EMILY EZUST on the gentle art of translation

EMILY EZUST on the gentle art of translation

How do I translate thee? Let me count the ways.

"Poetry is what is lost in translation."
--Robert Frost

It can be disappointing to open an art song recital program and find no translations inside, especially these days when there can be such delightful variety in the languages offered in one concert. Perhaps many North American audience-members will know enough French or Spanish to get the gist of a song, but it would be a rare audience outside of Scandinavia that would all understand Swedish, for example. So if we care to know what is being sung, most of us long for translations. 

But what kind of translation? 

Translating the kinds of texts we find most often set to music can be one of the most challenging translating tasks there is, because often the text is an excellent, well-loved poem in its own right (such as something by Heine or Verlaine). One might be forgiven for assuming a translator should try to capture as much of its brilliancy as possible, and take a good stab at replicating all its poetic attributes as well -- rhythm, metre, form, rhyme (if applicable), assonance, consonance, etc. Unfortunately, it is difficult to adhere to these constraints without sacrificing some of the sense of the poem, so it has become a commonplace to suggest that to perform the feat of faithful translation, a translator would need to be a greater poet than the source poet. Whether this is true or not, I leave it to those more fond of generalizing than I am. In any case, many fine anthologies of translated poetry exist, and yet one hardly ever sees this kind of translation used in recital programs or CD booklets.


The reasons for this are manifold. Obtaining permission to reprint translations from books can be a time-consuming task involving tracking down the addresses of many copyright-holders. Replies might not arrive in time, and refusals are possible, as are fees. But even when one looks for public-domain translations, one might balk at using them, even when one discovers a singable translation in the very score of a piece one is planning to perform. The style of the text might be off-putting (or downright silly); tremendous liberties might have been taken with the meaning to achieve rhymes of questionable value; or one might even find something so convoluted that one wonders if Yoda penned it:

Sun has weary grown of speeding,
Says, now rest I'll keep.
Goes to bed, his eyelids closing
And falls fast asleep. [1]

Let's further imagine the usefulness of translations from the perspective of the singer. If the singer needed help understanding the text, a poetic translation could be as unhelpful as a paraphrase -- or possibly even misleading, as it might obscure or displace the particular sense of each word in the original language.

Take, for example, Heine's "Du bist wie eine Blume", which seems to have been part of some not-so-secret initiation for becoming a composer of art song. There are over four hundred settings of this poem for voice and piano alone.

Du bist wie eine Blume
so hold und schön und rein;
ich schau' dich an, und Wehmut
schleicht mir ins Herz hinein.

Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände
aufs Haupt dir legen sollt',
betend, daß Gott dich erhalte
so rein und schön und hold.

Ethelbert Nevin set this in German and English. Here is the anonymous (singable) translation published in Boston in 1888 :

Oh fair and sweet and holy,
As bud at morning tide
I gaze on thee, and yearnings,
Sad thro' my bosom glide.

I feel that fain I'd be laying,
My hand upon thy hair,
Praying that God, aye, would keep thee,
As holy, sweet, and fair.

Although this is a public-domain translation and can therefore be printed without asking anyone's permission, one probably wouldn't choose this for a program if one were singing a German setting of the poem. It has a distinctly old-fashioned style to English-speakers, yet the original still sounds modern to German-speakers. All this may be fine for singing as an English setting (we would make allowances), but it would be a disservice to the reader of the program to present this as a translation. As we hear the first line, we would read the corresponding translated first line, but it does not match. Those who realize this may jump to the second line and then need to wonder which word is "sweet" and which word is "holy" -- but those words do not appear in the German version. Other mismatches exist: there is no "morning tide" in the German; the "Blume" (flower) of the first line appears as "bud" in the second line of the translation, and "Haupt" (head) is translated as "hair" to make a rhyme with "fair". So in trying to follow the rhythm of the original and replicate the same rhyme scheme, the translator (as often happens) loses some of the sense of the original. 

