In Review: Translating for Singing: The Theory, Art and Craft of Translating Lyrics

book cover

Translating for Singing: The Theory, Art and Craft of Translating Lyrics

Ronnie Apter and Mark Herman, London, Bloomsbury Academic. 2016.

Reviewed by Rick Davis

Volume 7, Issue 2 (Fall 2018)

If the punning Italian imprecation traduttore, traditore holds practical sway anywhere, it is in the opera houses and conservatories of the English-speaking world. Elsewhere, opera has a long tradition of performing in the language of its audience, with composers such as Wagner, Gounod, and Verdi even participating in the translation process by offering musical adjustments when needed.

But Anglophone opera audiences, apart from those attending a few major houses (English National Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the old New York City Opera) and some smaller companies or the occasional university production, must either derive their understanding of plot and character through music and gesture alone (potent though they may be, they are necessarily incomplete if the motivating words are merely abstract sounds), or divide their attention between performers, production design, and a written translation provided on a screen above the stage, on their cell phones, on a nearby seat back, or in a printed libretto. Neither sacrifice tends toward a full appreciation of this most gesamt of art forms.

The longstanding and widespread acceptance elsewhere of the “singable translation”—a circumstance still not universally understood in our musical culture, among artists and even less so among audiences—is one of the points of departure for Ronnie Apter and Mark Herman’s Translating for Singing: The Theory, Art and Craft of Translating Lyrics. They cite (and acknowledge the hyperbole of) the late Colin Graham of the aforementioned Opera Theatre of St. Louis, who stated: “Not one composer ever lived who wanted his opera to be performed in a language foreign to his audience.”

Why then have our opera houses mostly shunned the live performance of singable translations? Apter and Herman point to a 300-year tradition of Anglophone preference for foreign-language performance, referencing Samuel Johnson’s remark that opera is “an exotick and irrational entertainment, which has always been combated, and always has prevailed.” Space does not permit a fuller exploration of the role of British, and later American, feelings of cultural inferiority to Old Europe in establishing and maintaining this “exotick” fascination. More recently, the authors note, the advent of the airliner combined with the major houses’ reliance on a rotating roster of international star performers has made it both possible and necessary to shorten rehearsal times, creating obstacles for singers to learn a role in several languages.

Ideally, singer-actors, directors, conductors, and audiences would all be comfortable in the “target language” of the work before them. As a frequent director of opera and zarzuela with both professional and student singers, all of whom have studied—but fewer of whom have truly mastered to sufficient fluency—the standard operatic languages, I can attest to the differences in the rehearsal process (and in performance) when a singer-actor has an intuitive, nuanced, and layered connection to the text as opposed to a learned understanding based on literal translation of equivalencies and elaborate phonetic analysis. In the former case, the performer can summon the spirit of the moment afresh each time, with words, music, and physical life all appearing together as the expressive synthesis of an image, a feeling, an intention. It becomes, in the best instances, that Wagnerian ideal of the gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. In the latter circumstance, even with the excellent coaching and preparation that our best singers receive, there tends to be a sense of approximation in the performance, of being slightly behind or a little removed from the character’s creation of the dramatic moment: it may be extremely beautiful, but it is often less than fully truthful. Opera, its artists, and its audiences, deserve better.

So I am most heartened to encounter Apter and Herman’s book, which offers a deeply researched and theatrically informed exploration of the perils and promise of translating for sung performance. Their own contributions to the practice are extensive, comprising some two dozen translations (to date) of opera, operetta, and choral pieces. They also bring a scholarly perspective to the subject, informed by relevant—and happily accessible—contributions from semiotics (via Jakobson) and the philosophy of art (via Langer) as well as language, musicology, and cultural history.

The authors do not attempt to hide the difficulty of the translator’s task in creating satisfying singable texts as compared to translating unsung poetry or drama:

…the presence of music changes the nature of both drama and poetry. The action must be compressed and the meditative moments enlarged. The poetry must have rhythms and sounds that can be musically set and sung. Further, once the libretto is set to music, that music is deemed largely unchangeable. But the music was composed to fit the prosody of the source language. Nonetheless, the translated text, despite its inherently different prosody, must be both comprehensible to the target audience when sung and easily singable by performers. (16)

No mean feat, that. Questions of style, level or register of diction, fidelity to period, extent of musical accommodation, matching of rhyme scheme, placement of vowels for high or sustained notes, and even adjustments for particular stagecraft requirements may come into play. In their own practice, Apter and Herman come across as willing collaborators with directors and singers, as witnessed in this example from their work on Carl Maria von Weber’s singspiel Abu Hassan (libretto by Franz Carl Hiemer):

Abu Hassan tells his wife to hide by getting into bed. He says, “Hurtig, hurtig! Leg’ dich nieder!” (“Quickly, quickly! Lie down!”). Our performable translation is “In position! On the bed!,” where “bed” rhymes with a word in a previous phrase. However, in one production there was no bed, so we provided the alternative: “In position! Hide your head!” (23).

The authors are silent on why “In position!” is better than the more literal and similarly-inflected “Quickly! Quickly!” but the point of the example is that a performable translation may be considered as a living document that, properly managed, can adapt to changing circumstances.

