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Discussions: Texts | Translations: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Translations of Texts of Bach's Vocal Works
Discussions - Part 1

Cantatas translations from German into English

Marie Jensen wrote (May 23, 2000):
(BWV 166) Back to Koopman: Though my knowledge of English and German certainly could be much better, I have to admit that I'm not satisfied with the translation of BWV 166 into English. The English version is reproduced so that meter and rhymes are the same as the original in stead of concentrating on translating the exact meaning. That meter and rhymes fit, is only needed if the cantata is supposed to be performed in a new language (and please don't!). Bach's word painting fits the text exactly. In the chorale for soprano the soul is compared with a bird lying in its nest ready to fly to Heaven when time comes. In the English version this beautiful image is gone. Sad because just there the music flaps its wings and flies up.

Ryan Michero wrote (May 23, 2000):
(To Marie Jensen, regarding BWV 166) EXACTLY! You've hit on a big pet peeve of mine regarding the translations of the German texts in the Koopman AND Harnoncourt/Leonhardt sets (they use the same translations, which Warner music apparently has the rights to). In my opinion, the English texts should be literal translations of the German--and that's all! No changing of words or meanings or symbols just to fit the meter or make a rhyme. I mean, we can read and hear the German texts with rhyme and meter intact and sounding much more natural--why should a translator try in vain to do this in English? It would be different if the text was SUNG in English, but neither Koopman nor H&L do this.

Here is another reason to collect Suzuki's cantata series--their notes offer clear, faithful, literal translations of the German text into English. Really, the quality of the liner notes should not be ignored when judging the merits of a recording.

You give a perfect example of the kinds of distortions this kind of translation causes. I remember another cantata ("Schauet doch"?) (BWV 46) from Suzuki's Vol.11 where the word "Küchlein" ("little chicks") was translated correctly in the Suzuki notes and ignored in the Koopman/H&L notes. And Bach uses two soprano recorders to score this aria, representing the chicks! I would've never caught this brilliant pictorial image were it not for the Suzuki translations.

Aryeh Oron wrote (May 26, 2000):
(To Marie Jensen & Ryan Michero) The problem of translation of Bach Cantatas texts from German into English has a very long history, since the second half of the 19th century. In general, I agree that it is much more important to understand the meaning of the words through good literal translation, rather than have a singable translation, which will miss the point. Because I do not read German, I try to understand the meaning of the original text through as many English translations I can put my hands on. As I have shown in the review of BWV 12, no translation into English is perfect. Lately I found a new book named 'J.S. Bach - The Complete Cantatas - in German-English translation' by Richard Stokes. The translations literal in good simple Modern English and are very readable. I took for example the Aria for Alto (No.5) from BWV 46, which Ryan mentioned.

Original German text:
"Er sammelt sie als seine Schafe,
Als sene Küchlein liebreich ein"

Koopman/L&H cycles translation:
"He gathers us as does a shepherd,
To keep and ever safe defend"

Rilling cycle translation (by Z. Philip Ambrose):
"He gathers them as his own sheep now,
As his own chicks, so dear, to him"

Suzuki cycle translation:
"He gathers all his sheep,
As well as his little chicks"

Richard Stokes translation:
"He gathers them together most lovingly,
As his own sheep and chickens"

Conclusion? I agree with Ryan that the Koopman/L&H translation misses a point here. However, I cannot say that Suzuki cycle translation is always my preferred one. Even here, Rilling cycle translation seems to me a little bit better. And I remember cases in the past where the Koopman/L&H translation seemed to me the best. Like in the comparisons of the recordings, there is not a definite translation, which is always the best regarding the true meaning of the original German text.

At least, the English readers have some options to choose from. We, the Hebrew readers, have none!

Marie Jensen wrote (May 27, 2000):
Aryeh Oron wrote, about cantata translations:
< At least, the English readers have some options to choose from. We, the Hebrew readers, have none! >
You can't avoid it. You have to learn some German to listen to a Bach cantata with full profit. Grammatically German is much more complicated than English, but so long you only have to understand the meaning and not express yourself it is not so difficult. Both languages are members of the Germanic family of languages. I must however admit, that my mother tongue Danish is a member too, and that gives me an advantage.

