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Intercode Translation:

Words and Music in Opera

Dinda L. Gorlée
SIGV The Hague & University of Innsbruck

Abstract: Opera is a synchronization of different media of artistic expression,

with a dual emphasis on music and drama. Operatic scholarship has voiced
different views on the fusion of verbal and musical discourse, the two extremes
being logocentrism and musicocentrism. The interlingual translation of the ver-
bal subtext is a complex enterprise subject to multiple constraints. By focusing on
its intricacies in some detail (the anatomy of the human vocal apparatus, high/
low pitches, stress, prosodic and intonational patterns, rhyme, etc., together
determining the singability of the libretto), I hope that the discussion will shed
light on the manifold problems involved in opera translation. The theoretical
remarks are exemplified in an analysis of selected passages from Das Rheingold,
by Richard Wagner.

Résumé: L'opéra est une synchronisation de différents moyens d'expression

artistique avec un double accent sur la musique et le drame. Les études scientifi-
ques sur l'opéra ont exprimé différents points de vue sur la fusion du discours
verbal et musical; les conceptions extrêmes ont été le logocentrisme et le musico-
centrisme. La traduction interlinguale du subtexte verbal représente une tâche
complexe soumise à des contraintes multiples. En mettant l'accent sur la com-
plexité de cette tâche, en ce qui concerne les détails tels que l'anatomie de
l'appareil vocal humain, les tons hauts et bas, l'accent tonique, les structures de
la prosodie et de l'intonation, la rime, etc., tout ce qui ensemble détermine la
qualité "chantable " du livret, nous espérons par la présente discussion mettre
en lumière la complexité des problèmes inhérente à la traduction en matière
d'opéra. Pour illustrer et vérifier ces remarques nous prenons comme exemple
d'analyse Das Rheingold, de Richard Wagner.

Target 9:2 (1997), 235-270. DOI 10.1075/target.9.2.03gor

ISSN 0924-1884 / E-ISSN 1569-9986 © John Benjamins Publishing Company

Introductory Remarks

Together with theater, cinema, television, ballet, musical, circus, and other
forms of multimedial art, yet different from them, opera is multichanneled and
polysensual communication (Hess-Luttich 1986), a highly aesthetic rule-
governed synchronization of different media of artistic expression. Designed
for the ear and the eye, opera emphasizes the acoustic medium (vocal and
orchestral music, and verbal discourse in the form of a libretto) together with
visual drama — movement, gesture, costume, scenery, and other scenic
As noted by Sebeok (1991: 80), opera is "[p]erhaps the most complex of
syncretic objects, involving the literary, musical, and scenic arts, with inputs
from a still wider array of codes". Semiotically speaking, this partnership is a
sign of thirdness, mediating between music, as the most expressive element
embodying firstness; staging — the localizing, deictic element embodying
secondness (with incorporated firstness); and words, in which the articulate
conventionality of thirdness is the dominating element, yet supported by
secondness and firstness. This means that in opera the iconic, the indexical,
and the symbolic arts (in the terminology of Charles S. Peirce) are severally
intertwined. How exactly this "polydiscursive wholeness" (Tarasti 1987: 155)
works semiotically is, however, still debated, particularly among musicolo-
gists. There is now a growing number of literary scholars engaged in the
exploration of the relationship between words and music in opera: an in-
tersemiosis which remains a subject of study and controversy.
The limited scope of this essay does not permit a thoroughgoing discus-
sion of the scenic component of opera; instead, I shall concentrate on the
combination of words and music in opera. This relationship (in itself a form of
translation) is further foregrounded and, indeed, dramatized in opera transla-
tion, a metalingual operation in which the "book", or libretto is translated but
the musical score remains unchanged. Opera translators break up the original
dramatic unity of language and music, replacing it with a whole new one.
Since it is generally agreed that the words should subserve the music, opera
translators work under multiple constraints.
In this essay, I shall address the manifold problems involved in opera
translation, in order to shed light upon one area within translation studies
which has not received the attention it deserves.

Words and Music

Vocal music of all sorts is generally regarded as a primarily musical genre, and
the preoccupations of its criticism are inevitably musical, not literary. The text
(or rather subtext), though often a pre-existing work of verbal art, is usually
subordinated to the musical text and is rarely intended to lead an independent
life. This is as true for the opera as for the lied, or art song, the oratorio,
cantata, etc. (Scher 1982: 226-227); and outside classical music, the lyrics of
the musical comedy, folk tune, and pop song equally presuppose musical
completion. There are, of course, many notable exceptions, as when a famous
poem forms the basis of a musical composition; cases in point are Händel, who
set Dryden's great Odes to music for St. Cecilia's Day; Goethe's lied Erl-
könig, set to music by Schubert; and the Scottish folk ballad, "My Love Is
Like a Red Red Rose", originally a poem by Robert Burns. But normally, the
libretto is viewed as an "ancillary" genre, a "stepchild of literature" (Weisstein
1961: 16); and the triumph of vocal music is commonly achieved at the
expense of literature.
Scholarship has voiced different views on the fusion of verbal and
musical discourse, the two extremes being logocentrism and musicocentrism
(see Mosley 1990: 3ff., Nieder 1989: 30ff.). What is characterized, both
quantitatively and qualitatively, by these concepts is the relative artistic
weight and importance given to either element of the symbiotic construct.
While logocentrism, a view defending the general dominance of the word in
vocal music, may be characterized by the aphorism, prima le parole e poi la
musica, musicocentrism is expressed in its opposite, prima la musica e poi le
parole. Musicocentrism is, for all practical purposes, a wordless approach.
Not surprisingly, strict logocentrism is a rather weak position within the study
of vocal music.
A pronouncedly musicocentric view is advanced by Susanne K. Langer
in her 1953 Feeling and Form, thus:
When words and music come together in song, music swallows words; not
only mere words and literal sentences, but even literary word-structures,
poetry. Song is not a compromise between poetry and music, though the text
taken by itself may be a great poem; song is music. (Langer 1953: 152)

In the close encounter of both media, Langer proposes, the verbal text is
annihilated, and transmogrified into a musical text. This process is known,
rather euphemistically, as the "principle of assimilation" (a term borrowed

from Langer), butt h e r eshould be no doubt about the fate of the underlying
text, according to Langer; because as "mere plastic substance for another
work" (Langer 1953: 154) it vanishes completely into the musical setting.
Langer's argument is no doubt convincing in the case of many garden-
variety libretti, which necessarily owe a great deal of their force to their
musical setting. Yet such a musicocentrist standpoint seems to be a wild
generalization in the case of truly great poetry. One could even invert Langer's
argument and defend the position that the composer, in the process of taking
total possession of a poetic text (regardless of its aesthetic quality) and of
imprinting his own music on it, has saved the verbal text from oblivion, but at
a cost: the focus on music is always to the possible denigration of the
particular character or quality which any original poem, however mediocre,
may have in and by itself.
Another, if more moderate, adherent to musicocentrism is the musicolo-
gist Francesco Orlando. Following ideas introduced by Jakobson and devel-
oped in semiological (commonly called structuralist) musicology (see
particularly Ruwet 1972: 41-69), Orlando distinguishes between two separate
but internally coherent sets of signs: the musical sign system and the verbal
(literary) sign system. The verbal (literary) material is, in Orlando's (1975)
view, inserted into the musical material, where both sign systems coexist and
interact meaningfully, while still preserving their own identity: the musical
signifier has a musical signified, and the literary signifier a literary signified.
According to Orlando, when the literary discourse is inserted into the music,
the meaning of the words (and, in the case of opera, the meaning of the stage
directions) influences the interpretation of the musical discourse, preceding,
during and following the vocal parts of the musical score. And the meaning of
the vocalized verbal language influences, and is influenced by, the elements of
musical expression: pitch, duration, loudness, timbre and dynamic,1 each of
which is governed by its own rules. This would mean that, despite the "general
dominance of the musical factors in opera" (Hosokawa 1986: 649), the verbal
poetry is still an essential and meaningful attribute of it.
The power of words to produce musical effects can, however, scarcely be
explained in dyadic terms alone, Semiotically speaking, both Langer's "as-
similation" and Orlando's "insertion" belong to a Saussurean doctrine of
signs: they imply an agent and a patient forced to interact from opposite points
of derivation and with competing interests. This mutual interaction is directed
toward replacing an element from one sign system with an element from a