Here's another anonymous singable translation set by Chadwick (also using the old-fashioned language we may not wish to inflict on concert-goers):

Thou art so like a flower,
So pure, and fair and kind;
I gaze on thee, and sorrow
Then in my heart I find.

It seems as though I must lay then
My hand upon thy brow,
Praying that God may preserve thee,
As pure and fair as now.

It seemed rather petty to point out in the last one that it should be "hands", but this one makes it singular as well, and now the hand is upon the brow, which sounds like quite another gesture than hands on the head. We also now find "flower" in the first line, but what type of flower is "kind"? Perhaps the translator would say it doesn't matter -- it's the rhyme that counts.

Frank Bridge set the poem to Kate Freiligrath Kroeker's translation, which begins:

E'en as a lovely flower,
So fair, so pure thou art;
I gaze on thee, and sadness
Comes stealing o'er my heart.

It's all enough to make whoever is responsible for putting together the program throw up his or her hands and write a new translation, as many do -- something simple that is not intended to live an independent life as a poem in its own right, but rather to be straight-forward and clear, and help someone hearing (and, ideally, looking at) the original poem find some meaning to otherwise incomprehensible words. 

So these days it is quite common for the translations of art song texts to dispense with the usual poetic attributes -- that is, basically to be unostentatious (grammatical) prose broken up into lines, or what I like to think of as mostly-literal-but-not-glaringly-so. This is the most common type of translation found on the website I run called The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive. Ferdinando Albeggiani, who has sent me thousands of texts and translations to Italian, once described himself as the "author of unpretentious and perfectible translations" (he is also a retired law professor). `Unpretentious' is a very useful idea here: the translation does not pretend to be a poem.

In the middle of translating something in this style, I once noticed a rhyme had crept in, and I found it fascinating how swift the impulse came to remove it. But it simply did not fit. If you make two lines loudly rhyme or if you have a line with too rollicking a rhythm, you can't stop there -- you've begun to to paint the wall in a newcolor. Consistency is still required. 

Pierre Mathé, who has sent me over a thousand translations to French, pointed out that "it may sometimes be frustrating to follow such constraints, because they may lead to a result that you would like to be more 'beautiful'", but that it is entirely unnecessary, since "rhythm and melody are taken care of by the composer."

Of course some people will frown and say these translations are not faithful to the original. They don't have meter. They don't have any alliteration. They don't even rhyme. And sometimes, of course, no matter how much one wrestles with some poems, it is still impossible to make things line up exactly. But when the goal is to help people understand the original-language text as they hear it being sung, it must be understood that this is quite a different goal from that of publishing something someone might read to oneself or recite for pleasure without immediate recourse to the original-language poem. To the contrary -- we emphatically do not want the reader or listener to forget that the text started out life in a different language.

Returning to "Du bist wie eine Blume", I'd like to close with an example I put together to illustrate this style, of which many variations are possible: 

You are like a flower,
So lovely and fair and pure;
I gaze at you and melancholy
steals into my heart.

It seems to me I ought to place my hands
upon your head,
praying that God will keep you
so pure and fair and lovely.

It is the beginning of the second stanza that shows why this is not exactly "literal" translating. A literal translation would be tough to read here because there is such distance between the subject and the verb (a common challenge in German). I leave it to the reader to decide whether this would be preferable:

To me it is as if I my hands
should lay upon your head,



[1] The opening lines of a singable translation by Addie Funk of "Im Herbst" by Robert Reinick, discovered by Sharon Krebs in a score of the Leo Blech setting. The original German reads:

Sonne hat sich müd gelaufen, 
spricht: "Nun laß ich's sein!"
Geht zu Bett und schließt die Augen
und schläft rühig ein. 


Editors note: The website that Emily Ezust has created is used for free by hundreds of singers and pianists every day to look up translations for their recitals - either in school or in their professional life.  Chances are, if you are reading this, you yourself have used it.  The website is not funded, and is a labor of love - but one that does cost real money to run - please consider visiting her site and making a donation! 

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