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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Writing in a translation #1 - Why we do it, and the tools we need (006)

This is the first article in a series about the nuts and bolts of writing in a translation into a score. It's a standard part of preparing a score for that first day of an opera rehearsal, or preparing a piece to work on with a teacher. I'm going to get into some pretty boring details here, and share my habits and experience. But stick with me! You may pick up something useful here! Today we'll talk about the Why, the When, and the tools that we're going to need.

Let's start with the Why. As singers, we perform in foreign languages all the time. In most cases, our audiences do not speak these languages, but we are still responsible for knowing the meaning of the words that we sing, and to communicate that meaning in our performance. After all, words are the most distinctive feature of vocal music. Words and music together are our unique province, and we have to own it, even when we don't personally speak the language. Just mouthing the sounds is not going to cut it, even if your enunciation is impeccable.

There's an added bonus to the physical writing part of this process. By putting your pencil to the page, you wind up learning the words far more thoroughly. There is something magical about doing that helps with learning. Writing is even better than typing, but it's definitely better than just printing out a translation and reading it now and then. I happen to be a fast learner, but sometimes I find that I learn more just by writing it than I do by reading what I wrote!

Then is the question of When. I'd put this task before the woodshedding of memorization, before most of the notes and rhythms are learned, but after you've done an initial sing-through (just to make sure it's in your range, etc.). Definitely do this before your first day of an opera rehearsal, and do this before you start working on a piece with your teacher or coach. If you're a student, get started on this the very day it gets assigned. Your teacher will thank me for this.
Sidebar: There's four languages we need to master as singers - Italian, Latin, German, and French. Becoming fluent in these languages is not necessary, but for the purposes of translation, it can be really handy to learn some basic grammar in each. In college, I studied each one by taking them as regular language classes, spending about a year in each. Learning the first one is the toughest, but it gets easier after that, as you start to see the patterns, getting used to things like masculine and feminine nouns. So if you are a student of singing, considering signing up for these classes.

To write in a translation, we're going to need a few tools. We will want a good, sharp pencil, a good eraser, a clean score, a starting translation, a language dictionary, and a laptop.

For now, let's just get the obvious ones out of the way first. It may seem a little obvious that we will want our pencil sharp, but hear me out on this. We're going to be writing the translation into our score, and in order for it to be useful, it is going to have to be neat and legible. You can ask my wife on this one. I have terrible handwriting. But when I write in a score, I take it slow and am very careful and precise. Often there isn't a lot of room on the page, and to get in the words you're going to have to write pretty tiny. My handwriting is not the best, either, but if a word comes out messy, I erase and start over again.
Another Sidebar: I have never said the word pen. When it comes to writing anything into your score, just don't use a pen, translation or otherwise. Always pencil, please!

And erasers! How many scores have been marred with a terrible smear, from someone trying to use a dried out, crusty, old eraser? Those little erasers on the backs of pencils (especially mechanical pencils) are just not going to cut it, either. My favorite are old-fashioned Pink Pearls. And a broom.

Last on the obvious ones: a good, clean, score is going to be handy. Photocopies are fine, if the text and notes don't come out smudged. Please don’t use a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. Try to keep it to a first generation photocopy of something you already, personally own (or something printed off imslp). For me, I like to scan scores into pdf files -- probably something I will talk more in depth about later -- and then print a fresh copy when I start a new project.

So yes, this article should be on the Captain Obvious blog. Even still, you would be surprised how many people overlook these things. Got a favorite tool or technique of your own? Feel free to share in the comments!

The next article will talk about finding and using a good starter translation, and after that, the use of language dictionaries and laptops. So stay tuned...


  1. Cool. Thanks for this! It would be interesting to see an excerpt from one of the hand-annotated scores that you have worked from too.

    1. Thanks! Be sure to watch for the next one, coming out on Friday. I think it'll be more interesting than talking about pencils! I was considering doing a video just with me going through the process itself as a fourth video, so that you all can see the final result. There'd have to be some time-lapse stuff in there, though...

    2. Sounds good. I'll check it out!

      I also thought of something else: one way that I have found helpful for internalizing (usually short) texts is to calligraph them. Writing in calligraphy can be slow going, so you spend a lot of time focused on the text and on how it should be expressed through your writing. That means that you are thinking about the meaning of the text for an extended period of time.

      So I can definitely understand your emphasis on writing a translation into the score by hand, neatly and carefully. Keeping focused on the text that way, slowly and deliberately, definitely helps with internalizing the text and its meaning.