If this discussion had been going on in German, I would never have contributed, though I would understand most of it. I learned German in school for 3 years, many many years ago, but that is enough to understand most of the meaning of the cantata texts. And while reading them I learn more, the same way as writing to this list I learn more and more English.

Understanding texts while listening without reading a translation at the same time gives me concentration and energy to flow and be caught immediately, when Bach begins his word painting. Off course there often are details I have check with the text book or even have to look on the English texts or use a dictionary, but not knowing one word while listening would be awful. Perhaps that's why I'm not caught by Bach's Italian cantatas BWV 203 and BWV 209. I have learned a little Latin. Without that the b-minor Mass would not be the same.

The Stokes and Ambrose translations of BWV 46 are IMO best. They catch all the words, while Suzuki's translator forgets "liebreich".

The worst Bach translation I have ever heard, was the Coffee Cantata sung in Swedish! After five seconds I turned off the radio (sorry Patrik!).

Ryan Michero wrote (May 28, 2000):
In the light of our recent discussion of English translations of Bach's cantata texts, I would like to mention a great online resource for all of us. Aryeh's comparison of different translations of BWV 46, No. 5 were very instructive. I agree with Marie that Ambrose's translation is probably the best for making sense of the German text. Luckily for those of us without Rilling's cantata set, Prof. Ambrose has made all of his superb translations of Bach's vocal music available online: http://www.uvm.edu/~classics/faculty/bach/

Here is a quote from his site:
"Some of my translations originally appeared in The Texts to Johann Sebastian Bach's Church Cantatas (Hänssler-Verlag: Neuhausen-Stuttgart, 1984). To these are added now the remaining works. The translations are unrhymed but follow the meter and word-division of the originals exactly so that they match their musical placement. While this means that they could be sung, they are not meant primarily for singing but as an aid to performers and listeners for interpreting the original texts."

This is exactly what I want out of an English translation. I am guilty of forgetting about this site while discussing cantata texts in the past, but I will be sure to visit it with every new cantata discussion now. He does not include the German texts, but this is hardly a problem as these are readily available in every cantata set. I urge everyone to check his site out.

JohSebastianBach wrote (May 28, 2000):
Aryeh Oron wrote: Rilling cycle translation (by Z. Philip Ambrose):
< "He gathers them as his own sheep now, As his own chicks, so dear, to him" >
Please remember that these are designed also to be sitranslations.

 

Best English Translation

Paul McCain wrote (December 27, 2000):
I apologize if this has been covered before, but would the members here mind commenting on what, in their opinion, the best English translation is of the Cantatas? Sadly, I can not read German well enough carefully to evaluate the translations.

Michael Kennedy wrote (December 27, 2000):
(To Paul McCain) A friend recommended the translations by Z. Philip Ambrose. You can find them at www.uvm.edu/~classics/faculty/bach .They can also be found with the Rilling complete CD's on Hännsler.

Roy Reed wrote (December 27, 2000):
(To Paul McCain & Michael Kennedy) I think that the Ambrose cantata translations are just "so-so." Better the translations with the Suzuki CD's, or best.....if you can get to a good library.....the "Handbook to Bach's Sacred Cantata Texts," by Me.vin P. Unger (Scarecrow, 1996), The advantage of the Ambrose translations is their immediate availability on the net, but word for word accurate they are not.

Michael Kennedy wrote (December 28, 2000):
(To Roy Reed) Thanks for the recommendation. I will track it down and if possible order it.

Harry J. Steinman wrote (December 28, 2000):
(To Paul McCain) I'd be very interested in this also: I mostly have Koopman's cantatas and I detest the accompanying translations!

Charles Francis wrote (December 28, 2000):
(To Harry J. Steinman) The English translations I've come across are invariably unsatisfactory. German grammar is different from English and in particular the word order is different. In the cantatas individual words of course correspond to particular notes and this relation is often lost in a translation that follows English grammar. So, for me a musically satisfactory translation must necessarily abandon English word order and be rendered in a kind of "Pigeon English".

Secondly, the cantata text is generally poetry - it rhymes. Unfortunately, its virtually impossible to reconcile poetry in translation with semantic accuracy.

