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Bach Books

J.S. Bach - The Complete Cantatas in German-English Translation
by Richard Stokes

 

 

The Book

.S. Bach - The Complete Cantatas in German-English Translation

The Complete Church and Secular Cantatas

Richard Stokes, with an Introduvtion by Martin Neary

Long Barn Books / Scarecrow Press

1999

380 pp

Book Review – Bach the Complete Cantatas

Kirk McElhearn wrote (October 17, 2001):
J. S. BACH - THE COMPLETE CANTATAS
In German-English translation by Richard Stokes
Introduction by Martin Neary
381 pages
Scarecrow Press, 2000
0-8108-3933-4

Bach’s cantatas are settings of sacred texts (and secular texts, for a handful of them) to music, in a structure that alternates chorales, arias, and recitatives. While the music is eloquent enough to speak for itself, Bach worked hard at marrying the tone of his music to the texts. At times, individual instruments and melodies were chosen to correspond to specific verses and words. While the cantatas can be appreciated for the music they contain, a deeper exploration of their texts can help listeners to understand the reasons behind many of Bach¹s musical choices.

This book contains a parallel translation of the texts of all of Bach’s more than 200 extant cantatas. Each cantata is presented with its BWV number (the standard Bach catalogue number), its title, the author of the text, or the biblical reference, for chorales, and the texts of each individual movement. These are not singing translations - no attempt is made to rhyme the texts, which would be an aberration. It is nearly impossible to translate poetry in rhyme and maintain the same images and ideas, for the simple reason that the same words do not rhyme in one language as in another.

When examining some of the translations provided in liner notes of cantata recordings, the quality is variable. The groundbreaking recordings by Gustav Leonhardt and Nicolas Harnoncourt contain the most aberrant translations - the German word order is often retained, leading to some ridiculous texts that make little sense in English. The texts in Helmuth Rilling’s set are somewhat better, though they bathe in pseudo-archaism, which renders them far too obscure. Philippe Herreweghe¹s recordings contain far better English translations, but they remain full of “thees” and “thous”, which are anything but modern.

For this is the main problem with translations of such texts – translators tend to use archaic language, in English, because the best-known Bible remains the King James’ Version. This text, to our ears, sounds both archaic, yet biblical. The problem with this book is that the translator did not stray sufficiently from this tradition, and presents texts that are, at times, archaic and confusing. He tends to retain the German word order in many cases where this is not at all acceptable; cantata 134 contains a recitative (section 3), and the alto¹s first line in this section is, “The power of love is for me a banner/For heroism, for strength amid the struggles”. I would have phrased that as, “The power of love, for me, is a banners”. In cantata 166, he translates the title, ³Whither goest thou?”, which is as archaic as one can get, yet translates the same words, later in the text, as “whither do you go?” Personally, I would rather not hither, and say, ³Where are you going?² in both cases.

The entire translation has these hints of archaism that could have been avoided. In order to make an “old” text more accessible, translators tend to use contemporary language. As a translator myself, I have been confronted with this issue; the best solution is to use the language you are familiar with, rather than try and adopt a style that dates.

In any case, this is an admirable project, and one that is indeed useful for fans of Bach¹s cantatas. Having all these translations in one book is very practical, and, since they are better than most of the translations found in liner notes, provide a textual background to this essential sacred music.

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Ludwig wrote (October 18, 2001):
[To Kirk McEhearn] I am not really taking issue with Kirk since language use changes over the centuries and even within decades.

Kirk is attempting to put the language into modern terms so that they make sense to those who hear them but at least we are not dealing with Chaucerian English here. Change in language usage is one of the great reasons for so-called Biblical experts and fundamentalists getting Biblical texts wrong because they are not reading in the context of the time in which (1) the Bible was written (2) and in the context of the time of the translation. Thus we have some of the great controversies of modern times arizing from these very same problems in which the Bible is interpeted as saying what it does not say even in the most wildest of dreams.

Hovever, It is appropriate to use the language of the KJ in translation if one would want the translation to reflect the English the time in which Bach lived as it is almost concurrent with Bach's life time. At the same time; such language should reflect the growth of the language from Elizabethian times to that of the 1750s. The Language of Elizabethian England had not totally disappered by James's time (It in fact survived well into the 20th century in the speech of those who lived in Appalachia in the US and amoung Quakers and Shakers) and only began to disappear in the vulgate usage with the Hanovers assumed the throne. There was almost no trace of the earlier speech at the time of Bach's death except in America. For me; the translations in general make excellent sense either in Elizabethian English or German.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (October 18, 2001):
[To Ludwig] I have to disagree.