different sign system. To say that words, when brought into contact with
music, become redundant and irrelevant, and must be broken down, demol-
ished or reconverted to suit the new and lofty purpose2 is, however, an
oversimplification, even a misconstrual of the facts, because it fails to do
justice to the challenge facing the composer and the poet-librettist alike: the
creative fusion of two arts which, though different, complement each other.
Abstracted from the concrete phenomenon of opera and other forms of
word-music co-occurrence, spoken language and music, "[t]he two particu-
larly elaborate systems of purely auditory and temporal signs", present a
"strictly discontinuous, as physicists would say, granular structure. They are
composed of ultimate discrete elements, a principle alien to spatial semiotic
systems" (Jakobson 1971: 701), such as sculpture, painting and photography.
This description (clearly a view from sign theory in the Saussurean tradition)
makes musical "language" different from verbal language in such significant
ways that both semiotic systems are only interchangeable to some degree.
Therefore, as convincingly argued by Benveniste in his 1969 essay, "The
Semiology of Language", language and music make essentially uneven part-
ners. Whereas language is a full-fledged semiotic system, with a finite reper-
tory of (semantically meaningful) signs and well-defined rules for their
(syntactic) combination, music lacks an unambiguous fragmentation into
units. Besides, it lacks a clear representational dimension and is commonly not
considered objectively to mean anything, to express anything beyond itself.3
In his 1968 essay, "Language in Relation to Other Communication Systems",
Jakobson wrote about language:
The exceptionally rich repertoire of definitely coded meaningful units (mor-
phemes and words) is made possible through the diaphanous system of their
merely differential components devoid of proper meaning (distinctive fea-
tures, phonemes, and the rules of their combinability). These components are
semiotic entities sui generis. The signatum of such an entity is bare otherness,
namely a presumable semantic difference between the meaningful units to
which it pertains and those which ceteris paribus do not contain the same
entity. A rigorous duality separates the lexical and idiomatic, totally coded
units of natural language from its syntactic pattern which consists of coded
matrices with a relatively free selection of lexical units to fill them up. A still
greater freedom and still more elastic rules of organization characterize the
combination of sentences into higher units of discourse. (Jakobson 1971:

On the "language" of music, Benveniste argued that its syntax


. . . is organized from an ensemble constituted by a scale that is itself formed

of notes. The notes-have no differential value except within the scale; and the
scale itself is a recurrent whole at several (different) pitches, specified by the
tone which indicates the key. The basic unit will therefore be the note, a
discrete and contrasting unit of sound; but it only assumes this value within
the scale, which fixes this paradigm of notes. Is this a semiotic unit? We can
discern that it is in its own order, since it determines the oppositions. But then
it has no relationship with the semiotics of the linguistic sign, and, in fact, it is
not convertible into units of language, at whatever level this may occur.
(Benveniste 1985: 236-237)

Benveniste's eminently logocentric argument implies that these media, the

verbal and the musical, are not directly comparable, and that a marriage
between them seems destined to failure. Yet the language used in opera is of a
special kind not addressed by Benveniste, whose concern is with everyday
verbal language. Indeed, as shall be shown in the next section, opera libretti
belong to verbal art and therefore have distinctive features which approach it
to music, thereby resolving the differences emphasized by Benveniste.

Intersemiotic Translation

Opera is a hybrid art, which cannot be subsumed under any of its component
arts. It is a mistake to think of poetry and music as two unrelated (or even,
unrelatable) entities within the communicative context (in this case, in vocal
music forming part of the operatic performance) in which they operate. Here
as elsewhere, music and poetry are not foreign to one another, nor are they in
conflict. If they can be successfully embedded, act in unison and generate new
artistic life, this is because both "languages" share important elements and/or
qualities which actively codetermine each other through the operatic medium.
In the domain of musico-poetic intersemiosis, as in all other possible (and
still virtually unexplored) intersemiotic art forms, Jakobson's pioneering work
remains an invaluable source of inspiration.5 Apropos of language in relation
to music, he stated that
Apparently, we hardly find primitive cultures without poetry, but it seems that
some of these cultures have no spoken but only sung verse; and, on the other
hand, vocal music seems to be more widespread than instrumental music.
Thus syncretism of poetry and music is perhaps primordial as compared to
poetry independent of music and music independent of poetry. (Jakobson
1971: 705)

At an early date, in the late 1950s, Jakobson introduced his well-known

distinction into three kinds of "interpreting a verbal sign":
(1) Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal signs by
means of other signs of the same language.
(2) Interlingual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal
signs by means of signs of some other language.
(3) Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs
by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems. (Jakobson 1959: 233)
This essay will be concerned, firstly, with Jakobson's intersemiotic transla-
tion, and subsequently, in the sections on opera translation, with interlingual
From the above it may be clear that the three kinds of translation were still
rather narrowly defined by Jakobson; yet the decentering of verbal language
in the third kind of translation was a novel project, which showed Jakobson's
early and acute awareness of the implications, both theoretical and practical,
of general semiotics for humanistic studies.
Intersemiotic translation was understood by Jakobson to refer to the one-
way metalingual operation in which linguistic signs are recodified into non-
linguistic codes. Typical examples of this type of recoding are the translation
from verbal language into visual languages (for instance, in the plastic arts,
painting, sculpture, architecture, and photography); into kinesic languages
(for instance, ballet and pantomime); into auditive languages (for instance,
music and song); and into intermedial languages (for instance, cinema and,
last but not least, opera). (Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, Jakobson is osten-
sibly unconcerned with the reverse operation, the translation of nonlinguistic
into linguistic signs.)
Jakobson referred to the possibility and limitations of intersemiotic trans-
lation when he pointed out that
We can refer to the possibility of transposing Wuthering Heights into a
motion picture, medieval legends into frescoes and miniatures, or L'après-
midi d'un faune into music, ballet, and graphic art. However ludicrous may
appear the idea of the Iliad and Odyssey in comics, certain structural features
of their plot are preserved despite the disappearance of their verbal shape. The
question whether Blake's illustrations to the Divina Commedia are or are not
adequate is a proof that different arts are comparable . . . In short, many poetic
features belong not only to the science of language but to the whole theory of
signs, that is, to general semiotics. (Jakobson 1960: 350-351)

What these modes of intercode "transmutation" (in Jakobson's terminology)


have in common is, firstly, that their source code is a verbal language, while
the target code is a language only in a metaphorical manner of speaking. By
the same token, if music may be considered to be a language, it must consist of
meaningful sounds and sound sequence corresponding to morphemes,
words, word combinations, sentences, paragraphs and other elements of ver-
bal language, thus enabling their utual transcodification. Following
Benveniste, it has been shown above that the semiotic status of nonverbal
"languages", of which music is one example, is at least problematic. One
common feature which is shared by musical and poetic language alike is the
role of repeated projection of paradigmatic (that is, structural) equivalences
upon the syntagmatic (that is, serial) chain of signs. The organic synthesis of
synchronism and progression produces melody and harmony, as well as
polyphony, both in language and in music. (More on this in Meeus 1993.)
The next common characteristic is that all nonverbal codes enumerated
above are artistic (plastic, musical and so forth). The translation of natural
language into artificial languages, such as the Morse Code and computer
language, is a procedure involving units with, in André Martinet's terminol-
ogy, only one articulation. Such units must, in the strict sense, be considered
nonsigns, because they are typically based upon one-to-one equivalence.
Lacking interpretive freedom on the part of the receiver, they fall outside the
scope of intersemiotic translation as it is approached here: that is, as generat-
ing Peircean interpretants which, somewhat paraphrasing Peirce's semiotic
much-quoted definition (1931-1966: 2.228), are to the primary, verbal signs,
equivalent or possibly more developed signs.
The partnership between the verbal and musical arts, as heralded by the
early Prague School,6 hinges upon Jakobson's concept of "poeticalness"
(1960: 359) in language: the preeminence of the poetic function (emphasizing
the message as such, for its own sake) over the referential (focusing on the
cognitive, informational aspect of language). While the poetic function finds
in poetry its purest manifestation, but without being confined to it, poetry is,
for Jakobson, primarily (but not exclusively) a "figure of sound" (1960: 367):
it contains musical elements which are unresistant to finding a further expan-
sion in music (see further Dalmonte 1987). These elements include: sound
texture, metrical pattern, rhyme structure, alliteration and phrasing; and to-
gether they form what Jakobson (1960: 373) called the "internal nexus be-
tween sound and meaning", which is characteristic of poetic as opposed to
referential language:

