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Wagner and Translation - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
August 21st, 2001
12:55 pm

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Wagner and Translation
I'm very excited to have discovered the opera community. I love opera, and have a particular penchant for Wagner, and have been itching for some intelligent discussion with fellow Wagnerites and other opera lovers.

My first post to that community follows here:

Yesterday I've received a complete Ring cycle, with Karl Böhm conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Choir. This is my third complete Ring, after the classic 1961 Georg Solti Ring, and the 1950 Wilhelm Furtwängler Ring (with the La Scala Orchestra). I haven't had time to sample it yet, but I'll report later on.

The package also included Wagner's Twilight of the Gods. Uh, wait a minute. Wagner wrote no such thing! He wrote Götterdämmerung, of course -- the fourth opera of the Ring cycle. But this is the same opera, sung in English. Now, translating Wagner's poetry into English for singing is a downright Herculean task. Mr. Andrew Porter, then chief music critic for the Financial Times, was up to the task. He produced a translation which is accurate, clear, modern, unobtrusive and singable, and it is that last quality that constitutes the impossibility of the task.

Wagner uses alliteration intensively, and his librettos are based on very short lines (often a single trochee followed by a single iambus). His music is meticulously composed to match the words (Wagner wrote out the entire Ring libretto before composing a single note), and the prospective translator must stay true not only to the content and the alliterative play, but to the position of the word in the musical phrase, and that is darn nigh impossible. To make the point, I'll quote Bernard Levin of The Times quoting Bryan Magee's Aspects of Wagner:


"If... [Wagner] writes a line like

Liebe giebt Lust zum Leben

(Love gives delight to living) the concepts involved are obviously consonant and therefore no change of key is called for. But suppose the line is

Liebe bringt Lust und Leid

(Love brings delight and sorrow) then delight and sorrow are opposites and the music should modulate between them. What should happen is that the key in which the phrase begins on the word 'love' should remain the same through 'delight' and then change on the word 'sorrow'. But the modulation must express the interrelationship of delight and sorrow in the state of love, at the same time as their difference; it must articulate their conditioning of each other. (This, said Wagner, was something words could not do, only music.) Now supposing the next line is

Doch in ihr Weh webt sie auch Wonnen

(which might be very freely translated 'Yet even its pain gives us joy'). Then the key of 'sorrow' from the end of the previous line should be carried through as far as 'pain', because the emotional mood remains the same. But then the verb in this second line starts a shift of the mood back towards that of the first half of the previous line; therefore the music should start to change key on 'gives', and on the word 'joy' should arrive back at the key of 'Love gives delight'."


Now this is just a simple example, and Wagner's magic extends to interplay far more complicated than this, including the musical melding of different leitmotifs when they are in conflict or in unison. Wagner propounded 'total art' (Gesamtkunstwerk, if memory serves), and his musical dramas accordingly do not lend themselves easily to the act of translation, which greatly modifies (indeed, rewrites) one part (the text), leaving the other parts the same (music, stage directions, even some Wager choreography).

That's not the end of it, either! A musical problem has to do with the human voice. A soprano singing at the top of her range, for instance, cannot produce certain sounds (such as 'oh'). Wagner composed the music to his own words taking that into account. A translator to English has to take that into account as well, in addition to his other bundle of trouble.

All of the above our intrepid translator has to cope with, and let us not forget he must find pleasing English alliterations in the words he picks, too. Truly, Mr. Porter's translation is heroic and remarkable.

I'm yet to finish listening to the opera, so I'll reserve my judgement of Goodall's interpretation of Götterdämmerung for now.

(whew, that was a long one.)

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