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Friday, November 18, 2016

Writing in a translation #2 - Finding a good starting translation (007)

Welcome back! This is the second article in a series about writing a translation into your score. In the previous article we talked about the Why, the When, and some of the obvious tools necessary.

Now for a trickier part. We will need a starting translation at hand. There's a number of options here. Roughly, translations will fall into four types: Poetic or freeform, singable, line-by-line, and word-for-word.

Before we get too far, remember that the text of a song should be considered poetry. In most cases, it is not written by the composer and pre-exists the music. Sometimes the composer and the poet are contemporaries, and sometimes they span centuries. It's just something to remember, the text here is very important.

Since it is poetry, a poetic translation would seem like a good place to start. However, it will be one of the least literal translations. The objective of the translator in this case is to retain a sense of the poet's artfulness, possibly including rhyme scheme, syllable count, structure. In some cases, it's far more free-form, though, and can flowery. It can be very hard to figure out how to match up the English words with their foreign counterparts, because sometimes there won't be a match. In the worst cases, however, the translator may have an agenda or bias. For example, they may start with the preconceived notion that a work is an allegory about war, or that the composer was a hidden feminist, or that it was written by raunchy monks (as is a common allegation with Carmina Burana), and they bend their translation to make it fit their preconceived interpretation of the work. For our purpose (that is, writing a translation into a score), these translations will not do.

While we're here, let's talk about singable translations, and get that out of the way. This is a text already in our score, written in English above or below the original text. Here's a simple rule: Ignore it. Unless we wish to sing the piece in English, it has no value to us. It's worse than the poetic translations. They are done with the wrong set of priorities for us -- they are trying to get something that can be sung in English, using most of the same notes, rhythms, and even rhymes that the original text had. This means the words don’t line up, inconvenient words are removed or replaced, and, worse of all, sometimes the meaning of the entire song is completely changed. Again, ignore it. If you can't ignore it, take a pen or marker and strike it out. If that doesn't work, use white out. Seriously. I'm hammering this point only because I have seen and taught too many young singers who rely on this text, and as a result, having no idea what they were singing. So let's talk about what is useful.

Line-by-line translations can be pretty useful, and are probably the most common type of translation available. Here, the original text is side-by-side with its translation, and more or less follows the original poetry. One line of poetry is translated at a time, though sometimes they have to do two lines at a time just to make the grammar intelligible. I find that these are a really good balance between something the is readable and yet still accurate. You can find these translation online (for a few ideas, check out the Resources page), mixed in with the more poetic versions, and you can usually find them in the beginning or end of a song anthology. Printed "librettos" generally fall into this category, but sometimes they are a little more poetic.

Personally, my favorite place to find these are CD liners. If the CD was from a good publisher, in most cases you can assume the translation is at least somewhat professionally done. Some are easier to work with than others, though, so make sure to do a read-through before committing to it.
Sidebar: You're going to want either a line-by-line, poetic, or freeform translation in the program if you are going to perform the piece for a live audience. If you use one that you did not write yourself, make sure you have permission to do so from the translator to avoid copyright issues.

Word-by-word translations, by far, are what most professional singers go to when writing in a translation. They are the gold standard, written by professionals for professionals. These are going to be the most literal, but they are also the most costly, too. These translations will take a line of poetry and put the English words directly under their counterparts. The best ones have be a third line that transcribes (different than translate) the original text into IPA for pronunciation. You'll find these sometimes as a preface page to a song in printed anthologies, or as a separate publication or collection. The most popular series, as far as opera goes, was created by Nico Castel, a language and opera coach from NYC. He has a few dozen, massive volumes out there, covering the vast majority of operas. Similar ones exist for art song.

Getting access to this kind of translation can be pretty tricky. Any good music library at a university will have these resources on its shelf. Outside of music libraries, however, they are not common, and generally they are too costly for personal use. If you do have access to this type of translation, awesome!

But beware. Don't be a lazy singer. Don't just copy the words verbatim into your score. Seek to understand what is being said, and if changing a word here or there means you understand it better, than do so! If you do not understand what you are saying, the audience doesn't have a chance.

We'll talk more about this in the next article, which will handle the last couple tools that we need: a language dictionary and a laptop. Meanwhile, do you have some favorite resources for finding quality translations? Perhaps you have some books you could recommend, or some websites or apps? Let us all know about it by leaving a comment below. We would all benefit from it.


  1. I'd be curious to see what a word-for-word translation looks like, especially one with an IPA transcription. Could you consider posting an excerpt of one? I need to create something like that for a project I'm working on. :)

    1. Hello Aaron -

      I included little snippets of all four types in my video, using some editing magicks. So I'd direct you there first. I'll see about getting them directly into the post above shortly, too.

      The two volumes that come to mind that use this approach are the Nico Castels that I mentioned, and the Alfred version of 26 Italian Songs and arias.