In referential language the connection between signans and signatum is

overwhelmingly based on their codified contiguity, which is often confus-
ingly labeled "arbitrariness of the verbal sign" . . . Sound symbolism is . . .
founded on a phenomenal connection between different sensory modes, in
particular between the visual and auditory experience. (Jakobson 1960: 372)
The semiotic notion of expansion makes the creative fusion of words and
music, like that which is achieved in opera, into more than an arranged
marriage between total strangers, or another metaphor such as Langer's
"assimilation" and Orlando's "insertion", both of which are advantageous to
the musical setting and detrimental to the words. Instead, words and music
form a collaborative union, which may be called "intermedial transcodifica-
tion". This is one variety of intersemiotic translation, and one by which the
sound elements and sound effects in the opera lyrics become susceptible of
being translated ("transmuted", borrowing the signifier from Jakobson) by the
composer into a variety of musical forms which, in Peirce's terminology, are
interpretant-signs in sound,
Donington writes that "music, which inevitably somewhat obscures the
words in opera, far more importantly enhances them by means of that singular
directness of feeling and intuition which it can both induce and inflect" (1992:
10). Since music is ideally equipped to express and elicit feeling, the connota-
tive aspect of the meaning of the words, word patterns and sentences (that is,
the emotionally charged associations surrounding them) can effectively ex-
pand into a musical tone, intonation, a melodic line or harmony, expressing an
equivalent emotion. This implies that although verbal language, as a logical
system disconnected from its referent in reality, corresponds to Peirce's
category of thirdness, the connotations surrounding verbal language, the
aspects of firstness incorporated into it, may be separately translated into
music, thereby appearing twice, in two different codes.7 While the dramatic
power of the words thus receives a musical intensification, what necessarily
remains untranslated (simply because the musical target code lacks the capac-
ity to convey it), is the referential, or denotative, meaning aspect of the verbal
text: its secondness. It enters into vocal music as an aesthetic component in its
own right.
This allows the librettist to replace words, word patterns, and/or sen-
tences in the libretto with other words, word patterns, and/or sentences, if the
music so requires, with no harm done to the total musico-poetic effect. This,
Jakobson's intralingual translation, is in fact a common practice. Therefore,
too, it is possible to translate opera libretti — to interpret the verbal signs of

opera by means of signs of some other language, in Jakobson's words (1959:

233). The problems involved in interlingual opera translation, its "translation
proper" (ibid.), are the theoretical pièces de résistance of this essay; they will
be addressed in following paragraphs.

Opera Translation

As argued above, opera has deep roots in theater on the one hand and in the
intersemiosis of poetry and music on the other. By the nature of its compound
signhood (a "theatralized" blend of Peirce's three categories), the transposi-
tion of one of the elements (its poetic discourse) into a different (interlingual)
code or (to use a musical metaphor) into a different key, deeply affects, and is
itself affected by, the threefold totality of the operatic sign. Opera translation
implies the confrontation between two linguistic codes as well as between two
art forms, poetry and music (in addition to the scenic, that is, visual, arts). It is
made possible because the music not only prolongs the lyrics, but, more
seriously for the purpose here, also obscures them, particularly when deliv-
ered with some speed. Since the words are thus often rendered unintelligible,
opera translation seems to many to be an unnecessary and fanciful pursuit.
The pros and cons of opera translation have been argued for over a
century and a half. One early expert, Oscar George Sonneck of the Music
Division of the U.S. Library of Congress, articulately stated in 1916 that any
eventual loss "is more than offset by the gain that opera . . . stops being a
pantomime with vocalises and becomes, what it was intended for by its
creators, a musical drama" (quoted in Apter 1989: 36, under the telling section
heading "Why Bother?"). The question of whether an opera loses at least
some of its aesthetic significance in the translation process, remains unan-
swered to this day. Yet, despite all theoretical possibilities and impossibilities,
the difficulties of opera translation are dealt with by professional libretto
translators, whose job it is to translate the words of opera into singable and
performable words of a language other than the original (commonly their
native tongue).
The intricacies and constraints of opera translation have received scant
translation-theoretical attention. The notion of "audio-medial" text, intro-
duced by Reiß (1971: 47-52), is, of course, entirely applicable to opera and its
translation, but was never followed up in a serious fashion within translation

studies. Reiß explained the problem briefly (in a footnote): "Bei Liediiber-
setzungen muß z.B. darauf geachtet werden, daB die unterschiedliche Intona-
tion und Prosodik der ZS die Akzente so setzt, daB die begleitende Musik (die
ja dieselbe bleibt und somit den "Ton angibt") noch dazu paßt" (1977: 100, n.
19); but her description of the problem here makes no mention of a crucial
fact: the often poetic nature of the source text. In his classical Toward a
Science of Translating Nida stated that
. . . the translator of poetry without musical accompaniment is relatively free
in comparison with one who must translate a song — poetry set to music.
Under such circumstances the translator must concern himself with a number
of severe restrictions: (1) a fixed length for each phrase, with precisely the
right number of syllables, (2) the observance of syllabic prominence (the
accented vowels or long syllables must match correspondingly emphasized
notes in the music, (3) rhyme, where required, and (4) vowels with appropri-
ate quality for certain emphatic or greatly lengthened notes. (Nida 1964: 177)

Though Nida's bibliographic references on song translating are out-of-date,

his description of the problems is accurate and still useful today. In more
recent monographs and articles by theoreticians and/or practicians such as
Honolka, Rodda, Apter, Graham, and Rudder,8 specifically dealing with the
translation of vocal music (opera as well as art song), we encounter (with
reference to different languages) the same problems, often with a wealth of
practical and pragmatic detail.
Despite prima facie appearance, interlinear translation is not adequate for
the translation of opera for performance. Besides its poetico-dramatic limita-
tions, operatic translation must primarily be composed to fit the music, which
is untouchable (some liberties are sometimes taken with tone length, never
with tone pitch). In Graham's words, "The framework for translation [of vocal
texts] must be the music, not the original poem. Further, the translator should
avoid thinking in terms of poetic metric feet; such scansion does not always
match musical notation" (1989: 33). Ideally, the translation of a musical text
should be as described by Honolka:
. . . unter denselben, also unangetastet unveränderten Noten müßten jeweils
die Wörter stehen, die dem Original genau entsprechen — in ihrer Bedeutung,
aber auch (da es sich ja um vertonte Wörter und Worte, um oft sehr bedacht
auskomponierte Wortmusik handelt) in ihren Vokalen; die ursprüngliche
Sprachmelodie müßte genau so kantabel wiedergegeben werden, und selbst-
verstöndlich müßte dieses unbedingt sangbare Deutsch auch gutes Deutsch
sein . . . (1978: 59)9

Apter, herself a libretto translator, states the problem thus:

. . . opera translators must be concerned with overall style, dramatic pacing,
and characterization through diction. But opera translators must also operate
under another stringent set of constraints: the physical limitations of the vocal
apparatus, the metrical rigors of a rigidly pre-set prosody, and the need to
match verbal sense to musical color. (Apter 1989: 27)
Some of the problems involved in opera translation that have been
touched upon in these paragraphs deserve to be discussed, seriatim, in some
detail. The first factor determining the singability of a text, original as well as
translated, lies in the vocal constraints, which are a natural result of the
anatomy of the oral cavity. As argued and illustrated by Apter (1989: 27-29),
the size and shape of the human mouth as well as the position and movements
of the lips, tongue, palate, jaw and teeth, both enable and limit the production
of sound by the human voice. Translating for high pitches is thus different
from translating for low pitches. To greatly simplify (perhaps oversimplify) a
complex situation, high pitches are best sung on stressed syllables and com-
bined best with the vowels /a/ and (to a degree) HI (as in English "father",
"must", "fee", "fish", and phonetic variants in English, as well as their
counterparts in other languages), while low pitches are ideally found on
unstressed syllables and with the vowels /o/ and /u/ (as in English "boss",
"boost", "boat", "bought", and phonetic variants in English, as well as their
counterparts in other languages). Consonants can often be sung both high and
low, and should be chosen "for how well they shape the oral cavity for the
following vowel and pitch" (Apter 1989: 27).
Next come the prosodic patterns, which are fixed by the linguistic struc-
tures in tandem with the musical rhythms. This makes them particularly hard
to reproduce in a foreign tongue without upsetting the meaning of the words.
Here "opera translators are forced to match the original text syllable for
syllable, stress for stress, and quantity for quantity" (Apter 1989: 29).
Whereas French versification is commonly based on the number of syllables,
regardless of their nature and composition, English, German, Italian and
Spanish verse is quantitatively as well as qualitatively patterned, and is
variously built on long/short and stressed/unstressed syllables. English, which
abounds in one-syllable words, is usually iambic or trochaic, while the com-
pounds so typical of German word morphology are full of unstressed syl-
lables, and consist of duple, iambic or trochaic, feet alternating with triple,
anapestic or dactylic, feet. See, e.g., Gretchen's amorous lament from

