Monday, November 18, 2013

Opera in Translation

Some might find it surprising that one who has only a cursory and confused comprehension of the German language would have written three German operas, but as is typical for one who possesses little and thus dangerous knowledge and who is ignorant of his own foolishness, that person has recently found that he must push himself past any modicum of decency and sense of propriety and fire his translators and take it all on himself as he is sure he knows more than anyone else and anyway he's been a bit angry and isolated in spirit lately so itching for a fight. 

And even though he believes that it's pretty obvious that true translation is more or less impossible, he does have some claim to at least knowing English which, in this particular case, is the destination language, and he feels that intimate knowledge of the destination language is probably the more important of the two language knowledge areas in question, especially when the source is poetic and anyway he can do whatever he wants, and, in several of his recent transmissions he has said, and I quote: "[we have been] working hard to capture the feel of the language in its English translation, not word-for-word, but reproducing the feeling that must have been invoked when their audiences first arrived, unprepared for what was to come." 

Now this seems at least doable. If the true crusade is simply to make something that feels the same at the cruising altitude level, then he can pretty much wing it.  But let's look at one particular moment, in particular from the Alexander Vvedensky so-called "Rug/Hydrangea" epistle, first in the original Russian:

Я вижу искаженный мир,
я слышу шепот заглушенных лир,
и тут за кончик буквы взяв,
я поднимаю слово шкаф,
теперь я ставлю шкаф на место,
он вещества крутое тесто

which, in the Austrian German version, Yulia and Felix translated as 

Ich sehe die Welt – entstellte Gestalten,

ich höre das Flüstern der Lyren verhalten,

ich fasse den Rest eines Buchstabens an

und hebe ein Wort auf – der Schrank, 

ich rücke an seinen Platz den Schrank, 

Er ist der Dinglichkeit teigiger Dank.

I should stop here and point out one extra complication, or which we in the optimization biz might call a 'constraint,' is that there was already a setting done of this, the German version, which was quite beautiful, stunningly so in point of fact, and heartfelt, and such things are not three a penny, so that maybe one would want to keep at least the basic rhythmic structure and rhyme scheme (the latter of which we should note here matches the original Russian), and so, holding German-Russian-English dictionaries in hand, and processing this all along with what my friends explained it all to be, I came up with 

I see the world - distorted appearance,

I hear the whispers of the lyres performance,

I grasp at the tip of a character

and pick out a word from the cabinet,

I move the cabinet into its place,
Thanks to its doughy materiality

Is this correct? I dunno, really, but it does kind of fit the tune and has those rhymes that may be important, and actually we start to feel OK about even the meaning and, though I said we didn't care about correctness and suchlike, I do decide to drop my pen on the ground and, picking it up, glance surreptitiously at the answer sheet on the desk at the right, the smart girl in the class who has made it known that she will in fact write you that special A+ term paper for a good enough lick job and a baggie full of Molly, and I see that she has written:

I see the world askew
and hear the whispers of muffled lyres,
and having by their tips the letters grasped
I lift up the word wardrobe,
and now I put it in its place,
it is the thick dough of substance.

OK, well, it affirms something of the same drift of it all, so maybe we did all right.  Is "letter" better than "character?"  Maybe "character" is coming from my UTF-8-centric career outside of the art world, but both of those words mean other things too. "Word wardrobe" though - not so sure about that, but I know I like "doughy materiality" - mmmm - beautiful, lovely whatever-the-fuck-it-means.  Oh right, and I did try that one giant Machine Translation Engine that we all know and love and support with our advertising dollars, and, from the Russian, it says:

I see a distorted world ,
I hear a muffled whisper lira
and then the tip of the letter took,
I raise the floor cupboard,
Now I put the cabinet in place
He substances dough

which I suppose we learn something from - especially on that "letter" issue. But "floor cupboard" and "substances dough" - well, gosh, I don't know, they don't seem to me to be quite so pleasant. 

As we can see, this descent into the levels of hell can continue below where Judas is munched by the devil without coming to purgatory on the other side, so let's now take a little holiday back to an earlier, happier time, when Mr. Composer was first requested to take his first voyage into opera-in-translation, corralling his friend Angelika Mollenhauer into doing a translation of A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil to German.  She's a native German speaker, but fluent in both English, the language of the original setting, the translation by Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst's wife, who gave me permission in a handwritten note; and French, the language of the original text by Mr. Ernst himself, even though he was German, but a determined expatriate German, from what I hear.  Much later I found the Werner Spies translation, but I liked Angelika's even after, but prolly because I just did, and she had told me that great story about the cleaning lady and the haunted owl statue.

Now, I remember the first time I saw that German translation and I said Fucking Jesus Fuck™ what the fuck am I going to do with all these syllables!?  Ah yes, German has lots and lots of syllables. And me with my one-note-per-text-syllable fixation, learned at the knee of the songwriter friends of my youth, which I supposed meant cramming lots more notes into a tongue-twisting Teutonic nightmare.  And then the problem that where things happen in German sentences is quite different from English, and sometimes the action isn't known until the end of the sentence instead of in the middle, which I knew from my rudimentary high school German, but until one tries to re-set such a thing to music formerly attached to English, it never really is in the gut what that means dramatically. Like, for example, the fact that the big important moment suddenly happens way later, so what to do? 

Well, the answer for me was to do everything possible - sometimes squeezing it in and sometimes rewriting the music, either changing the line so the important bit happened in a different place, or sometimes changing the metrical structure. For example, just for some fun:





The original, the English version, is on the top, and the first measure is in 13/8, following the meter of the text itself, or at least the way I spoke it to myself when setting it: "Crows and harpies, come with me under my white dress" (12 syllables) with the accompaniment following, one chord per measure, changing on the white dress with a shift to 5/4.  In the German version below, I just couldn't in good conscience bring myself to pour into that 13/8 the phrase "Ihr Krähen und Harpyien kommt mit mir unter mein weißes Gewand" (18 syllables) so I altered it to two measures of 4/4 + 1/8, the accompaniment spooling out just a little longer to cover it, and, in the intervening years, my opinion about how to label such time signatures changing I believe for the better. 


Listening now to the piece in its entirety, the German still seems a bit crammed in, and I'm so grateful to Mariko Wakita for performing my learning experience so effortlessly. By the time it came to do the same for Sub Pontio Pilato, I knew what to expect.  

Uksus, the latest endeavor, is a different animal, having been written originally in German and now being moved to English. The syllable problem is now occurring in its inverse: lots of music with not much text to fill in, but being the official composer of the thing I can of course do whatever I want, so rewriting and altering but sometimes just accepting that the feel will sometimes be different, and isn't that just part of the joy of the diversities of living? 

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