Wednesday, October 11, 2006

10 ways to translate song and aria texts into English

A query from one of my students on how to effectively translate song and aria texts from foreign languages to English resulted in this latest list, with links and caveats:

1. Learn the foreign language to the level that you can understand the full meaning of the words of the song. There is no substitute for really knowing the nuts and bolts of a language and applying that knowledge to the study of a song or aria, an investment that will repay the time spent many times over. Failing that, read the other nine hints...

2. Translate the song or aria word-for-word with the aid of a dictionary. This is the old school method and up until a couple of decades ago was the only way to translate. This method involves many hours of sitting with a dictionary and looking up words, tenses, and idioms, but the time spent will repay itself in the depth of knowledge that you will then be able to bring to the song, since you had to work to uncover the meaning of the original text.

3. Consult the
Lied and Art Song Texts Page. The brainchild of Emily Ezust, this site was one of the first web-based art song resources since its inception in the mid-90's and has been growing ever since.

4. Consult the
Aria Database. Created by Robert Glaubitz in 1996 and growing steadily since then with a large collection of searchable material.

5. Use the
Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder. This book has been a staple of singers and pianists for the last 30 years and although it is not exhaustive, it is still one of the quickest ways to find English translations of German lieder. Also of inestimable value is Fisher-Dieskau's essay on German song that serves as the foreward to the book.

6. Use
The Interpretation of French Song by Pierre Bernac. Good translations of songs of numerous French composers and commentary by Bernac are supplemented by chapters on subjects such as French lyric diction and interpretation.

7. Use an edition that comes with translations of the texts. Numerous examples abound of recent editions by publishers such as
Alfred, Hal Leonard, and Frederick Harris Music that contain English translations to aid both teachers and students.

8. Find English translations on liner notes of CDs and LPs. This is still one of the best ways to find translations of hard-to-find repertoire and rarities. Liner note translations can often be better than online translations, but not as good as those done by those who start at steps 1 or 2.

9. Do a Google search. You might have to sort through a lot of sites, but chances are you'll eventually find the translation you're looking for. Or you might not.

10. Use an online translation service such as Babelfish. Web-based translation services are still in their infancy and don't often work with idioms and archaic words in the repertoire, but you'll probably get most of the text translated. For words not translated by this service, go back to step 2.