“Of a star outshines the rays”

Singing in the shower this morning. “Il balen,” the baritone aria from Il Trovatore, a good exercise for breath support.

And as I sang, I suddenly heard the words I was singing:

Il balen del tuo sorriso
D’una stella vince il raggio

The light of your smile
Of a star outshines the rays

Stilted, no? I had to laugh. “Balen,” also, is a poetic or obsolete shortening of the current word, “baleno.” So how often, when we’re reading titles in the opera house, are Italian operas translated in their full archaic glory? Hardly ever, I’d think, maybe never. The translations are made smooth and modern.

But doesn’t that falsify the operas? When I was in college, I put on two evenings of excerpts from early Verdi operas (Ernani, I Lombardi, I due Foscari, and Attila; the last three pieces were almost never heard back then). One of my friends came, and brought his girlfriend, who was Italian. She kept laughing at the words.

So why do we falsify this experience? Why do we — in effect — pretend that these pieces are smoother and more modern than they are? Even the highly literate librettos of Otello and Falstaff pose translation problems. They’re filled with uncommon, highly literary language. How often are the titles in our opera houses written to reflect that?

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  1. Rebecca Rollett says

    Curiously, this whole point of translation is one I’m currently dealing with, as one of my season concerts for my chorus will have actors declaiming some of the foreign-language texts before we sing the piece. So the question is, does one have them declaim a literal translation, which is going to sound stilted at best, or be incomprehensible at worst? Or should it be tidied up, thus taking the risk of being merely inoffensive? Then there is the issue that the actors are actually going to be within the audience, in ordinary dress, so that hopefully the audience will always be slightly on edge, wondering if the person next to them is going to suddenly start yelling in the middle of the concert. (I shouldn’t be admitting this on this post, as I’m not planning to advertise the participation of the actors. However, I strongly suspect that none of my current audience reads your blog, or probably any blog, for that matter…) But part of the issue is that I want what the actors say to sound as if it is the sort of thing that somebody might randomly blurt out, rather than “a performance.” This gives me an entirely different than usual translation problem. My current idea for solving it is to give word-for-word translations to the students at the Creative and Performing Arts High School to use as the inspiration for a poem that speaks to them, in their language. Since the texts are all on love, one way or another, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch, even when the original is from the 16th century. But does this mean I am not being true to the intentions of the composer? And should I care? I invite your thoughts.

  2. says

    Translating vocal music from one language to another–even when it’s only to be used to follow a performance, not to sing it in the other language–is a very tricky thing. Once music has been added to the words, the harmonies, orchestral colors, etc., inevitably draw more attention to one word than to another in a musical phrase. I think it robs many listeners who don’t know Italian, French, German, Russian, or whatever, of an important part of the musical experience when a translation is made very smooth and colloquial because–almost invariably–the affective word in the original appears in a totally different place in the line or phrase when put into English. So the naive listener simply misses the important connection of that lovely crunchy dissonance, or the punctuation of a word with a staccato chord on the trombones, or something.

    Whenever I write a program note for a piece with a foreign-language text, I provide a translation as well–almost always my own. I try to make it as accurate as possible in meaning, of course, but I also work to put the most emotion-laden word word in English (“death”, for “morte,” for example) so that it appears at the same place in the line that the foreign word appears, in the hope that the listener will note the composer’s contribution to the feeling or mood.

    Of course this sometimes requires doing an injustice to a strictly literal translation (such as changing active voice to passive, for example), and I wouldn’t think of doing it the same way if was simply a text to be read without music. But I want the listener to realize that the music makes a very powerful contribution.

    While I take your point, Greg, about “Il balen” and its highly formalized uncolloquial diction, I’m not sure that it helps to try to capture that exactly. I believe it was Luigi Dallapiccola who wrote a wonderful essay on the language of Italian opera, calling this weirdly complex poetic style the way that Italy encountered the Romantic movement. It means something different in Italian than it would in English.

    I suppose one could try to put a Verdi libretto into an English version in the style of, say, Sir Walter Scott, but I fear that would emphasize quaintness, not expressive power.

    There are some translations that are so bad that even the original composer objected. Andrew Porter (in the preface to the published edition of his Ring translation) pointed out that Wagner objected when Frederic Corder took Wotan’s “Er geh’ seines Wegs” (Act II of Walküre–literally, “Let him go his own way”)– as “His weird let him dree,” which certainly goes way overboard in turning a quite natural locution into something totally forced.

    More to the point, perhaps, I fear that all the forced singing translations that were published in the 19th century (including Corder’s Wagner) had a stultifying effect on the writing of American opera librettos during that period and well into the 20th century. Trying to read the libretto of Paine’s Azara, Chadwick’s Judith or The Padrone, Parker’s Mona, Herbert’s Natoma,, or Hadley’s Cleopatra’s Night is a chore largely because the librettists felt that they had to sound like the English texts they saw printed in the vocal scores of European operas.

    How I wish someone had come along early on and written a really colloqual American libretto on a genuinely American topic (Chadwick’s Padrone would have been the perfect example) to encourage the composer to create the music with an American colloquial rhythm. As it is, I think Porgy and Bess, for all the stylization of the language to suggest the race of the performers, is the first that really sounds like a real language.

    But that’s only my particular hobby-horse!

  3. James Kaliardos says

    I need a french translation of Verdi’s Aria: Il balen del suo sorriso from Il Trovatore.