A chapter titled “Foreignization and Domestication” tackles the difficult question – applicable to most translations, not just those meant to be sung – of whether and how much the translation should attempt to sound like the native speech of the target language in the target time period. This is, of course, both an aesthetic and a philosophical (even at times a political) consideration, and cannot be wholly separated from the intentions of the performing forces (impresario, director, conductor, designers, singer-actors).

Does language that sounds vaguely twenty-first-century (“domesticated,” in the binary scheme proposed) offer more “transparent” access to, say, The Magic Flute (1791), or should a translation strive to sound as if it were created contemporaneously with the source work? The spoken theater world has answered this question almost unanimously in favor of “domestication,” as witnessed by the one-generation lifespan of most translations. When was the last time you saw a Constance Garnett Chekhov or a William Archer Ibsen, unless someone was trying to avoid paying a translator’s royalties? Even their great mid-century successors, such as Hingley for Chekhov and Fjelde or Meyer for Ibsen, have largely been superseded.

Opera, with its comparative scarcity of available versions and its inherently more “exotick” nature, may feel less pressure (or opportunity?) to revisit the translated canon every generation, although Apter and Herman explore a notable exception, Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, in a subsequent chapter called “Adaptation and Retranslation.” And the art form itself may offer a broader canvas for selective or wholesale “foreignization.” Apter and Herman ask us to consider the case of Wagner, where leitmotifs (repeated musical ideas that have thematic significance) connect to particular words and images throughout a work. They cite the great critic and translator Andrew Porter’s practice of

…keep[ing] important words—such as Liebe, Leid, Ring, Rhein—and especially the proper names exactly where Wagner placed them. Their sounds and rhythms have a motivic significance; they coincide with particular harmonies…” (39)

Even if respecting the leitmotif meant writing more “foreign” sounding English (e.g., “You who this love in my heart inspired” vs. “You who inspired me to feel this love”), Porter felt that the union of specific textual and musical moments, and their purposeful repetition and development, outweigh considerations of transparency or naturalness.

One of the signal virtues of Apter and Herman’s work is their typically dispassionate, non-judgmental presentation of an issue. Translating for Singing examines the subject from almost every meaningful angle, including chapters such as “Dealing with difference,” “Censorship and taboos” (which includes a fascinating—and by no means universally held—defense of The Magic Flute as “anti-sexist” when verbal, visual, and musical texts are all taken into account) “Verbal delineation of character,” and more. Each subject is illustrated with comparative examples (including, where available, the authors’ own work), allowing readers to draw their own conclusions as to final preferences.

A final chapter, “Music and Meaning,” offers sound advice (pun intended) on, inter alia, how melody creates emotion, and how specific vowels and consonants may be placed to make dramatic or comic points, to ease the singer’s task at the top and bottom of their vocal range, or in delivering fast, ornamented, coloratura passages. That Apter and Herman both have substantial vocal training and performance experience (though they are not professional opera singers) plays a significant role in the practical wisdom that permeates this book.

For those who love opera and the broader genre of lyric theater, and perhaps most particularly for those of us who are engaged in making it, selling it, teaching it, and striving to find and develop our own successors on stage and in the audience, Translating for Singing offers an important contribution to the discussion. My own modest proposal for its dissemination would be to find a way to place a copy on the desk of every opera house management, on the office chair of every Conservatory dean, opera director, and voice teacher in the UK and USA, and of course in the hands of anyone who is brave enough to engage in the traitorous act of opera translation.


Rick Davis is Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts and Professor of Theater at George Mason University. Rick came to Mason in 1991 as Artistic Director of Theater of the First Amendment (TFA) after six years as Resident Dramaturg and then Associate Artistic Director at Baltimore’s Center Stage. Between 1991 and 2012, TFA produced dozens of world premieres, many of which have gone on to further production, publication, and NPR and PBS broadcast. The company was honored with twelve Helen Hayes Awards and almost forty nominations. An active director of theater and opera, Rick has staged productions for Center Stage, Kennedy Center, Opera Idaho, Delaware Theatre Company, Unseam’d Shakespeare Company, American Ibsen Theater, the IN Series, the Virginia Consort, Capital City Opera, and others. His four books include Calderón de la Barca: Four Great Plays of the Golden Age; co-translations of Ibsen with Brian Johnston (Ibsen: Four Major Plays, vol. I); Ibsen in an Hour (with Brian Johnston), and Writing About Theatre (with Christopher Thaiss). With composer Kim D. Sherman he created an oratorio, The Songbird and the Eagle, premiered by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra, and an opera, Love’s Comedy. He was educated at Lawrence University (BA) and the Yale School of Drama (MFA, DFA), and previously taught at Washington College in Maryland.

One thought on “In Review: Translating for Singing: The Theory, Art and Craft of Translating Lyrics

  1. Readable, enjoyable, sensible, thorough! Provocative, stimulating, inviting comment and argument. Expanding the reader’s horizons, confirming observations, throwing challenges! Opens doors, leaves them ajar, inviting to live discussion! Bravo.


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