Goethe's Faust: "Meine Ruh' ist hin / Mein Herz ist schwer: / Ich finde sie
nimmer / Und nimmermehr. / Wo ich ihn nicht hab' / Ist mir das Grab, / Die
ganze Welt / Ist mir vergällt".
Meter and stanza forms are ways of grouping and separating words and
word groups, that is, of patterning meaning through stress and intonation,
through tone and modulation of the voice. Since "music should match the
poetic declamation, the word and sentence accent" (Stein 1971: 163), particu-
lar words need to fall on certain notes. Melodic phrasing — key words,
climaxes, caesuras, pauses, enjambment and, last but not least, rhyme —
clearly conveys meaning. These and similar devices occur in all kinds of
communication through language, and are either themselves musical, or else
have close musical equivalents. In the translation of operatic texts they must
be recognized, respected and reproduced with new linguistic material in order
to fit the music and produce the desired similar effect.
Rhyme is a critical factor in the musical structure of language, in its three
meaning-creating aspects: syntactic, semantic and pragmatic. Although rhyme
is no doubt as notorious a problem for the translator of song as it is for the
translator of poetry (without music), "the auditory effect of rhyme is much
weaker in song than in poetry, for the actual time between rhymes is greater
and the cadential function of rhyme is handled by musical cadence" (Graham
1989: 31). This makes rhyme "less important to the success of a song than
translators believe" (ibid.). Graham adds to this the following cautionary
remark: "The search for rhyme often breeds awkward syntax and inappropri-
ate vocabulary" (ibid.). To avoid the pitfalls of producing standard rhyme
(also called perfect rhyme) at the cost of unusual choices of words and/or
inverted word order, professional translators of art lyrics often prefer to
employ imperfect rhymes: in Apter's words, "rhyme's cousins — off-rhyme
(line-time), weak rhyme (major-squalor), half-rhyme (kitty-pitted), and con-
sonant rhyme (slit-slat) — alone or in combination with other devices like
assonance and alliteration" (Apter 1985: 309-310).10 As a last resort, rhyme is
sometimes dispensed with, and replaced by metrical prose in the appropriate
stanza form.
Violations of the above result in "Kitschlyrik" (see the picturesque de-
scription in Honolka 1989: 80-91), which may be called "operatic transla-
tionese": pseudo-dramatic language usage trimmed with gaudy tinsel,
disfigured by bombastic clichés and hackneyed phraseology, inverted syntax,
displaced accents, distorted rhythm and other infelicitous ad hoc solutions

often encountered in opera lyrics. The resulting singsong is never advanta-

geous to the word-music fusion in opera, and serves to obfuscate and to bore
the audience rather than to satisfy its mind and warm its heart.

Richard Wagner

In a recent article (Gorlée 1996) I examined the poetic (or rather "poetic")
translations of different Wagner libretti (Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Das
Rheingold, and Die Walkure), from German into English, by Charles S.
Peirce, the patriarch of Anglo-American semiotics and, curiously, opera trans-
lator manqué. Peirce's versions were, for all practical purposes, unsingable
and intended solely for reading, not for actual performance. Space permits me
cited exemplification from but one opera, but it should suffice to show how
my remarks work in some detail when applied to a translation intended to be
sung, heard and acted. Quotation from three English translations may serve to
illustrate some of the problems and constraints which I have attempted to
define in this article. I shall discuss selected key passages from Wagner's Das
Rheingold as translated by Frederick Jameson (1896), Andrew Porter (1970),
and Mark Herman and Ronnie Apter (1983).11 My discussion of the transla-
tions is preceded by a brief examination of Wagner as a composer/librettist,
and his ideas on opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk.
Curiously, perhaps, for an opera composer, Wagner, the greatest musico-
dramatic genius of his time, was a self-declared non-musicocentrist, at least in
his mature view as reflected in his main essay, Oper und Drama (Wagner
[1852] 1984). For Wagner, who wrote his own libretti prior to setting them to
music, the goal of the operatic performance is not primarily, as in the tradi-
tional view, the music. Yet neither should Wagner be considered an adherent
of logocentrism. The music is for him not the message but the medium, or
rather one of the media acting in combination. This is one reason why
Wagner's music is, in and for itself, often rather trivial and even banal.12
While the meaning-potentialities of Wagner's Dichterwerk, in themselves,
rank above those of the music, the music-drama is, according to Wagner,
above all drama, in the etymological sense of action: dramatic action. Through
this dramatic action, music and words together are instrumental in achieving
their specific goal and mission: the artistic synthesis in which the music, with
its special ability to express what, in Wittgenstein's words ([1921] 1988: 3),

"we cannot talk about", is called upon to develop the poetic intent of the words
into melody and harmony, in interaction with text, gesture and stage action.
The Gesamtkunstwerk is in this sense the perfect drama — Wagner's das
vollendete Drama ([1852] 1984: 308) — as it unfolds, serially and structur-
ally, on stage and in the orchestra, as a massive and polysensuous symphonic
poem. 13
In his aesthetic endeavor, Wagner's Leitmotive have become, in tandem
with his device of the unendliche Melodie, the trademark of his art. Leitmotive
are short, flexible orchestral themes marked by their high concentration of
emotion and associated with a specific idea, concept, mood or individual. In
concert with words equally expressing condensed feeling, they were trans-
formed into powerful musical phrases, which, once introduced, were repeated
many times, and modified by modulation and interpretation ("further devel-
oped" in Peirce's semiotic terminology) to explore the full meaning-potential
of the poetic-melodic-harmonic universe in all its mythical proportions and
depth. Wagner frequently employed these recurrent melodic symbols, particu-
larly in the operatic tetralogy from his mature period, Der Ring des
Nibelungen.14 At times the motifs are interwoven into extended themes,
thereby leading to an "unending melody" such as the love music of Tristan
und Isolde. Consequently, the discrete and the continuous can no longer be
neatly delimited in the Wagnerian discourse, which is marked by inter-
textuality as well as intermediality. The systematic use of the above-men-
tioned musico-dramatic devices, with their (in Peirce's semiotic jargon)
iconic-indexical overtones, serves to blur the boundaries between what is the
whole and what is a fragment, thereby generating the continuous flow of
music typical of Wagner's melos.
From the above it should be obvious that Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk can
only hold the audience's attention, and even exert the "almost hypnotic
impact" (Tarasti 1994: 149) to which it owes much of its mystique and popular
acclaim, if the overall text (that is, the key words or storyline) can be grasped
and understood. This implies that, except to a native, German-speaking audi-
ence, translated lyrics play a crucial role in correctly understanding Wagner's
operas in performance. In Oper und Drama ([1852] 1984: 385 note) Wagner
himself underscored that the audience should be able to enjoy the musical
drama easily and unintellectually; unencumbered, that is, by lack of special
knowledge — including knowledge of foreign languages. In comparison with
the Italian language, rich in vowels, the notion of singability has relative value

in German libretti, thereby relieving the translator's burden to some extent.

