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Quiz about The Art of Libretto Translation
Quiz about The Art of Libretto Translation

The Art of Libretto Translation Quiz


After two MA dissertations on the subject, I know a thing or two about libretto translation, i.e. translation of a text that is meant to be sung. Let's explore some of the basics of this underrated discipline of translation studies.

A multiple-choice quiz by PearlQ19. Estimated time: 4 mins.
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Author
PearlQ19
Time
4 mins
Type
Multiple Choice
Quiz #
343,509
Updated
Dec 03 21
# Qns
10
Difficulty
Average
Avg Score
7 / 10
Plays
459
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Question 1 of 10
1. A translator of libretti/song lyrics has to be a jack-of-all-trades, really. Knowledge of which of the following areas is required to be a good libretto translator? Hint


Question 2 of 10
2. Musical theater, be it opera, musical, or something else entirely, always consists of three components: the music, the lyrics (libretto), and the staging. If you are responsible for translating the lyrics, what is your stance on the other two components? Hint


Question 3 of 10
3. In some ways, libretto translation is not unlike which kind of translation? Hint


Question 4 of 10
4. Let's say the original song contains a famous quote that has previously been translated into your target language, perhaps a psalm from the Bible. How do you approach the translation of that particular passage? Hint


Question 5 of 10
5. Are you allowed to make changes to the music and/or rhythm in order to accommodate your translation? Hint


Question 6 of 10
6. Which is the general approach in the translation of libretti? Hint


Question 7 of 10
7. The key to libretto translation is singability. This means that the text must be ideally suited to be sung. Which of the following does not affect singability at all? Hint


Question 8 of 10
8. Apart from singability, there are two more core requirements in libretto translation. What are they? Hint


Question 9 of 10
9. It takes an experienced libretto translator to write the surtitles for an opera performance.


Question 10 of 10
10. Even a word as simple and universal as "love" can pose a tricky problem in libretto translation.



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Quiz Answer Key and Fun Facts
1. A translator of libretti/song lyrics has to be a jack-of-all-trades, really. Knowledge of which of the following areas is required to be a good libretto translator?

Answer: The translator should be familiar with all of these

Libretto translation is a fusion of several arts. Obviously, in-depth knowledge of both source and target language is required (a good feeling for the target language is actually more important here than absolute proficiency in the source language). Musical knowledge is necessary to understand the dynamics of the music, which also serves to intensify the words, and to adhere to the criteria of singability. Knowledge in poetry translation comes in handy, as song lyrics/libretti usually come in a structured, often rhymed, form.

In addition to those, a libretto translator should know something about staging and, ideally, make sure to be involved in the entire production process of the play they're translating.
2. Musical theater, be it opera, musical, or something else entirely, always consists of three components: the music, the lyrics (libretto), and the staging. If you are responsible for translating the lyrics, what is your stance on the other two components?

Answer: Always take the music and staging into account when you're translating

The very first thing everyone will tell you about libretto translation is that you should never use ONLY the text as the basis for your translation (which renders the fact that this quiz is in the Linguistics category somewhat ironic). Musical theater is always a combination of the three aspects music, lyrics, and staging.

At times, one takes precedence over the others, but they must always be seen as a dramatic unity. The libretto translator's job is to translate the lyrics in such a way that they fit into that unity or, indeed, create a new one.
3. In some ways, libretto translation is not unlike which kind of translation?

Answer: Poetry

Opera translator and researcher Ronnie Apter puts it best when she says that opera translation poses all challenges that come with translating a verse drama, plus a number of problems peculiar to itself.

Things to consider include style, rhyme, and meter, just like poetry translation. But in addition there are the musical aspects that we will look into in another question.
4. Let's say the original song contains a famous quote that has previously been translated into your target language, perhaps a psalm from the Bible. How do you approach the translation of that particular passage?

Answer: Try to stay as close to the existing translation as possible but reformulate to fit the music where necessary

A problem with well-known quotes is that people might be bewildered if you "get it wrong", i.e. word it differently. But simply using the existing translation is not an option here, as the translated version will almost certainly not fit the music. After all, the music will follow the natural speech rhythm of the original language.

The best option is to produce a translation that is close enough to the existing version to be recognized, but changed where necessary to go well with the music.
5. Are you allowed to make changes to the music and/or rhythm in order to accommodate your translation?

