Conference Morsel: Is Translation Blasphemy?
Date: June 5, 2014
(An excerpt from the interest session “What Language Shall I Borrow? Singing in Translation,” presented by Daniel A. Mahraun during the 2014 ACDA North Central Division Conference)
While we have all done it at one time or another, there is still drummed into many of our minds the view that the performance of vocal music in translation a form of blasphemy. The arguments can usually be reduced to:
1. The text and music are too carefully wedded by the composer to consider altering either.
2. Translations are provided in the printed program.
3. The audience can’t understand the words anyway, especially if performing with an orchestra.
4. Good English versions are rare if not non-existent. They’re usually filled with archaic language, forced feminine endings, strange word order, impossible vowels to sing, lines that bear no relationship to the meaning of the original, or are just plain generic and meaningless.
Consider, however, the advantages:
1. Singing in our native language saves rehearsal time. As base and utilitarian as this argument may sound, it is true.
2. As a result, the audience will be spared the distraction of reading translations, often in the dark, often without the original language printed alongside, all while trying to actually listen to the performance.
3. Historically speaking, the increased availability of inexpensive printed music in the 19th Century and, in England and the United States, the translation of works into English, made hundreds of works accessible to performers and listeners—works that otherwise would likely have been forgotten.
4. As conductor Roger Doyle wrote in his 1980 article in the Choral Journal, “We must not prove the genius of [a composer’s] art only by his [or her] skillful text underlay.”