Yet Wagner added a number of particular constraints upon the translation of
his music-dramas. Not only do his operatic lyrics have a distinct (if arguable)
poetic value, in contradistinction to many other libretti in Italian, French,
German or other language; also, particularly in Oper and Drama, Wagner
expounded at length on the role in poetic verse of rhythmicity, melodic flow
and rhyme. Since these and related ideas must necessarily be reflected in any
translated singing version of his opera libretti, they deserve to be described
here in brief.
Wagner was particularly scornful of the conventional iambic verse with
end-rhyme and four or five accents on each line. Instead of such "antiquarian-
ism" he advocated and used in his libretti (particularly from Lohengrin —
which was written in 1846/1850 — onward) a novel poetic language which
was, paradoxically, at the same time both free and forced to a great extreme.
Wagner argued his revolutionary ideas, rather impressionistically, in the name
of German language and historical linguistics.
Wagner's verse is free, almost rhapsodic, because he abandoned tradi-
tional verse forms, metric norms and rhyme patterns, which in his view
represented and overemphasized reason and logical thought, to the exclusion
of emotion and feeling — what poetic verse should be about. However,
Wagner's defense of what may be assimilated, within Peirce's semiotics, to
free, spontaneous and poetic firstness, together with his critique of a conven-
tionalism (i.e., rule-bound thirdness) which was overly prosaic to his free
poetic mind, are more apparent than real. In actuality, he forced the German
language back to the musical qualities of its monosyllabic roots which, in
Wagner's intuitive view, distinguished the German language from other lan-
guages used in operatic verse (here, Wagner made particular mention of
Italian and French). Naturally unhampered by knowledge of linguistics in the
modern sense, Wagner, the romantic poet, positively stated ([1852] 1984:
373) that the accent in German words (which more often than not are polysyl-
labic, with several unstressed syllables) is on the root syllable, which is also
the semantically pregnant part, because in the root, the tönende Laut (Wagner
[1852] 1984: 278), lies the music and the feeling. In this way (still continuing
Wagner's argument) the emotional content of the German word typically
exemplifies the Gefühlswerdung des Verstandes (Wagner [1852] 1984: 215),
the harmonic whole uniting cognitive and emotional meaning. In the creation
of melodic poetry, the notion of the Gefühlsverstandnis der Sprache (Wagner
[1852] 1984: 371) was, to Wagner, an essential element.

The alleged superiority of the German language, which Wagner intuited

but was unable to argue convincingly, lay for him in its special expressivity,
musicality, and rhythmicity, reflecting the poetic abilities of the German
Volksseele. Wagner took an equally controversial stance on rhyme, which
deeply concerned him. Rejecting standard end-rhyme, he instead favored the
so-called Stabreim (Wagner [1852] 1984: 287ff. and passim), which he bor-
rowed from the Old Icelandic Edda and transformed into a (typically Wagne-
rian) technique consisting of alliteration (rhymed consonants) and assonance
(rhymed vowels), occurring irregularly, in stressed syllables anywhere within
the verse-line or adjacent verse-lines.15 Wagner's Stabreim may be found in
identity, similarity or correspondence on the level of the signifier and/or the
signified, and is always a matter of degree. We can distinguish various types:
it is based on iconicity or indexicality, or both; and it involves either denota-
tive (referential) or connotative (associative) meaning, or both. In fact, in the
Wagnerian rhyme scheme all vowels and diphthongs may rhyme with one
another for the purpose of alliteration and/or assonance. One exemplary
instance given by Wagner ([1852] 1984: 288) is Auge und Ohr, in which the
limited consonance (the dual open vowel) suffices to produce rhyme, contrib-
uting to the related meaning of both words. Examples of alliteration also
involving meaning are Lust und Leid and Wohl und Weh, which may again be
combined with assonance: Die Liebe bringt Lust und Leid and/or Die Liebe
gibt Lust zum Leben, and further complexified and enhanced in successive
verse-lines such as Die Liebe bringt Lust und Leid / dock in ihr Weh webt sie
Wonnen (Wagner [1852] 1984: 305f). Wagner's musical settings serve to
further bring out the manifold "family resemblances" (Wittgenstein [1953]
1968: 1:67) within the word-music synthesis. Through the musical phrasing,
the words become even more strongly connected and rooted in their iconic
and/or indexical correspondence, thereby weaving a dense web of cross-
references. This is Wagner's procedure in a nutshell; further examples are
present throughout his libretti.
In a personal and rather pungent vein, Wagner in Oper und Drama cri-
ticized translated opera as performed in his days. Quotation of the following,
somewhat lengthy passage is in order here, because it wraps up Wagner's
expert opinion on this issue beautifully:
Bei diesen Übersetzungen ist nie weder ein dichterischer noch musikalischer
Verstand tätig gewesen, sondern sie wurden von Leuten, die weder Dicht-
kunst noch Musik verstanden, im geschäftlichen Auftrage ungefähr so iiber-
setzt, wie man Zeitungsartikel oder Kommerznotizen übertragt. Gemeinhin

waren diese Übersetzer vor allem rricht musikalisch; sie iibersetzten ein
italienisches oder französisches Textbuch fiir sich, als Wortdichtung nach
einem Versmaße, welches als sogenanntes jambisches unverständerweise
ihnen dem gänzlich unrhythmischen des Originals entsprechend vorkam, und
lieBen diese Verse von musikgeschäftlichen AusschReißern unter die Musik
so setzen, daB die Silben den Noten der Zahl nach zu entsprechen hatten. Die
dichterische Miihe des Übersetzers hatte darin bestanden, die gemeinste Prosa
mit läppischen Endreimen zu versehen, und da diese Endreime selbst oft
peinliche Schwierigkeiten darboten, war ihnen — den in der Musik fast
gänzlich unhörbaren — zuliebe auch die natiirliche Stellung der Worte bis zur
vollsten Unverständlichkeit verdreht worden. Dieser an und fiir sich häßliche,
gemeine und sinnverwirrte Vers wurde nun einer Musik untergelegt, zu deren
betonten Akzenten er nirgends paBte: auf aufgedehnte Noten kamen kurze
Silben, auf gedehnte Silben aber kurze Noten; auf die musikalisch betonte
Hebung kam die Senkung des Verses, und so umgekehrt. (Wagner [1852]
1984: 374-375)
Needless to say, the interlingual reproduction of Wagner's operatic lyrics
from the original German into another language is a Herculean and little-
rewarding task. The cumulation of musico-rhythmic devices constantly threat-
ens to overburden the conscientious translator, who needs to mobilize all his
linguistic skills, musical knowledge, and poetic creativity in order to produce
a translation which "works" on all levels, both microscopically and macro-
scopically. That is, a translation with an equivalent (or at least similar)
musico-poetic patterning, and with equivalent (or at least similar) intermedial

Wagner's Das Rheingold

Der Ring des Nibelungen (written between 1853 and 1876) is Wagner' s central
masterpiece. The overall topic of the Ring is power, love and gold. The
musicological and ideological differences between its first drama, Das
Rheingold (1853-1854), which serves as prologue to the cycle and will be the
study example here, and the preceding, transitional work, Lohengrin (written
1846-1850), are striking and quite dramatic. Lohengrin still employs more
traditional patterns and style, while presaging Wagner's later techniques. It is
characterized by the tonal fixation of situations and persons (Wagner's Leit-
motive, later systematically exploited in the Ring), alongside a relatively simple
musical phrasing (with its four and eight bar phrases), and a rhythmical
monotony (the music consists mostly of triads). The vocal parts are no longer

separate arias or recitatives, but are now integrated into the flow of dramatic
lyrics, as is the common procedure intheRing. In addition, there is a fair amount
of choral singing. The vocal parts in Lohengrin are governed by a "normal"
speech rhythm approaching declamation, the so-called Sprechgesang. In the
use of this "natural" parlando Wagner felt and created the right musical speed
and the true speech inflections for his German polysyllabic poetic prose. Still
following the traditional pattern, he used regular rhymed iambic verse through-
out Lohengrin, while forging his irregularly constructed verse from Das
Rheingold onward. Oper und Drama (first edition 1852) may serve as a vade-
mecum for this new compositional and lyrical structure. Accordingly, the
versification of Das Rheingold systematically follows the new scheme and is
"highly alliterative, compact, with root syllables predominating, and with
irregular rhyme" (Stein 1973: 82), while Wagner meant the orchestral music and
vocal parts to be subservient to the poetic text, which is the more expressive
element (since the music of Das Rheingold is conducive to orchestral predomi-
nance, this principle is often compromised in scenic terms).
For the translator this creates a series of problems which already become
clear in the opening lines of scene one. Following the rising major arpeggio of
the Valhalla music that opens the work, the three Rhine-daughters (Woglinde,
Wellgunde, and Flosshilde) are heard and seen, swimming about merrily in
the River Rhine:

(Herman/Apter 1983: 5)

