Tag Archives: Translation

Translating Songs: The Art of the Impossible?

This post was written by Dr Alex Lloyd, a lecturer in German at Magdalen College & St Edmund Hall. Dr Lloyd is a key member of the team behind the Oxford German Network, and a convenor of the Oxford Song Network. Today she tells us about when German and song come together…

How do you translate the words of a song into another language so that it still fits the music when it’s sung in the new version? This was the challenge my students set us when we offered to translate Friedrich Schiller’s poem ‘An die Freude’ [Ode to Joy] for the collaborative translation collection, The Idea of Europe: Enlightenment Perspectives.

Schiller’s poem is well known in the setting by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony. My second-year students suggested we attempt a translation which rhymed and scanned like the original and which could be sung to Beethoven’s tune. I had done translation workshops with students in the past which involved working with song texts (you can listen to some examples of German World War One texts here), and had also started to explore the theory behind producing singable or ‘vocal’ translations. So, we decided to try and fit our text to Beethoven’s music. Each student took responsibility for one or more verses of the text, and we discussed their ideas and solutions in our weekly translation class. The students enjoyed the collaborative aspect of the experience (it’s one thing translating by yourself, but quite another to have to reach compromises and negotiate!), as well as the challenge of thinking about text and music. One student reported: ‘It was great fun collaborating for this translation, as we realised we all emphasised different aspects of the original poem and had different interpretations of some of the images, so we had to pitch our ideas against each other to come up with a final version.’ When we were translating, we had to take a number of factors into account: the style and structure of the text, the register (formal or informal?), the literal meaning of words as well as the associations they have within society and culture. The first few lines of the first verse will show you what I mean:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!

[Joy, the gods’ own spark of beauty
daughter of Elysium,
Fire-drunk pilgrims’ solemn duty
to your kingdom we shall come!]

This is not the sort of thing that comes up in everyday conversation.

Often, it’s actually quite difficult to translate a text without losing something of the original – references, sounds made by the position of words in a sentence – and to say just exactly what the original text did. To translate a text so that it also fits the rhythms of a song is a very tall order. Indeed, this kind of translation has been called impossible. We had to think about the style and structure of the music as well as the text: phrasing, rhythm, stress, range, word painting. We also needed to think about the needs of the singers (not putting awkward vowel sounds on a very high note, for example), as well as the function of the song (the tune is used as the European Union’s anthem though performed without words), and the needs of the audience members who are listening to it. To use a technical term from translation studies, we had to ‘compensate’, by trying to introduce things elsewhere to achieve the same effects overall. Vocal translation encourages us to ask questions about the dynamic relationships between text and music. Perhaps have a go at translating your favourite song from English into German. Can you make it fit the music without sounding really strange?

Singable translation might be difficult, but it’s something we can encounter without thinking about it. Many people at Christmas sing the carol ‘Silent Night’ which is actually a translation of a German song, ‘Stille Nacht’. Or, take David Bowie’s famous song ‘Heroes’ which he also performed in German and in French.  One of the students who worked on the translation is now doing an extended project on the way hymns change between languages, and another will be taking a course on advanced German translation next year. A group of students and I performed the singable English translation of the ‘Ode to Joy’ at the launch of the book, The Idea of Europe: Enlightenment Perspectives, in November. ‘It was a lovely surprise to be a sent a video months later of our translation being sung at the relay reading event in the Taylorian!’.

And you can see a clip of Dr Lloyd and her students singing ‘An die Freude’ here…


Harry Potter and the Translator’s Headache


posted by Simon Kemp

From the fourth Harry Potter book onwards, once the saga’s French translator, Jean-François Ménard, was most definitely not translating the work of a little-known British children’s author any more, his working routine was the same. The publisher’s paranoia about plot leaks meant that translators were refused advance access to the English original. Ménard’s copy arrived on the day of publication of the English-language version. Two months later he would be expected to present the publishers with the French text to be rushed into print for millions of impatient francophone readers. Every day of those two months would be spent translating  J. K. Rowling’s prose, starting at 6 a.m. and finishing at midnight, barring a long lunch-break to refresh his brain and a weekly trip to the physiotherapist to ward off writer’s cramp.

Translating Harry Potter presents unusual challenges. What to do with the latiny riddle-language of Rowling’s spells, which allows English-speaking readers to work out that wingardium leviosa implies ‘wings’ and ‘levitation’, or that the cruciatus curse will bring excruciating pain? What to do with the names of people and places, with their hidden jokes and clues? Let’s take a look at a few, so that we can appreciate what Ménard was up against. In the original, Hogwarts school is divided into the four houses, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. In Ménard’s translation, L’École de Poudlard (‘Poux-de-lard’, or ‘bacon lice’) is divided into Gryffondor (‘Gryffon d’or’, or ‘golden griffin’), Serdaigle (‘serre d’aigle’, or ‘eagle talon’), Poufsouffle (which suggests ‘à bout de souffle’, or ‘out of puff’) and Serpentard (which contains the word serpent, meaning snake). Some are quite different, presumably because literal translations of Hogwarts (‘verrues de porc’) and Ravenclaw (‘serre de corbeau’) are not as mellifluous, or as funny-sounding, in French as in English. A little of the subtlety is lost from Slytherin, who are now bluntly linked to snakes, and even the name which stays the same, Gryffindor/Gryffondor, is different, since the French allusion in the original becomes a straightforward label in the translation.

The characters become an exotic mix of French and English names, with Dumbledore, Harry, Hermione and Ron remaining unchanged, but now finding themselves sharing classrooms with Neville Londubat (‘long-du-bas’, or ‘long-in-the-bottom’), Severus Rogue (‘haughty’), and Olivier Dubois, who has to be repatriated from his original identity as Oliver Wood to accommodate a gag about Professor McGonagall needing to ‘borrow Wood’, which Harry misunderstands as an implement for punishment. This oddly franco-British establishment becomes odder still with the introduction of an actual French school of witchcraft, Beauxbatons, in the fourth book, leaving us wondering why the French-named students enrolled in Scotland. And talking of French names, Rowling’s own liberal use of them gives the translator an extra headache. Fleur Delacour may sound sophisticated to English ears, but to a French reader it means the rather more ordinary-sounding Yard Flower. Similarly, Voldemort transforms from a figure of fear and mystery to a comic-book villain when his name simply means ‘Deathflight’ (or ‘Death-theft’) to the reader of the translation.

And it would not escape the notice of the French audience that a surprising number of Rowling’s bad guys have French names, such as Malfoy or Lestrange. Rowling perhaps meant them to sound like ancient, aristocratic Anglo-norman families. French readers who missed the implication might have felt a little hurt. In a project fraught with difficulty, and scattered with no-win situations pitting sound against sense, or humour against consistency, Ménard pulls off a sterling job seven times in succession. I wonder how many French readers realize just how much Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers and its sequels owe, not just to J. K. Rowling, but to J.-F. Ménard as well?