Adina Monroe – What we lose in translation

Marching to the beat of a different drum

It is well-known that practise makes perfect. As it is the case with everything that becomes familiar to an individual over time, so it is then of course with music. Works are studied closely over and over again, usually spanning a considerable period of time. Of course one of the aims for any one performer is to put his or her own stamp on a piece of music. On a broader spectrum, accompanied with scholarship and the tidal changes of fashion, certain mannerisms become associated with certain pieces (or groups of pieces) of music 
over time. Collective nouns in the opera world like verismo or bel canto operas are only two examples of such stylistic movements. None of this is news as it is in fact this evolutionary aspect that indeed mapped out the development (a mixture of agreement with and reaction to the great minds of the day’s way of thought) of the different epochs and movements in the history of music and indeed across all fields of humanity.
The most obvious difference between instrumental music and vocal music is that there is a predetermined factor of rhythm inherent in the inflection of language. This rhythm exists usually before the music is composed. That means that right from the beginning their exists a subtle relationship between the rhythm of the language and the rhythm of the music.  Good composers painstakingly spend ages reading and rereading a text before they first put pen to paper to start their composition process. As the rhythm of a language and the rhythm of the music is set to exists in a subtle equilibrium, this equilibrium is easily disturbed when for instance a piece is then performed in a language other than the original text. 

Adina’s Aria: Prendi, per me sei libero…

Marilyn MonroeRecently I coached a soprano on the famous aria sung by Adina from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (Elixir of Love). Having bought the conscription papers back from Sergeant Belcore, Adina consoles Nemorino and encourages him to stay in his home town. As a standard opera in the bel canto canon Adina’s aria is automatically one of the standard arias in the soprano repertoire. For this particular coaching the singer sought advice regarding the effective execution of the aria whilst performing a lyric translation (i.e. a rough translation, which is singable and usually conveys the general thought behind the original text). It was in preparation of an audition for a small opera company producing Donizetti’s opera in English. A number of points became apparent during the session, which went beyond than just fitting in the translated text with the original music. 

Looking at a score with both the original text as well as a lyric translation below is sometimes akin to studying Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962).The same sets of pictures are revealed on either sides of the meridian. The left side is brightly coloured (apparently portraying Marilyn Monroe’s legendary fame) while the right side is starkly contrasted in black and white (portraying the suicide of an icon).

imageOperas are often published with the original language and then a lyric translation below. When focusing on the translation singers deal constantly with issues regarding punctuation, phrasing, articulation and the sentiment of the interpretation which differ  from the original. The ‘musical picture’ is different when dealing with the original language version from the lyric translated version. At first it might not be obvious to the unsuspecting singer singing a translated version of an aria or a song. However, once a piece is known in the original language, suddenly having to perform it in a translation can play interesting tricks with the mind when performing from memory in a high-stress situation like an audition, a concert or performance. It always takes a moment to make a switch from one language to the next, but in practise it does not merely stay at deciding to sing in one or another language. Therefore if a translated version needs to be studied in, then it might be helpful for a singer to approach it as a completely new piece of music rather than a variant of the original.

Crossing the Warhol Meridian

During the coaching we found that focusing on the following three categories improved the way in which this Adina performed her aria:

Punctuation and Phrasing

Due to the differences in syntax and spelling rules unique to each language the phrasing of a sentence (and inevitably the musical phrasing) is immediately different. This means really that when a piece is being studied in a language different to the original that decisions should be made by being lead by the text as opposed to just following the traditional approach to an aria (i.e. imposing the music on the text). This is the case in any way as the natural inflection of the language should be presented through the music. There are traditions of performance brought about by the wealth of cultural baggage and stylistic performance, which reflects that of the original. In translation an added dimension occurs in the overall picture and therefore a piece should be looked at with a completely open mind and fresh view with regards to the phrasing and shaping of the contour of the line. What is for instance a long phrase in the original might be broken up in the translated version. If the language is more segmented then this automatically changes the phrasing of the melodic line.
Take for instance the first (Italian) sentence from Adina’s aria:
“Prendi, per me sei libero: resta nel suo natino; non v’ha destin sì rio, che non si cangia un di, resta.” (Take it, because of me you are free: stay on your native soul; there is no destiny so bitter that it can not change one day, stay here.)
Donizetti stretches this sentence over eight bars. The harmony reaches a pivotal dominant halfway point in the middle (at the word natino), which – in the second half – is elevated further via a momentary modulation to a dominant 7th harmony, which stretches the tension prepared at the halfway point before.
The semi-colon in the Italian suggests a momentary pause, which however carries the tension line through on a horizontal plane. It suggests further explanation, more information is given. The line is therefore ever-extended and it is in this kind of writing (in the libretto and the music), which inspiration for bel canto.
The Schirmer edition with the Ruth Martin translation in fact breaks this eight bar phrase in half by writing three sentences:
“Hear me: stay here, and live in freedom; stay here where you are happy. Hope for a brighter destiny is close at hand, you will see. Stay here!”
This translation creates the phrase to be broken up in more places than what the music (of the original setting) dictates. At first the soprano in the coaching sang the English text with the direction and intension of the Italian setting. This caused the language to become strung together into a nearly incomprehensible line of words. Regardless of her clear diction it was only after we assessed the differences in punctuation, the number of full sentences in the English vis à vis the original libretto that the meaning of the English text she was singing became clear. Sculpting the music to serve the English translation in fact improved the legato and musical line and her performance became much more convincing.