Answer: Occasionally inserting an upbeat or joining two syllables is OK; otherwise, no

Researchers actually disagree on this. Some say that not the slightest change can be made to the music, others concede that tiny changes are acceptable. (People tend to be stricter with operas and more lenient with musicals.) As long as you keep it to an absolute minimum, it is OK to, say, insert an upbeat to accommodate another unstressed syllable (provided it can be done without disrupting the flow and rhythm of the music).
6. Which is the general approach in the translation of libretti?

Answer: It differs from song to song, depending on the music and staging

There is no "general approach" as such. Of course the message needs to be carried across, but when it comes to details, each song and its music and staging must be considered individually.

A few examples: In "Gus: The Theatre Cat" from the musical "Cats", there are numerous allusions to the English theater scene in Victorian times. If translated for a German target audience, few (if any) people will know what you are talking about if you take over everything literally. It might be a good idea to either choose German equivalents or simply use theater-specific language without naming specific actors or plays.

In the German musical "Rebecca" (based on Daphne du Maurier's famous novel), on the other hand, the song "Kein Lächeln war je so kalt" (roughly: "No Smile Was Ever So Cold") would have to be translated as literally as possible, as it is Maxim's account of the death of his first wife, so its dramatic function is entirely different.
7. The key to libretto translation is singability. This means that the text must be ideally suited to be sung. Which of the following does not affect singability at all?

Answer: Translation that contradicts stage directions or musical emphasis

This aspect is especially important in opera translation, because it plays a huge role in the credibility of the performers. Think of all those (physically) big tenors and sopranos who can still pass off as star-crossed lovers or youthful heroes and heroines on stage: that is achieved because their singing and performance makes them credible.

Basic rules of singability include the fact that dark vowels, such as o and u, cannot be sung on a high note; similarly, vowels such as e and i are not suitable for low notes. Also, articulation should not be made difficult by using consonant clusters or especially complicated words in fast passages, and the speech rhythm should be natural: make sure that the music does not emphasize unstressed syllables, for instance.

Translation that contradicts stage directions or musical emphasis is another important thing to consider, but it has nothing to do with singability. It is simply annoying. Example: In Verdi's "Otello", there is a scene where Otello shouts a profanity at his wife, which is accordingly accentuated by the orchestra and Desdemona's reaction on stage. In an old German translation, however, the word order of that sentence was changed, and the word that ended up in the place where the profanity should have been was "wife". The audience was left wondering why there was such musical turmoil on the word "wife", and humble pianissimo on the profanity that followed later.
8. Apart from singability, there are two more core requirements in libretto translation. What are they?

Answer: suitability for the stage & mood

The translated song must:
a) be singable;
b) be suitable for the stage, i.e. make sense in the context of the staging and interpretation; and
c) reflect the mood of what is being expressed. For instance, you should not use harsh-sounding words in a gentle love duet, and no posh language when an uneducated character is speaking (or rather: singing).
9. It takes an experienced libretto translator to write the surtitles for an opera performance.

Answer: False

No. Surtitles are similar to subtitles on television and are usually direct, concise translations of what is being said and sung on stage. They are entirely situational (meaning they only make sense during the actual performance) and usually do not follow the form of the original (i.e. they do not rhyme, do not include repetitions, etc.).
So you don't have to be a libretto translator to do that, as there are no singability requirements. Experience with subtitling would come in handy, though.
10. Even a word as simple and universal as "love" can pose a tricky problem in libretto translation.

Answer: True

Unfortunately, yes, especially in opera. Consider the following example: The Italian "amore" has three syllables, the dominating vowel is open, and it is stressed in the middle. The German "Liebe" has only two syllables, the dominating vowel is a narrow "i", and it is stressed in the beginning.

The French "amour", on the other hand, has two syllables, is dominated by a dark vowel, and is stressed in the end. If you compare these three, you will notice that they all differ in emphasis, natural speech rhythm, and mood (which is in part determined by the dominating vowel). That means that in certain situations, the word cannot be used (for instance, if you are translating into German and the music calls for three syllables, stressed in the middle, and a dark vowel due to pitch).
Source: Author PearlQ19

This quiz was reviewed by FunTrivia editor looney_tunes before going online.
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