Another problem is that each German word generally carries a different complex of meanings from the English equivalents. Consider, for example, last weeks cantata BWV 132 - Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! If you ever visit Germany, you'll notice that the word "Bahn" denotes "train" as in "Bahnhof" (train station) or if you prefer "Strassenbahn" ("Street Train" = "tram") - OK, a silly example, but you can at least see that the translator has to interpret the text - this canasta is not about trains, after all, and common sense must be used. But, of course, in a theological work common sense is doctrinal interpretation according to an assumed world view and
here we are on dangerous ground.

At the end of the day one needs to learn some German, if only for the Bachian pilgrimage (not to mention the great German beer brewed to the traditional recipe used in Bach's day!). The Bach FAQ has a short Bachian vocabulary that may help with the cantatas: http://www.bachfaq.org/

More advanced stuff can be found at: http://www.wm.edu/CAS/modlang/grammnu.html

Pieter Pannevis wrote (December 28, 2000):
(To Charles Francis) What a nice thought it is that we Dutch, speak German, English and somewhat French (sorry Kirk), to the addiotnal Spanish I spea...and bach WROTE it in German. Well anyway have all a blessed time. Take care

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (December 28, 2000):
[To Harry J. Steinman] Almost without exception all the English "translations" on cantata LP's which I collected in the 1960's (there were no complete sets and the collection was from numerous different sources) had one thing in common. They neither at all rendered the German nor did they read as English. They always more or less rhymed in some kind of Pseudo-English and also sort of followed English hymns. They also were practically incomprehensible as English. Happily, with moderate German, it was never hard to read the original which was always much much easier to understand than the so-called English. These translations were the sorriest excuse for the art that one could conceive.

Aryeh Oron wrote (December 28, 2000):
[To Paul McCain] When I am writing the weekly cantata reviews, I usually read all the English translations of the original German cantata text. I found out than in many cases the modern translations of Richard Stokes in his book - 'J.S. Bach - The Complete Cantatas - In German-English translation' (Long Barn Books, 1999) are very satisfying. Theses translations are characterised by simple, modern and readable English, and faithfullness to the original German text. It is very easy to follow every line, phrase and word in the German text reading this translation. I bought this book earlier this year from B & N. A discussion about the subject of English translations took place in the Bach Cantatas Mailing List couple of months ago. This discussion will be soon available for reading in the Archive Site.

Chris Walley wrote (December 28, 2000):
As a 'newbie' to the group I should say that I have been fascinated by the problem of translation. A couple of quick comments and a question.

1) I presume that Bach's German was not archaic but was contemporary; he wanted to communicate. Why translators into English feel that they must use antiquated language baffles me. I presume it is the curious idea (that the Reformation opposed) that the eternal God is best served by using old language.

2) Re published translations. Amazon.com say that The Complete Church and Secular Cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Stokes (Translator). Paperback (October 2000) Price:$45.00 is not yet published. Amazon.co.uk have the older? version J. S. Bach: the Complete Cantatas in Parallel Translation. Any comments on the two? The Unger is £85!!!!

3) A question. What would Bach have replied to (say) an English musician who said 'I wish to perform one of your cantatas in my country' . a) 'Don't change a word' or b) 'Make an English translation so they understand it?' I have no answer but suspect Bach the musician would have tended to a) and Bach the churchman would tended to b). But are there any parallel instances?

 

Best translations

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (January 3, 2001):
Through my friend Jim I got mail about the best cantata translations from German into English. I do not know the Richard Stokes tranlations, but I do like the Ambrose translations. Recently, Ambrose got some unjust criticism for being obsolete in his choice of language, placing the English words in the wrong places so that they no longer coincide with Bachs musical expression and for lacking rhyme.

First let us go to the texts of the cantatas. They are never or hardly ever Bachs own words. For as far as they have not been taken from the Bible, they were composed by minor poets, often poetasters, using doggerel verse of little poetic value. Their main purpose was to convey a christian message in pious words, usually using threadbare metaphores.