Text sample 1
Woglinde: Weia! Waga!
Woge, du Welle
Walle zur Wiege!
Wallala weiala weia! (Rheingold: 5)
[1] Translation
Woglinde: Weia! Wandering waters swing ye your cradle! Waga!
wagala weia! wallala weiala wei——a! (Jameson 1896: 32)
[2] Translation
Woglinde: Weia! Waga!
Wandering waters,
lulling our cradle!
Wallala weiala weia! (Porter 1976: 4)
[3] Translation
Wellgunde: Lu-la lei-a, bil-low-ing wa-ter, swirl-ing in waves of shim-
mer-ing won-der, lu-la-lo, la-la-lo lei—a!
(Herman/Apter 1983: 5)
As these quotations show, the lines of Wagnerian verse are often typographi-
cally cast in the form of a traditional poem (emphasized in text sample 1 by
means of exclamation points), but should for all translational intents and
purposes be given (and translated) as they are divided by the vocal line (text
sample 1 consists of one vocal line). The former is the common practice in
textual editions — i.e., reproducing the Wortlaut der Partitur only, without
the music — while in texted reproductions of the musical score, the latter,
singing procedure is commonly followed. The absence of metrical and rhyth-
mical regularity, the varying verse length and stanzaic patterning also serve to
loosen the musical structure. The verse form was, of course, conceived by
Wagner in the prosodic style of the Stabreim, with two or three stressed
syllables to the (verse) line, and with the stresses emphasized by alliteration.
This leads to the kind of metrically "free", singing declamation typical of the
Ring composition.
Not surprisingly, the Rhinemaidens' fanciful vocalizations have "aroused
amusement and incomprehension ever since the first public performance of
the work in 1869, resulting in the whole of Wagner's oeuvre being dubbed
'Wigalaweia-Musik'" (Spencer 1985: 31), i.e., semantically questionable,
unrealistic, even nonsensical. Wagner argued in an open letter to Friedrich
Nietzsche (1872) that they were really natural sounds, which he coined from

Old Germanic roots severally related to "water", "wave", etc.,16 and were
meant to suggest the innocence and sanctity of Nature. To many ears, how-
ever, these vocal utterances, and the Variations Wagner put them through,
sounded (and still sound) vacuous, even farcical.
For Wagner, the primary vehicle for dramatic expression lies in the
singer's melodic verse (Versmelodie), which plays on the emotional qualities
of the verse, not its cognitive referent in possible reality. The sound-image in
the opening passage of Das Rheingold is particularly rich and expressive.
Significatively, it is a falling and rising theme building on the pervasive
exploitation of, and meanings associated with, the w-sound used anaphori-
cally, in the initial position. This usage echoes Woglinde and Wellgunde, two
of the mermaids, whose names are fluvially inspired (Wog(e) means "moving
water", Well(e) means "wave", Floss in Flosshilde means "river"), and it is
found throughout the Rhinedaughters' song as a melodic whole.
This is why, in the translation of Wagner's "Water Music", the character-
istic w-sound (a voiced fricative consonant) should, where possible, be pre-
served by the translator as s/he moves to the target language; or else it should
be replaced by another sound which is similarly produced (i.e., by frictional
passage of the expired breath through a narrowing of the mouth/lip area) and
which itself produces a similar psycho-acoustic effect. Both requirements
would immediately disqualify Herman's and Apter's creative (too creative?)
transposition of the w into the /-register. Much as their lu-la lei-a and lu-la-lo
is suggestive of nonverbal, playful behavior, the sound effect here is built on
an inflation of the -/- in Welle/Walle and Woglinde, Wellgunde/Flosshilde. It
seems to announce the Rhine-maidens later Wallala! Lalaleia! Lalei! (Rhein-
gold: 13) and, another variation on the same theme, Wallala lalala leiajahei
(Rheingold: 15); perhaps it is also indebted to lulling our cradle (from Porter's
1976 translation), but without mention of the river-bed. However, in and by
itself, the vocal color of / (and the de-emphasis of w) in Herman and Apter's
translation suffices to communicate the fun aspect of ensemble swimming (or,
for that matter, ensemble singing), but without expressing the idea of the
watery environment itself. This situation can hardly be remedied by a single
occurrence of fricative b, accompanying w, as in billowing water, nor by w in
waves and wondering. The latter solution is a courageous attempt at making
sense out of what is essentially wordless "nonsense", a mere chorus of delight.
But perhaps any such "special acoustic effect"17 should be phonologically
transcribed by the translator, but remain untranslated — as both Jameson
(1896) and Porter (1976) wisely chose to do.

As the title of this music-drama, Das Rheingold, suggests, the three

Rhine-daughters are the custodians of a golden treasure which, if forged into a
ring, possesses a secret power. As they are sporting in the river Rhine, the
nymphs are hotly pursued by Alberich, a troll-like figure:

(Herman/Apter 1983: 41-42)

Text sample 2
Wellgunde: Der Welt Erbe
Gewänne zu eigen
Wer aus dem Rheingold
Schufe den Ring,
Der masslose Macht ihm verlieh'. (Rheingold: 16)
[1] Translation
Wellgunde: The world's wealth would be won by the man
who, out of the Rhinegold, fashioned the ring
which mea-sureless might would bestow.
(Jameson 1896: 136-137)

[2] Translation
Wellgunde: The world's wealth can
be won by a man who,
seizing the Rhinegold,
fashions a ring:
that ring makes him lord of the world. (Porter 1976: 14)
[3] Translation
Wellgunde: The whole world will be-long to the one who for-ges the
Rhine-gold into a ring. And he will be lord of us all.
(Herman/Apter 1983: 41-42)
In this rather spasmodically orchestrated vocal line, which is one of the
most frequently quoted themes in the tetralogy, we hear and see Wagner's new
ideas at work. End-rhyme has disappeared in favor of Stabreimerei. Sound
and meaning of the key syllables/words — Welt-Erbe, Rheingold-Ring, mass-
lose-Macht — are severally connected through pitch, stress and "rhyme".
Welt, Rheingold and Ring are connected by the same pitch, which further
emphasizes the rhyme connecting Rheingold and the Ring (the principal
sounds of which remain the same in English).
Jameson's (1896) translation, which takes a genuinely Wagnerian view
of syntax and lexis, is archaic to modern ears but "sings well and sounds well"
(Porter 1976: xi). It closely follows the original's alliterations, even stretches
them. Welt-gewanne-wer becomes world's wealth-won, and the vocalism of
wealth occurs two more times in measureless. Porter (1976) compensates the
loss of Wagner's masslose Macht by adding lord, which rhymes with
(Rhein)gold, and the highly expressive seizing. Herman and Apter's (1983) is
a simplified, extremely singable version. The translators have taken a novel
look at the prosody and the poetic-melodic synthesis. The tone is, on the
whole, more informal than in the earlier translations (and, a fortiori, in the
original), and it has a modern vocabulary and a comprehensible syntax (as
opposed to Wagner's tortuous German). Herman and Apter's (1983) first
priority is to stay close to the music: the verse lines correspond to the
grammatical units as well as to the singer's breath. Note the pervasive asso-
nance, evenly distributed over the verse lines, of variations of the vowel o in
whole-belong-forges-gold-lord-of~all. The stressed second syllable is whole
(world) in Herman/Apter (1983), which is no literal rendering but sounds a lot
more "natural" than world's (wealth) (Jameson 1896 and Porter 1976), par-
ticularly since the unstressed wealth is obscured in the singing line. The
chiastic lord of us all, with its building up toward the highly pitched dramatic
climax, is a particularly felicitous rendering of the original German.

(Herman/Apter 1983: 43)

Text sample 3
Woglinde: Nur wer der Minne
Macht versagt,
Nur wer der Liebe
Lust verjagt,
Nur der erzielt sich den Zauber,
Zum Reif zu zwingen das Gold. (Rheingold: 17)
[1] Translation
Woglinde: He who the sway of love for-swears, he who de-light of love
for-bears, a-lone the ma-gic can mas-ter that for-ces the gold
— to a ring. (Jameson 1896: 140-142)
[2] Translation
Woglinde: He must pronounce
a curse on love,
he must renounce
all joys of love,
before he masters the magic,
a ring to forge from the gold. (Porter 1976: 15)

[3] Translation
Woglinde: He must re-ject the fact of love, he must re-nounce the act of
love, to be im-bued with the pow-er, the mag-ic to mas-ter
the gold. (Herman/Apter 1983: 43)

