never been to a song recital before? Am I translating for a group of well-established concert-goers who know a lot of Berlioz songs already, and have a pretty reasonable French anyhow? The reality with public performances is that you will have a mixture of people with differing levels of competence and experience in listening to foreign-language song (and the work Oxford Lieder and numerous other arts organisations are doing is helping to diversify their audiences). So, who am I translating for?

What is the main aim of the translation?
It is so easy to claim that the main aim of a translation is to ‘capture the essence’ of the original foreign-language text. But what does this mean? As recently-developed theories and methodologies of translation show us, there are decisions to be made which include:

Domestication / Foreignization
How much should you convert the original-language source text into the specific cultural and linguistic reference-points of the translated language (‘domestication’), and how much you keep the points of difference, whether in word order, phrasing, and syntax, or culture-specific terms (‘foreignization’). Clive Scott calls for ‘foreignization’ in his books on translating Baudelaire and Rimbaud, maintaining that poetry in some way necessitates that feel of ‘otherness’ as a different way of using language. This means that you ‘feel’ that the text is translated, and the translator can often deploy his/her creativity more extensively (maintaining what Lawrence Venuti calls the translator’s ‘visibility’). Other poetry translators seek to fully ‘domesticate’ a foreign poem by adapting it into an English-language form, using English verse metre and developing a rhyme scheme based on English sounds.

Formal or Dynamic Equivalence
Adapting a poem into the verse forms of a translated language is also a type of ‘formal equivalence’ as set out by Eugene Nida, in that it sees both the meaning of the poem and the format of the text as jointly important. ‘Dynamic equivalence’ would transmit just the effect of the message (perhaps this notion of somehow ‘capturing the essence’ of a text) without maintaining its form. This perhaps best describes what I have done with my quick Berlioz translations for Oxford Lieder: I have not created a new poetic work using English verse techniques, but I have sought to maintain the effect (‘capture the essence’). But I have also sought to maintain a more-or-less word-for-word translation so that the audience can follow in roughly ‘real time’ what is being sung which retains in some way the ‘formal equivalence’. What I have done is perhaps the most common approach to translating poem texts for song recitals, but it is not necessarily the most suitable, particularly for contemporary audiences.

Singable translations
An approach which has largely fallen out of fashion is the ‘singable translation’, which keeps the rhythm of the vocal part intact but which struggles to maintain word-for-word equivalence. There are positives and negatives to a singable translation, both for the performer and for the audience, depending on what is being conveyed through the song. Do we miss the sounds of the original language? Are sung words always fully audible? Does the sung translation ‘sanitize’ the original? Perhaps perplexingly, singable translations are common in opera (such as all the works performed at the English National Opera), but less so on the song recital circuit.

Where can I find out more?
A small team of song translation researchers and practicitioners will explore this question of how to translate poems for song performances at a Song in Translation Study Event on 25 October 2015. Laura Tunbridge, Philip Bullock, Richard Stokes and I will probe issues to do with about the integrity of the poem or its song setting, political agendas and censorhip, and how national and cultural identities come into play too. To find out more, book your place at the Okinaga Room, Wadham College, starting at 2pm!