First of all, you cannot realistically translate into an idiom which is not your own. At best, you use a few words (in this case, thee and thou, and some others) to make the translation sound archaic. At worst, you come up with a hybrid that just does not sound realistic by any stretch of the imagination.

Second, while I can accept the use of KJ texts for the biblical excerpts, German colleagues, to whom I sent a few samples of the translation in question, agreed that the German is not at all archaic (for the time). So, translating texts other than biblical excerpts in KJ style is wrong for that reason.

Finally, it is not Elizabethan English - look at Shakespeare; that is Elizabethan. There is a huge difference between English in 1600 and in the 1700s. Major changes occurred just after Shakespeare's lifetime.

I stand by my comments, partly out of logical reasoning, partly because I am a translator and have been confronted with these issues and carefully thought out my reasoning. (If you are interested, go see my translation of the Story of the Grail, from 11th century French -
http://www.mcelhearn.com/perceval.html )

Marcus Song wrote (October 18, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Since I am a fan of Bach's Cantatas and only understand English, I read with interest your review of this book. However I disagree with one of your criticisms regarding translations of the cantata texts.

To me, translating these cantata texts must be done with a slightly different set of priorities than translating a novel or even a poem because the words and phrases are delivered within a musical structure. In this case, it is important that the original German word order of the text be maintained because it is woven into the melodic phrases of the music. For example, Bach often has the performer sing a melisma to highlight and emphasize an important word in the text. (BWV 70 mvt-10: "/Welt und Himmel, geht zu Trummern/" ..an incredible multi-measure melisma on the word "Trummern" acby a trembling bass.) Changing the translated word order to satisfy English grammar rules in this case may end up weakening the powerful apocalyptic image Bach is trying to evoke.

You also gave an example for another translated line:

1. "The power of love is for me a banner"
vs.
2. "The power of love, for me, is a banner"

I am certainly not well versed in the rules of English grammar, (I failed the lessons of Strunk & White.) but I understood the meaning of the first phrase just as well as the second despite whatever grammatical errors it contained, which I obviously have not noticed! If the first translation is closer to the original German text and the meaning is still communicated, then it should be preferred over the second. The first phrase is to me no worse.

I've found that in most cases that reading literal translation does not pose many difficulties in understanding, yet I gain a much better appreciation of the whole musical work.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (October 18, 2001):
< Marcus Song wrote: To me, translating these cantata texts must be done with a slightly different set of priorities than translating a novel or even a poem because the words and phrases are delivered within a musical structure. In this case, it is important that the original German word order of the text be maintained because it is woven into the melodic phrases of the music. >
Let me quote from the back cover of the book:

"They have been translated into accurate and readable English, which does not attempt to render the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the originals but allows the reader to appreciate the beauty and atmosphere of the poetry set by Bach..."

If what you say were true (and I can imagine such a case), then the above would not have been written.

< For example, Bach often has the performer sing a melisma to highlight and emphasize an important word in the text. (BWV 70 mvt-10: "/Welt und Himmel, geht zu Trummern/" ..an incredible multi-measure melisma on the word "Trummern" accompanied by a trembling bass.) Changing the translated word order to satisfy English grammar rules in this case may end up weakening the powerful apocalyptic image Bach is trying to evoke.

You also gave an example for another translated line:

1. "The power of love is for me a banner"
vs.
2. "The power of love, for me, is a banner"

I am certainly not well versed in the rules of English grammar, (I failed the lessons of Strunk & White.) but I understood the meaning of the first phrase just as well as the second despite whatever grammatical errors it contained, which I obviously have not noticed! If the first translation is closer to the original German text and the meaning is still communicated, then it should be preferred over the second. The first phrase is to me no worse. >
I have to disagree. It gives an overall impression of archaism, which goes against the very tenet of the book - accurate and readable English.

< I've found that in most cases that reading literal translation does not pose many difficulties in understanding, yet I gain a much better appreciation of the whole musical work. >
What you should remember is that this is a parallel translation, with the German text as well. Anyone can read the German text and see how it relates to the music; the translator claims to be presenting the "beauty and atmosphere of the poetry"; I maintain that he does not achieve this. I have no qualms with your argument, but it is not the approach the translator claims to have chosen.

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 18, 2001):
Marcus Song commented:
< To me, translating these cantata texts must be done with a slightly different set of priorities than translating a novel or even a poem because the words and phrases are delivered within a musical structure. In this case, it is important that the original German word order of the text be maintained because it is woven into the melodic phrases of the music. >
and
< I've found that in most cases that reading literal translation does not pose many difficulties in understanding, yet I gain a much better appreciation of the whole musical work. >
Perhaps a compromise solution would work best: Include three lines of parallel text --

1) German original

2) Word-for-word English translation with the English word placed directly beneath each German word that it purports to translate. This well help the reader who is unfamiliar with German to locate the musical structure as dependent upon the German sentence structure.

