LARGO AL FACTOTUM – The Translator

I never expected to work in opera, though I first saw one in 1955 – performed in English at Covent Garden. Then in 1985 when I was accompanying and teaching at the Guildhall, ENO urgently needed a new Don Giovanni translation as their proposed writer had been offered Les Mis. My then-husband, who was translating Greek poetry when we met, suggested we could do it and six sleepless weeks later there was a draft DG translation on Mark Elder’s desk. I started learning the craft from working on several shows with Mark, and I’ve continued to learn from directors, conductors and singers ever since; I’ve clocked up over 60 translations of librettos and a few other theatre and concert works too.

My first task is to get to know the piece as well as possible. Recordings run 24/7 at home and away, so a process of osmosis fixes the score in my head. I also make a literal translation of the libretto. With a challenge like Rameau, I type out the ancient French text just to try to get the libretto into my head, pedantic I know, but useful. Eventually the translation begins to emerge, kind-of somersaulting out into English; I try to echo the original as closely as possible and make the vocal lines fit like a glove. The most important advice I’d give to a wannabe translator is to remember you are writing words to be heard, not read. And those words must work for the singers and the production as well as ‘going over’ clearly and fluently to the audience without bumps or colloquialisms; they may have an intricate rhyme scheme too… It’s even more important to be a musician than to be a linguist; you must hear what you see in the score.

Working closely with so many great directors and conductors – and composers too – has been wonderful. In rehearsals I love to be there in the corner, watching a new production emerge, listening to how the words sound and tweaking them for the singers if something could be improved, which it often can. And singers often have the best ideas; I feel quite guilty about adopting those into my work but I’m grateful to every one of them. Their artistry – not to mention energy, patience and good-humour – never ceases to astound me.

There shouldn’t be, but there always will be controversy around performing opera in English versus the original. Curiously, listeners only complain when they can’t hear English words, in other languages they don’t listen in the same way. I think both can work well and I’m happy to see that Covent Garden, WNO and Opera North are regularly producing shows in English as well as the original these days. My preference – as in the spoken theatre – has always been for the direct communication of our own language, especially with English-speaking singer/actors. But I may be biased.