A couple of weeks ago I went to the theatre to see the opera The Barber of Seville. Although the title is in English, the original language of this masterpiece by the composer Rossini is actually Italian, since the libretto – the words of the piece – were written by the Italian Cesare Sterbini. While enjoying the opera, I started wondering when and why music pieces are translated.
First of all, translating music is a very challenging task, requiring several skills. Of course, you need people who are proficient in both languages, but that’s definitely not enough. In fact, they must also master the technique of song writing and the rules lying behind it. So, some musical knowledge has to be there! In addition, I would say that, since music is often regarded as an expressive means very close to poetry, some literary training would definitely be helpful. Finally, for a linguist this is a very exciting challenge: would you translate Sterbini’s 18th-century Italian into modern English or would you rather preserve some of its antique charme? That’s hard. In the opera I saw, they had decided to give the audience some of the original Italian flavour of the language by keeping some words in Italian, such as ‘buongiorno’ (good morning) and ‘presto’ (quickly).
In Germany, on the other hand, I have seen that most operas are sung in the original language, but the audience is provided with what the German logically call ‘Übertitel’, as they are subtitles that are displayed at the top of the stage, so why should you call them subtitles?!?
So, how is the issue of translating operas handled in your country? Do you have subtitles, singers singing in the audience’s language or anything else? Please share your knowledge with us!