3) Kirk McElhearn-style translation without the 'thee's', 'thou's', and 'thithers'.

Better yet, present no. 3 first, at the top of the page with nos. 1 & 2 in parallel translation for those who wish to see whatever is important for the musical structure.

There is, however, an even more profound problem that these solutions will not address: the abstract nature of many English words. I commented on this recently in my discussion of BWV 47:

< Mvt. 1:
Without knowing the German language, the first step is made more difficult: discovering the major contrast that is at the heart of the entire cantata. Considering the English: "Whoever himself exalteth shall be abased," ["Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden."] leaves me pondering abstract ideas rather than a concrete contrast in motion which the German preserves in the words "nieder" ("down, below") and "Höhe" ("up high.")
This immediately, in Bach's mind, translates into an antithetical contrast between movement upwards vs. movement downwards, concepts that are easily represented in the motion of notes up or down the musical scale. There is almost no surprise in Bach's application of this feature as it serves as a real springboard not only for two types of motion that are contrary, but also to represent the more abstract concepts of humility vs. pride in the arias later on. >

Kirk McElhearn wrote (October 18, 2001):
< Thomas Braatz wrote: Perhaps a compromise solution would work best: Include three lines of parallel text --
1) German original
2) Word-for-word English translation with the English word placed directly beneath each German word that it purports to translate. This well help the reader who is unfamiliar with German to locate the musical structure as dependent upon the German sentence structure.
3) Kirk McElhearn-style translation without the 'thee's', 'thou's', and 'thithers'. >
This is exactly what would be called for, if the goal of the translation were to both present something close to the word order and something poetic. This is done with poetry in some cases.

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 18, 2001):
Kirk McElhearn stated: < German colleagues, to whom I sent a few samples of the translation in question, agreed that the German is not at all archaic (for the time). So, translating texts other than biblical excerpts in KJ style is wrong for that reason. >
I concur fully. As a case in point, take BWV 166 "Wo gehest du hin?" which is based upon the following verse (Joh, 16:5) of the Bible:

KJV (1611) But now I go my way to him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?
WEB (1833) But now I go to him that sent me, and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?
ASV (1901) But now I go unto him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?
RSV (1952) But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, 'Where are you going?'
NAU (1995) But now I am going to Him who sent Me; and none of you asks Me, 'Where are You going?'

LUO (1912) Nun aber gehe ich hin zu dem, der mich gesandt hat; und niemand unter euch fragt mich: Wo gehst du hin ?
ELB (1993) Jetzt aber gehe ich hin zu dem, der mich gesandt hat, und niemand von euch fragt mich: Wohin gehst du ?

The interesting aspect about Bach's Luther Bible version: "Wo gehest du hin?" is that the extra 'e' in normal, fast speech is barely audible unless the speaker makes a special effort at emphasizing it as an extra syllable. This happens in poetry and music when the extra syllable is needed. But otherwise it is truly astounding how little Luther's German Bible translation has changed up to the time. Even the difference between the 1912 and 1993 versions (Wo gehst du hin? vs. Wohin gehst du?) is not felt as making any difference at all. Anyone truly fluent in the German language does not sense that one version is any different from the other. One is simply a variant of the other. They are absolutely interchangeable.

The English versions, on the contrary, which are widely respected versions, all based on the KJV, have only slowly begun to shift away from what is generally sensed to be archaic language. Certainly the changes during the past half century, such as the Revised Standard Version (1952), indicate that the tide has turned away from the KJ style with the exception of very special uses.

The biblical content of Bach's cantata texts, when read or heard either in Bach's time or in this century (see the LUO or ELB above) sounds very natural to anyone whose language is German. For this reason, as Kirk correctly pointed out, it should sound the same way (very natural) to anyone who is approaching the cantata texts through the English language.

Bach Books: Main Page / Reviews & Discussions | Index by Title | Index by Author | Index by Number
General: Biographies | Essay Collections | Performance Practice | Children
Vocal: Cantatas BWV 1-224 | Motets BWV 225-231 | Latin Church BWV 232-243 | Passions & Oratorios BWV 244-249 | Chorales BWV 250-438 | Lieder BWV 439-524
Instrumental: Organ BWV 525-771 | Keyboard BWV 772-994 | Solo Instrumental BWV 995-1013 | Chamber & Orchestral BWV 1014-1080


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Last update: ýDecember 31, 2002 ý23:23:18