I am sure that Ambrose, like myself, holds the opinion that, in spite of the often poor poetic quality of the verse, Bach's cantatas must not be sung in any other language but the original German. Yet, in his translations, he has tried hard to maintain the original metre, which he did quite well. He also tried to keep the keywords at the same position within the sentences, but didnot always manage to achieve that goal. Yet, his poetic rendering of the original in the English language is quite laudable. Though not always literal in his translations, he stays close to the sources. His knowledge and understanding of the German texts and the Lutheran belief and way of thinking is evident from his English texts, which are from a poetic point of view often improvements of the German originals. Although Ambrose uses lofty, sometimes archaic, language, I think it suits the cantatas pretty well and I cannot believe that any interested, educated modern Briton or American should fail to understand the meaning of these wo. As far as rhyming is concerned, poetry in Bach's day was necessarily rhymed verse, but it is not essential today and certainly not for a thorough understanding of the text. Moreover the German text-writers also allowed themselves some poetic freedom if they were not able to find the proper rhymes: Huld rhymes with Mund, Obst with Papst, vermehrt was considered to rhyme with gestört, mir with für, and Gemächte with rechen, to give just a few examples.

The English versions in the Breitkopf Edition, like the ones by Charles S. Terry and J. Michael Diack are by far not as accurate and stray far from the original texts.

Since I devote the little spare time I have to translating the cantatas into Dutch, my mother language, I have become well aware of the many difficulties one has to face in translating texts that are so closely related to the accompanying music. And I must say that I find Z. Philip Ambrose's English verse very useful and not bad at all.

Jane Newble wrote (January 3, 2001):
(To Peter Bloemendaal) My question is, do you translate them freely in Dutch, or do you also try to keep them in metre? I am trying to translate them in English, but since I am Dutch (also my mother language), that often gets in the way...very frustrating.

It is not as easy as it looks, as some expressions in German are perfectly understandable when you speak German, but almost impossible to translate. If you then also have to worry about keeping the original metre, it becomes a real headache!

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (January 3, 2001):
Not unrelated to this is the problem of rendering the terza rima when translating Dante. It is not easy to do in English whilst remaining true to the meaning which must never be sacrificed in literature that great. Yet some translations have succeeded very well whilst prose translations of Homer, Vergil, Dante, etc. are a betrayal in and of themselves, not to speak of being very boring. Obviously translation is very very tricky. And it also depends on the goal. If the goal is to get at what Bach was saying in music to these words, that's one thing. If the goal is to have an English performing version, that is totally different.

Jane Newble wrote (January 4, 2001):
(To Yöel L. Arbeitman) Yes, you are right about the goal. And my goal is definitely not an English performing version. So I should concentrate on the meaning, and at the same time avoid becoming boring! I suppose I could do one just for myself, alternating Dutch and English wherever that was easier.. :)

 

What do you folks do?

Paul McCain wrote (January 15, 2001):
I was recently enjoying my first purchase of Ton Koopman's complete contata collection, volume 7, some of Bach's first cycle of cantatas at Leipzig. I, of course, am stunned by the beauty of the recordings, and of course, the masterful work by Bach, but I was simply shocked by the horrible English translations supplied. I know just enough German to recognize a horrendously bad translation, and for the most part, that is what I discovered. What a shame! The meaning of the cantatas was in many cases horribly distorted.

What do you folks use when listening to cantatas, if you can't understand the German?

Jane Newble wrote (January 15, 2001):
(To Paul McCain) Not the Koopman booklets that's for sure :o) Personally I have learnt German, so I just translate it for myself, but I know Aryeh has a book by someone...forgot his name (Richard S..?), who is very good.

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 15, 2001):
(To Paul McCain and Jane Newble) The name of the guy is Richard Stokes and his book is called 'J.S. Bach - The Complete Cantatas - In German-English Translation' (Long Barn Books, 1999). Actually I quoted his translation of the texts of the arias for Tenor (No.1) and for Bass (No.5) from this week Cantata BWV 13. I sent my review of this cantata to the group last night and you can already read it also in the New Archive Site in the following address: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV13.htm. So, you can judge the quality and readabilty of the translation by yourselves.