This passage, sung with emphasis, yet legato, highlighted by a slackening of

the tempo, is crucial to the musico-semantic structure and the dramatic devel-
opment of Das Rheingold (and of the whole Ring). The "renunciation of love"
message hinges, of course, on the parallelism between der Minne Macht, on
the one hand, and der Liebe Lust, on the other. This parallelism is beautifully
expressed in both media involved: linguistically, by the alliteration, and
melodically, by the repetition of the very same musical phrase. Further rein-
forced by the anaphora of nur wer and the end-rhyme versagt-verjagt, this is a
perfect example of what Wagner called a musical alliteration. Note, in the last
two lines, the fivefold alliteration of z in erzielt-Zauber-zum-zu zwingen.
The translator's task is complicated here by the poetic declamation in this
line, which is wholly syllabic, so that the articulation of the individual words
gets the listener's undivided attention. Somewhat disappointingly for a key
passage in the dramatic structure, little of Wagner's original is recognizable in
the English texts. This is due to pitch and accent, which fall on problematic
(for the English language) slots. The key words, Minne Macht and Liebe Lust,
start on a high pitch, descending towards the third syllable, while the main
rhythmic accent occurs on the top note. It is well-nigh impossible to reproduce
this three-tone alliterative group in the English language. Jameson's (1896)
swáy of love and delight of love, in which the lexical components are inverted,
and transposed into a different vocal register, /a/ instead of /i/ (both of which
can be sung in the higher register), comes perhaps closest to Wagner; in Porter
(1976) and Herman/Apter (1983), love has to content itself with a secondary
place, overshadowed by the strongly emphasized verbal forms, pronóunce (a
curse on love) and reject the fact of love, set in vowel registers (phonetic
variants on closed /o/ and /e/) which are not ideal on high pitches. Besides, the
syntactic function of the magic in Jameson (1896) is rather confusing: that it is
the grammatical object, not the subject, is unclear at first hearing. Also,
curiously, Porter (1976) revives traditional end-rhyme (abab). However, the
clever sonic and metric correspondences and other tricks of the opera
translator's trade cannot camouflage the overall loss of expressive quality in
the translated vocal lines. Consequently, the translated versions of the lines
under analysis here fail to produce Wagner's desired emotional effect on the
verbal side, thereby relying heavily (too heavily?) on the meaning-potentiali-

(Herman/Apter 1983: 174-175)


ties of the music. This shift of emphasis is at variance with all of Wagner's
intentions and beliefs.
Seized with a new desire, Alberich steals the gold and disappears into the
depths of the river Rhine. Later, the giants Fasolt and Fafner claim Freia,
goddess of youth and beauty, as compensation for building Wotan's new
castle, which is named Walhalla, or Hall of the Slain Heroes. But Wotan, as
god of justice, is reluctant to relinquish Freia, who is forceably abducted by
the giants. Loge, the sly god of fire, intervenes and encourages Wotan to
recover the golden treasure from Alberich. After being captured and held for
ransom, Alberich, wüthend lachend (Wagner's direction), curses the ring.

1 ext sample 4
Alberich: Bin ich nun frei?
Wirklich frei? -
So griiss' euch denn meiner Freiheit erster Gruss!
Wie durch Fluch er mir gerieth,
verflucht sei dieser Ring! (Rheingold: 61)
[1] Translation
Alberich: Am I now free? Free in sooth? Thus greets you then this
my free—dom's fore—most word! As by curse came it to
me, ac-curst be aye this ring! (Jameson 1896: 563-564)
[2] Translation
Alberich: Am I now free?
truly free?
I greet you then
in my freedom: mark my words!
Since a curse gained it for me,
my curse lies on this ring! (Porter 1976: 58)
[3] Translation
Alberich: Did you say free? Real-ly free? Then let me of-fer you
free-dom's com-pli-ments: As a curse won me the ring,
the ring shall be ac-cursed!
(Herman/Apter 1983: 174-175)
To characterize Alberich's outburst, the dramatically climactic moment of
Das Rheingold, let me quote from Stein's description:
The melody fits the declamatory rhythm perfectly. The spasmodic character of
the two short introductory phrases is heightened by the pauses. The bitter
sarcasm of "wirklich" is intensified by the exaggerated jump in pitch. The
ominous quality of the succeeding verse is effected by the monotony of pitch
and is a forceful transition into the curse itself, which rises with an irresistible

drive to a fortissimo on "verflucht", where the climax, musically, poetically,

dramatically, is reached. Prolongation of the vowels, especially the three
successive stages, "Fluch", "geriet", and "verflucht", plays its essential part in
extending and intensifying the climactic moment. The melodic contour,
especially of the curse itself, sweeps the attention onward to the climax, making
use of each unaccented note to further the progress toward the top accent in a
manner which would be impossible without the melodic line. The orchestra,
too, is ingeniously brought into play. The first eight measures are supported by
the first appearance of a sinister syncopated theme, associated with Alberich's
hate and his work of destruction throughout the entire Ring. The curse itself is
accompanied only by F# tympani, which begin softly and crescendo with the
melodic line to a fortissimo on the climax. (Stein 1973: 85)
And this musicological scholar concludes:
This is an excellent example of the word-tone synthesis of Opera and Drama.
Everything depends on the sense of the words. The musical line would make
little sense, except in so far as it interprets emotionally the content of the
verse. But, as that interpreter, it possesses great emotional power. It does not
force the verse into unnaturalness, it does not attract the attention away from
the verse. Word and tone, each contributing its share to the synthesis, are
blended inseparably into a single unit which combines utmost precision with
a wide emotional range. (Stein 1973: 85)

To translate Alberich's parallel lines is to deal, in condensed form, with the

manifold problems facing the opera translator. The text is highlighted (and the
translator's task complicated accordingly) by the declamatory style and scant
orchestral support. Alberich's syncopated triplet figure, Bin ich nun frei, is
rendered literally by Jameson (1896) and Porter (1976), while Herman and
Apter's version (1983) offers a more adventurous, yet extremely functional,
transposition, which also makes possible its continuation, the alliterating
"Really free?", extremely singable in the middle register. Importantly, when
sung with emphasis and with a piercing timbre, this English version still
sounds definitely more "natural" than Porter's (1976) more gloomy "truly
free?" and, a fortiori, Jameson's (1896) "Free in sooth?", with its Shake-
spearean flavor. The translated versions illustrate nicely how each of them is
associated with a different attitude towards cultural concepts, referring to the
verbal expression of freedom, rage and sardonic mockery.
In the following line, Alberich's outburst of rage ascends from Fluch,
through the unaccented syllables which are so common in German, and
gerieth, this progression explodes, fortissimo, on verflucht. These are the three
accented key words, where the translator should place equivalent key words.

All translations under investigation are successful in achieving vocally and

semantically an equivalent textual and textural effect, although Herman and
Apter's (1983) "the ring shall be accursed" inexplicably inverts Wagner's
word order and thereby dislocates the accent, which now falls on "ring" rather
than on "accursed".
In the final stages of Das Rheingold, a stormy scene during which the
gods implore Wotan to give up the magic ring, is followed by the apparition of
Erda, the wise earth goddess (who later bears Wotan the nine Valkyrs). Prior
to delivering her Weltuntergang prophesy, Erda reproves Wotan for his greed,
and urges him to relinquish the ring (her famous line, Weiche, Wotan,
weiche!); whereupon Wotan decides to offer it to the giants as a substitute for
Freia. Erda's phrase, which is delivered in flowing two-bar units and sung
strictly ritenuto, goes as follows:

(Herman/Apter 1983: 193)

Text sample 5
Erda: Wie Alles war, weiss ich,
Wie Alles wird,
Wie Alles sein wird,
Seh' ich auch:
Der ew'gen Welt
Erda mahnt deinen Mut. (Rheingold: 69)

[1] Translation
Erda: All that e'er was — know I; how all things are, how all
things will be — see I too: the end-less world's all-wise one,
Erda, warn-eth thee now. (Jameson 1896: 626-628)
[2] Translation
Erda: All of the past, know I.
All things that are,
all things that shall be -
all I know:
the endless world's
all-wise one,
Erda, bids you beware. (Porter 1976: 65)
[3] Translation
Erda: All that has been, I know; and all that is, and all that shall be
— I have seen. I am the earth's Urwala, Erda, measure of all.
(Herman/Apter 1983: 193)

Ur-Wala means primeval wisdom (Huber 1988: 166). Yet it is at best doubtful
whether Jameson (1896) and Porter (1976) are aware that Ur-Wala is Erda;18
or, for that matter, that Mut here means as much as Ubermut, the Greek notion
of Β Σ. 19 Such grammatico-lexical misconstruals serve to make Erda's
warning more opaque than it really is.
Erda's ominous words echo her earlier Weiche, Wotan, weiche!, as well
as Wotan's Wer bist du, mahnendes Weib. Again, these lines have in common
with Wotan that they build acoustically on the repetition of the semiconsonant
w, with its strong tone and voice vibration. The — unavoidable, in English —
vocalic shift to English All, while reproducing the ominous quality accompa­
nying the latter, lacks the strength of the former. Even its reinforcement, How
all, is perhaps, on balance, a rather weak reflection of the pervasive w-sound
in Wagner's original Erda episode, which expresses this dramatic quality with
a particular emotional impact.20 Finally, the second building-stone of the vocal
structure, Erda's highly significant sibilant s-sound (thrice Alles; weiss; to a
lesser degree, sehe and sein) has been displaced, neutralized or completely
removed in the translating process — with clever compensatory offerings in
see, shall and endless.