imageAll articulation marks in a score usually correspond with the original composition or at least with the original language in mind. Some translations are better than others, but no translation can ever match the exact inflection of the original language. This means that the articulation marks need to be rearranged in such a way that it makes the meaning of the text clear. If this means an accent might need to be shifted one syllable earlier or later, then it is important to experiment with it rather than just blindly following the accents as printed. It is furthermore important to note that these articulation markings can at times be the whim of an editor rather than the verum dictum of the composer.
Again by using the opening of the aria in the Schirmer/Martin edition I would like to illustrate this point:
“Hear me: stay here, and live in freedom; stay here where you are happy. Hope for a BRIGHTer DEStiny is close at HAND, you will see. Stay here!”
When one sings the second sentence with the printed accents combined with the english text it in fact breaks the line abruptly and the meaning becomes ambiguous. If the printed accents are adhered to it sounds as if the first half of the sentence (Hope for a brighter future…) is a statement in itself. In truth it is only half of the sentence. The word “for” can be temporarily substituted with “because”, which clarifies the meaning immediately: Hope [because] a brighter destiny is close at hand, you will see. Returning to the printed translation and redistributing the accents as follows therefore clarifies the text and reestablishes the spinning line of the bel canto:
“Hope FOR a brighter DEStiny is CLOSE at hand, you will see.”


Prendi, per me sei libero: resta nel suol natino; non v’ha destin sì rio, che non si cangi un dì, resta. Qui, dove tutti t’amano, saggio, amoroso, onesto, ah! sempre scontento e mesto no, non sarai così. (Take it, by me you are free: stay on your native soil; there is no destiny so bitter, that it can never change one day, stay. Here, where everybody loves you, wise loving, honest; you will not always stay miserable and sad like this.)
This original libretto is consoling and perhaps slightly melancholy as Adina’s change of heart is in fact something for her to consider here too. Therefore the Italian text shows that both Adina (speaker) and Nemorino (listener) are considering what is be said. The Martin translation, however, suggests something much more straightforward, optimistic and extrovert:
“Hear me: stay here, and live in freedom; stay here where you are happy. Hope for a brighter destiny is close at hand, you will see. Stay here! Here where you’re loved by ev’ry one, live in peace and gladness, ah! going away would be madness, home is the place to be.”
imageThe Martin text is much more lighthearted than the original, which in turn poses challenges beyond the mere redistribution of accents and adhering to punctuation. The music has to reflect the meaning of the text that is spoken. The second time Adina sings “onesto” (honest) it is done by singing a coloratura flourish, which needs a certain amount of composure and stature. The Martin translation at exactly the same point suggests the word “gladness”. Where the italian “onesto” encourages a more introverted sentiment the translation’s energy causes this flourish to become extroverted and so the energy of the coloratura is altered automatically. If the singer were to sing the translation with the sentiment of the original italian the product would be unclear and might come across as dishonest. There are similar situations throughout this aria, but by using these few examples I hope that readers would experiment further and look at the remainder of the aria through a similar pair of glasses.
This post is not so much a review of the Martin translation as it is a general comment on the performance of works in translation. There are various editions on the market with a variety of English translations. Some opera companies like English National Opera in London prepare their own editions with specific lyric translations, which become in house standards. This wealth of a variety of translations therefore gives the singer the opportunity to perhaps create a good translation true to the original text by amalgamating the information of various different sources. This would not only project the work truthfully, but the performer would be able to perform with more confidence as it is a text that they understand and believe in.
Here is a link to Renata Scotto singing Prendi, per me sei libero.

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