J. D. McClatchy on Translating Mozart’s Librettos


In Seven Mozart Librettos, the poet J.D. McClatchy translates (forgive me for being obvious here) the librettos to seven operas Mozart composed during the last decade of his life, aiming—as he writes in this essay, drawn from the nearly 1200-page volume’s introduction—to help readers “hear the verse, but listen to the drama.” My familiarity with opera in general, and Mozart in particular, is still fairly limited; I’ve only seen productions of two of the works included in this collection. But, as McClatchy notes later in the introduction, “perhaps the best way to read each opera is with a recording of it playing,” and since Mrs. Beatrice has a fairly decent collection of opera on CD, it looks like I’ve got a great opportunity ahead of me…

A libretto is not a poem or a play. It lacks the former’s structural intensity and elegance, and the latter’s depth and intricacy. It has a very specific non-literary function—to make the composer want to write music. Yet throughout opera’s history there have been librettos of superb finesse and polish. A great composer can make them into an unparalleled dramatic evening. But what is it that draws a composer—Mozart, say—to want to set a particular text?

One problem with the existing translations of Mozart’s operas is that, for all their earnestness or cleverness, often they don’t really give you what the characters are actually saying in the original, or they distort the tone of delivery. Take the opening lines of Don Giovanni, with the Don’s manservant Leporello impatiently waiting out in the cold while his master is enjoying a lady’s favors inside. The Italian goes this way, in a kind of shivering staccato that emphasizes each syllable:

Notte e giorno faticar,
Per chi nulla sa gradir;
Piova e vento sopportar,
Mangiar male e mal dormir.

One of the more literal translations now in print translates this as

I work hard day and night,
And he never thanks me.
I endure winds and rain,
Poor food and little sleep.

Granted, that is the gist of Leporello’s complaint, but hardly gives the flavor of his witty, if whiney, sense of life’s unfairness. Even the amateur can hear in the original the tetrameter line with its abab rhyme scheme, and pick up the sense of parallel pairs of terms (notte e giorno [night and day], piova e vento [rain and wind]). When W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman translated the opera in 1957, they wisely took a freer hand, and observed the Italian’s pattern of images and rhymes in a fluent English verse:

On the go from morn till night,
Running errands, never free,
Hardly time to snatch a bite;
This is not the life for me.

One appreciates the slang (“on the go,” “snatch a bite”) that adds color to the moment and allows the singer to elicit a smile from the audience. But, presumably in an effort to add some background and prepare for what’s to come, the second and fourth lines here are entirely made up; and the problem is not that Leporello eats hurriedly, but that he eats badly. My own version tries to keep the verse scheme of the original as well as accurately carry over into English everything the Italian is saying, while still trying to brush up the character’s grumbling personality:

Always working, night and day,
And not a word of gratitude.
Wind and rain, come what may,
Never a nap, and rotten food.


29 December 2010 | in translation |

Read This: Begin Again

begin-again-cover.jpgTowards the end of October, Lincoln Center launched a three-week “White Light Festival” dedicated to “music’s transcendent capacity to illuminate our larger interior universe,” juxtaposing performances of Western classical composers such as Brahms, Bruckner, and Bach with a dance company composed of Shaolin monks or a troupe of Manganiyar siingers from the Muslim communities of northern India. Mrs. Beatrice and I were fortunate enough to attend a “Magnificat” recital by the Tallis Scholars, primarily focused on Arvo Pärt but also including pieces by Palestrina, Tallis, Allegri, Praetorius and Byrd, that was breathtakingly beautiful; I also had the opportunity to attend two panel discussions moderated by WNYC’s John Schaefer on the themes of “Silence” and “Sound,” the latter being preceded by pianist Pedja Muzijevic’s performance of, among other works, John Cage’s 4’33”.

“We often think of sound and silence as opposites,” composer John Luther Adams noted as the event moved into its discussion phase, but 4’33” points the way towards what Adams described as “ecological listening”: “When we start listening to where we are, we hear things that usually we might not think go together, but they do, in the world.” One of the immediate effects of that afternoon’s discussion was to compel me to re-read the chapter on Adams in Alex Ross’s excellent Listen to This, and to start listening to two of his major compositions, Earth and the Great Weather and In the White Silence. What took a little longer was for me to sit down with Kenneth Silverman’s new biography of John Cage, Begin Again.

I was already somewhat familiar with (the concept of) 4’33”, and with the development of Cage’s musical thought up to the point of its creation, thanks to Kyle Gann’s insightful No Such Thing as Silence, but Silverman provides additional biographical context for those early years, as well as covering the second half of Cage’s life. There’s a lot of detail on the processes that Cage used to compose his unconventional works, as well as the non-musical endeavors of his later years, like his eager apprenticeships in chess and engraving. It makes you wonder, perhaps, if intellectual curiosity and boundary-pushing experimentation might be the thread that links Cage to the otherwise seemingly disparate subjects of Silverman’s previous biographies: Cotton Mather, Edgar Allan Poe, Harry Houdini, and Samuel Morse. (Granted, Mather would seem to be the odd man out in that lineup.) Begin Again doesn’t appear to be a substitute for reading Cage’s own essays on music and creativity, but then I don’t imagine it was intended as such—as an introduction to and an engaging invitation to learn more about an important American artist, however, it works quite neatly.

26 December 2010 | books for creatives, read this |

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