Concluding Remarks

The lessons to be drawn from my essay are, hopefully, at least two, and both
should be the despair and the delight of libretto translators, translation critics,
opera singers, opera directors, opera producers and audience alike. One is that
opera translating is a poorly financed, low-prestige profession requiring,
paradoxically, highly specialized skills, hard work and a fair dose of artistic
idealism. The other is that a well-translated libretto greatly enhances the
operatic performance. Most actual translation is a mix of the permitted, the
possible and the desired. In this essay I have brought some of its theoretical
problems into sharpened focus, as well as giving some down-to-earth practical
advice to prospective libretto translators by showing a few "real-life" ex-
amples. Despite all skepticism and controversy about the virtues and draw-
backs of translated libretti, opera translation is here to stay. To say that this is
a challenging prospect should be cause for great excitement and expectation
among opera aficionados.

Author's address:
Dinda L. Gorlée • Van Alkemadelaan 806 • NL-2597 BC THE HAGUE • The


1. Orlando (1975: 76) refers to "harmony, tempo, rhythm, timbre, and intensity"; while
according to Ostwald's detailed schematic image (1973: 204), music is an auditory world
of space and time, synthesizing (1) melody (subdivided into: upward and downward
movement, pitch relationship, harmonic patterning, and polyphonic structures), (2) inten-
sity of impulse (subdivided into: getting louder and softer, loudness and softness, stress
and emphasis, and attack and release), and (3) rhythm (subdivided into: tempo, speeding
up and slowing down, repetitiveness and phrasing).
2. See my remarks on Toury (Gorlée 1994: 184-185 & n. 20).
3. An exception must be made for "representative" or "program" music. See Pagnini (1994:
6-7) and, particularly, Martinez (1996), for a lucid analysis of musical meaning from the
logico-semiotic perspective of Charles S. Peirce. Musical narratology — the capacity of
music to have a story and a discourse and to be the object of narrative structural analysis
— presupposes that music can have a meaning, either at the surface level or at the deep
level. See Pederson (1996), a review article of Littlefield (1991). Of course, musical
meaning does emerge in the mind of the listener, determined by individual and collective
taste and expectations.

4. See also Pagnini (1994: 1ff.)

5. On intersemiotic translation, see Gorlée (1994: 162-165); on intersemiosis, see Gorlée
(1994: 227).
6. The first version, in French, of Mukařovsky's essay, "Phonologie und Poetik" (1989:
254-267), titled "La phonologie et la poétique", dates from 1930 (Mukarovsky 1989: 17,
7. Barnstone's statement that "literary translation is concerned with a message containing
unrepeatable and indeterminate elements such as expression, connotation, aesthetics, and
diction" (1994: 90) is only apparently contradictory to this.
8. See particularly Honolka (1978), Rodda (1981), Apter (1989, foreshadowed by Apter
1985), Graham (1989) and Rudder (1992).
9. Though Honolka refers here to opera translation into German, his remarks may safely be
interpreted to include other languages as well.
10. That, abstracted from translation, the sung effect of imperfect rhyming varieties (such as
apocopated rhyme, disyllabic rhyme and trisyllabic rhyme) can be surprisingly graceful,
is demonstrated, eloquently and with a wealth of examples, in a recent review article
(Leithauser 1996) (with reference to the American popular song and particularly the
lyricist Ira Gershwin).
11. Jameson's translation dates from 1896 and has remained in the Schott and (in the United
States) Schirmer editions ever since; I shall quote from Wagner (n.d.-a). Porter's transla­
tion was commissioned by the English National Opera (then Sadler's Wells Opera) and
first performed in 1972; I shall quote from Wagner (1976). Hermans and Apter published
their (American) English translation in 1983; it is reproduced with the German text and a
complete piano-vocal score. For other singing translations, see Porter's introduction in
Wagner (1976).

12. For the sake of clarity, what is meant here is that when taken in isolation, Wagner's music
lacks the richness of, e.g., music in the Beethovenian symphonic tradition. A similarly
hard judgment must, mutatis mutandis, be passed on the quality of Wagner' s poetry.
13. For a different view on the Gesamtkunstwerk as the work-of-all-arts, see Langer (1953:
160ff.). Wagner's standard procedure was as follows: First he wrote the poetic text (the
expression of the idea and/or thought) which he subsequently set to music (the vehicle of
the feeling or emotion associated with that idea and/or thought). To produce optimal
dramatic effect in this intersemiotic "Übersetzung von Ausdruckscharakteren in Musik"
(Adorno [1952] 1964: 61), Wagner provided the verse with a Versmelodie (the singer's
vocal line) and a bass accompaniment, prior to adding the whole orchestration and
scoring for specific instruments (Wagner's Ring cycle requires a large orchestra of more
than one hundred players). While de-emphasizing facial expression, Wagner used ges­
ture (that is, dance-like physical movement) as a highly functional paralinguistic device
to underline the words. In the absence of words, gesture was also operationalized as non­
verbal discourse. Wagner's music-drama thus epitomizes Wittgenstein's notion of
Sprachspiel ("Singing catches" in Wittgenstein ([1953] 1968): 1:23) (cf. Gorlée 1989 and
1994, Chapter 5).

14. More on this in Orlando (1975). About the chronology of Wagner's operas: Der Ring des
Nibelungen, his central masterpiece, was written between 1853 and 1876. Its parts are:

Das Rheingold 1853/1854, Die Walkure 1854/1856, Siegfried 1856/1876, and Götter-
dämmerung 1869/1876. The composing process of the Ring, which lasted more than two
decades, was interrupted by Tristan und Isolde 1857/1865 and Die Meistersinger von
Number g 1862/1868. Parsifal, Wagner's last opera, was written 1877/1882.
15. Not coincidentally, Wagner's contemporary, the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen was the first
playwright who used prose (that is, everyday language) instead of the traditional rhymed
poetic verse.
16. For our purposes here, it is instructive to quote from Wagner's defense letter: "From my
studies of J. Grimm I once borrowed an Old German word 'Heilawac' and, in order to
make it more adaptable for my own purposes, reformed it as "Weiawaga" (a form which
we may still recognise today in the word 'Weihwasser' [holy water]); from this I passed to
the cognate linguistic roots 'wogen' [to surge] and 'wiegen [to rock], finally to 'wellen'
[to billow] and 'wallen' [to seethe], and in this way I constructed a radically syllabic
method for my watermaidens to sing, on an analogy with the 'Eia popeia' [hushabye] of
our children's nursery songs" (quoted in Spencer 1985: 31). See further the exegeses
provided by Huber (1988: 133).
17. Another Wagnerian example is the Valkyries' cry Hojotoho! Hojotoho! Heiaha!
18. This is "a rubric postulated by Jacob Grimm as the name of the ancient German earth
goddess" (Darcy 1993: 42). Erda, in Old High German language, meant "Erde" ("earth")
(Huber 1988: 167).
19. This has also been misunderstood by Herman and Apter, who translate Wagner's mahnt
deinen Mut by measure of all (1983: 21), a strange faux pas.
20. Weiche, Wotan, weiche! Flieh ' des Ringes Fluch! has the same problem in English, which
Herman and Apter resolve with particular creativity in their Vainly, Wotan, vainly, do you
wield the ring! (1983: 192). Note that, instead of the perhaps more obvious yield, these
translators use wield, which has the additional advantage of alliterating with the cata-
logue of w-based key-words in the encounter between Wotan and Erda — Wotan and
Wala; Gewinn; der ew'gen Welt, weile, dass ich mehr wisse!; Wort, Ich warnte dich — du
weisst genug. The sound texture of Wer bist du, mahnendes Weib is felicitously rendered
by What woman warneth me thus? (Jameson 1896: 626), Who brings this warning of
doom? (Porter 1976: 65), and Who brings this warning to me? (Herman/Apter 1983:


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