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Bilingual sign, Vannes, Brittany
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During graduate school, I found myself sitting in my host’s living room over Christmas break, the music for a program of Messiaen songs spread out on the couch, French-English dictionary in hand.

My host, entering the room, noticed what I was doing.  He proceeded to tell me, “Don’t translate that!  You don’t need to.  Just play the music.”

I hope you find that statement outrageous!  I did.

A discussion followed.  I wasn’t making an impression, but I had no intention of stopping, uncomfortable situation or not.  Out of desperation, I said, “If I don’t translate this program, I’ll flunk out of school!”

That squelched the conversation, and I finished without further unsolicited advice.

Why is translation so important?

You need to know exactly what you’re saying!

  • Maybe you know that the text is about water.  You need to go further.  What kind of water?  Rippling brook?  Crashing surf?
  • Perhaps you recognize the word “heart.”  What is your character’s heart doing?  Beating faster?  Is your character in despair?  Sobbing?
  • When you have repeated chords for several measures, what do they indicate?  A heartbeat?  Being out of breath?  Why?  A tolling bell?
  • Is your character saying something or thinking it?  Big difference!
  • Is your character talking to or about someone?  You need to know.
  • Is this person having many thoughts at once, or is s/he going crazy?
  • Is the text serious or not?  Funny?  Ironic?

Translating text right away will make your life much easier.  You can make a plan to interpret the music meaningfully and coach singers with their motivation and character in mind.

If you have been reading this blog, you know how I feel about learning the notes first like a robot.  We all need more information so we can feel the music.

Use a printed dictionary!

Google and online dictionaries are fine for looking up isolated words.  But I advocate doing text translations with an actual foreign-language dictionary.  The more definitions, the better.  You will also be able to refer to synonyms, antonyms, variations, etc.

One of my favorite things to do is an accurate translation of a German text, followed by an outrageously inapproriate one (in my head)!  So many choices….

Write the translation word-for-word into the score

When the translation appears immediately above the original text, you will save time and not have to rely on memory.

Don’t skip anything when translating ~ one word can change an entire sentence.  (“She said lightly, ruefully, coyly, lovingly, darkly….”)

Gail Fischler of the Piano Addict blog challenged her college students to think of adjectives to describe their recital pieces.  Interesting concept!  One student’s idea was “playful, with a hint of brooding.”  That would change your musical approach, wouldn’t it?

Of course, while you’re at it, you will translate all musical directions in the score, too.

Now do another translation in the vernacular

  • Use everyday slang
  • Include idioms
  • Avoid formality

The goal is to understand & convey the story (more like John Grisham than Shakespeare) ~ so you could tell it to your best friend or an audience.  Be conversational.

Include translations in your concert programs

You will want to use English sentence structure.

If the text is complicated or over-long, a synopsis may be preferable.  Plot synopses for operatic scenes, for instance, provide plenty of detail without becoming confusing to the audience.

Do translations yourself

This is the only way you can ensure accurate results.  Besides, after you’ve done the work, you will have in-depth knowledge of the text.

“Poetic” translations rhyme in English.  They do not accurately translate a text.

Translations printed in the music often tell a nice story, but not THE story of the original text.

Volumes of published translations may be accurate for one or two stanzas, but not in subsequent ones.  Sometimes they can provide a good place to start, but you must look up any words you are unsure of.  How can you tell if you don’t check?

Are you in the habit of doing translations?  How do you go about it?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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