Lyrical Balladeers

Our recent Lyrical Balladeers proved an interesting probe into the problems, delights and disputes of lyrics and their translation with Richard Stokes and Jeremy Sams.


Richard Stokes is the renowned translator most significantly of Wagner and Berg’s Lulu and Wozzeck. Tonight however he chose to discuss ‘the words behind the music’ and concentrate on the themes and attitudes of Lieder contained within the poetry, and the importance of conveying this to the reader and audience. With the audience armed with the English translation, Richard read from lyrics in the original German, highlighting the beauty of tone and richness of language that people don’t always recognise as ‘German’ and sparked a debate as to the element of pathos within Schumann’s work. Recordings of Schumann’s songs were also enjoyed and then discussed with Richard explaining the problems suffered when coaching singers in the interpretation of Lieder.


Then it was the turn of Jeremy Sams, the acclaimed lyricist, translator and director. Jeremy declared his intention to explore ‘music and words and how they go together’ and the struggle to create a meaningful translation not just in opera but in all translation. After citing the more practical difficulties facing the translator, the difference in vowels and rhyme and the contentious issue of opera sung in English, he then swept such discussion aside, jovially claiming that it was his opinion ‘that English people get foreigners to have their feelings for them!’ Jeremy went on to illustrate the point by showing that a negative statement of passion is a positive statement in English and the complexity of the English language, meaning that the sheer simplicity of the Italian or French opera ‘I’m dying of love’ is made humorous in English.


There then followed a somewhat lively question and answer session with calls for a musical based on Beowulf, another audience member heatedly proclaiming the richness of English spoken word and prose. Another volunteered the opinion that ‘wasn’t Puccini the ‘Mills and Boon of opera!?’ More seriously the problem of the leap of faith one must take when translating or adapting lyrics or prose was discussed. Both Richard and Jeremy concurred with this view and Jeremy asserted that overall translation of a piece was not for the benefit of the bilingual in the audience who could applaud the accuracy of a literal translation, but for those unable to understand the original and still grasp the same feeling and emotion of the original.


Many thanks to our speakers for tearing themselves from their translations to speak tonight and to Adam street for having us.


Report by Lizzie Montgomery

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