Opera in translation

For anyone who hasn’t thought about translation issues recently, go read John’s post about it, including the comments. I wish I had something useful to add, but it seems to me the ground has been covered pretty thoroughly.

Every time I think about this issue I come to a slightly different conclusion. I love being able to understand both music and text – my enjoyment of Lieder recitals would not be nearly what it is if I didn’t have access to translations of the texts – but I’ve noticed that when I am most enjoying opera or song, I am not hearing words. I’m probably noticing them on some level, but I don’t have the feeling of listening to them or even being aware of them. (But to split a hair even finer, not hearing English in this way is for me, an English-speaker, different from not hearing German or Italian.) And as one of the commenters to the above-linked post pointed out, it’s nice to have super/sub-titles especially when you understand a bit of the language of the opera, because they can jog you just enough that you parse what the sung text means in a quicker way than if you had to stop and think about it without a translation.

I suppose the only other thing I would say about the translation/original language issue is that when I think about this, my impulse is to ask what kind of experience opera should be, and then whether/how translation gets people there. And of course there are almost as many answers to the “what should listening to opera be like” question as there are opera-listeners.

13 thoughts on “Opera in translation

  1. yes, we may have pummeled the subject into submission, but now it’s time to really poke around in it (I guess) Even though so much has been said, I have managed to write three separate blog posts stemming from that interchange (counting today’s). So I think the subject is going to linger 🙂
    (since I am never one to leave well-enough alone.)


  2. Very delicate bussiness, and I really don’t have an extreme view on it. In my opinion it depends on the production and what they do with it. Normally when I listen to translated things I know in the original language I tend not to like it very much, because I do make a lot of connection with the lyrics. Like that new Met production of Barber, it didn’t sound like Rossini to me anymore. But I have thoroughly enjoyed an english translated production at the Houston Grand Opera of Berlioz’s Beatrice et Benedict and I didn’t think the Don Giovanni translation to english for that movie Juan was bad, it was fitting. So I think it depends on what they do with it. 🙂


    1. It does depend on the production. On the whole, I think I prefer the original languages, but I’ve heard a few things in translation that worked. There’s a DVD of Handel’s Ariodante in English, for example, that I ended up liking, once I got used to the strangeness of understanding all the words.


  3. Well, one thing I can say is between your posts, and John’s post and my apparently somewhat controversial post, it’s generated a lot more traffic over at Regie, or Not Regie?


    1. I just went back and read the comments to your post that I missed. Whoever that person is – how obnoxious!

      And the post that ‘Anonymous’ linked to: “It has always been obvious to me that contemplative listening of recordings in private (with amplification) represents the purest and deepest form of opera love.”

      *eyeroll* Nice to know that I’m not appreciating the art form properly.


          1. I’ve come across “the purest kind of opera love” dude on a couple of forums that I frequent. He drives me nuts with his holier than thou comments. Unleash the zombies!


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