Gained in translation

Mark Wigglesworth
Monday, January 17, 2011

When I tell people I'm preparing Parsifal most sigh with a glowing appreciation of the privilege that must be. When I say it's going to be in English, a shadow passes over many of their faces. It's like they've chosen a delicious chocolate only to discover that the filling isn't the flavour they'd wanted. Perhaps there's something about the spirituality of this work that means it's blasphemous to alter it in any way. In the case of Parsifal, I've sympathy with the view, but in principal I do think that the pros of opera in translation outweigh the cons.

Few artistic experiences are more complete than understanding singers' words at exactly the moment they are sung. Opera is at its best when the communication can be that simultaneous. It is drama that has all the benefits of words but none of their limitations. If audiences don't have to make a distinction between music and text, the combination of the two becomes the essence of what really opera is.

Of course there are drawbacks. It's impossible for instance, for a translation not to be an interpretation. Few words have exactly the same meaning in every language and whatever is used to replace the original is loaded with its own particular associations. Translators have to reflect their understanding of the original libretto. But in a medium that already has many people involved in decisions about what the piece is trying to say, adding another fundamental opinion to that process further complicates attempts to create a unified performance.

On the other hand, if the words are in the singers' mother-tongue, I believe they can go deeper into their roles than when they're using a foreign language. No amount of study can replace a lifetime's accumulation of linguistic connotations and even the cleverest performers cannot match the advantage that comes from intuitively connecting with all these resonances. There's an intensity of expression that arises from the subtlest of natural stresses and the most poignant of subconscious inflections.

One of the biggest challenges for translators is not so much choosing the right words as putting them in the right order. The problem arises when the syntax of the new language goes against the alignment of the original. Composers take great care describing the meaning of every word and it's hard to ignore the specific colour, dynamic, and harmony that they choose. No one wants to hear 'and' sung on the note that the composer wanted to express 'death'. If the musical stress in 'I love you' is moved from 'love' to 'I', then the result will feel very different. A translator has options, but moving the notes around isn't one them!

Most composers have always wanted their operas to be performed in the vernacular. Singing a translation undoubtedly involves considerable compromises, but it can allow the performance to cut to the innermost heart of the drama. An art form sometimes criticised for alienating its audience, is able to speak as directly and powerfully as possible.

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