Stephen Thomas wrote (January 15, 2001):
(To Jane Newble) Could you please post the translation of this Bach quote:
"Es musz alles moeglich zu machen seyn" jsb

Charles Francis wrote (January 15, 2001):
(To Stephen Thomas) According to German word order:
"It must all [= everything] possible to made be"
With English grammar:
"Everything must be possible to be made"

Jane Newble wrote (January 15, 2001):
(To Stephen Thomas) I suppose freely translated it is:
"It should be possible to do everything"
It seems to me a typical Bach quote, and I have it on my piano, for when I am practising!! I also remember that he said to someone who complimented him on his playing: "It's not difficult. Just hit the right notes at the right time, and the instrument will play itself" My piano hasn't quite got there yet :o)

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (January 15, 2001):
(To Jane Newble) As one who is not a native speaker of German, Jane's translation seems more plausible to me. "Es musz alles moeglich zu machen seyn". Thus one could put it into slightly less old syntax as "Es muss moeglich seyn, alles zu machen". In the case of Francis's translation, it seems that, at least present day German would lead us to expect *"Es muss moeglich, alles zu machen werden". I am intentionally avoiding German orthography questions here.

 

English performance translations of Cantatas BWV 26 and BWV 80

Paul Farseth wrote (January 9, 2002):
For anyone who is interested, new translations of Cantatas BWV 26 ("Ach wie fluechtig, ach wie nichtig") and BWV 80 ("Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott") are now posted (thanks to Aryeh Oron's help) at:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV26-Eng8.htm
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV80-Eng8.htm

Each posting includes both a "literal" translation and "performance" translation in which the original meter is preserved ... and in which serious effort has been made to put the same words or images on the same beat or position in each line as in the original German text while still being intelligible, idiomatic, and faithful to the meanings and images of the source. I would welcome suggestions on how the performance texts could be improved or errors removed.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (January 9, 2002):
[To Paul Farseth] This is a very interesting work you have done. But, why not try to come up with something between the two - a translation that reads on its own, which is neither "literal" and rough, as you say, nor twisted to fit into a rhythm it cannot replicate?

 

Translations of cantatas on list

Francis Browne wrote (February 16, 2002):
[snip]
Which brings me finally to my point - I'm sorry for such verbosity in an e-mail. The Brilliant CDs come with the German text only. Other recordings - those I have bought on the Virgin label for example - come without any text at all. But the more I listen to the cantatas, the more important it seems to me to follow the words closely. I therefore work out my own translation of any cantata in which I am particularly interested - this obviously includes now the cantata for the weekly discussion. If I were fluent in German, this would not be necessary. Z. Philip Ambrose' s site is a great resource for Bach, which I have often gratefully used. But his aim of following the metre and word-division of the originals has sometimes resulted in such clotted English that I have found myself looking at the German to discover the meaning. Reading some of the past discussions it occurred to me that others on the list may find another translation useful, particularly those who only have access to Leusink and are not fluent in German.

I have therefore typed up some of the versions I have made for myself and with Aryeh's kind help and co-operation I have sent my translations of some of the cantatas on the current list to be added to the Website (BWV 18, BWV 157, BWV 195, BWV 197). I intend to add further translations some time before a cantata is due to be discussed. The translations include the German text and have the sole aim of helping listeners not fluent in German to follow closely the text Bach is setting .The interlinear format is also intended for this purpose.

Any suggestions for improvements or corrections would be very welcome.

 

Spanish Translations of the Cantatas

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 14, 2003):
To all Spanish-speaking members of the BCML,

I wanted to bring to your attention that I have started to add Spanish translations of the cantatas to the Bach Cantatas Website. The translator is José Mª Pajares Box and so far he sent me translations of Cantatas BWV 1 to BWV 4.

There are links to these translations from the following page:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/index.htm
and from the pages of the relevant cantatas.

According to my personal experience with translating about 150 cantatas to Hebrew, I know how important it is to understand the text of the cantatas for greater enjoyment from the music Bach set to it, even if it difficult for you to identify with some of the religious message of the text. I hope you will find the translations useful.

I would like to see more translations of the cantatas to other languages. What about French, Portuguese, Danish, etc? I shall gladly add such translations to the Website.

Stevan Vasiljevic wrote (January 14, 2003):
Aryeh Oron wrote:
< I would like to see more translations of the cantatas to other languages. What about French, Portuguese, Danish, etc? I shall gladly add such translations to the Website. >

There are translations to French and Dutch on Walter F. Bischof's site of texts of Bach cantatas: http://www.cs.ualberta.ca/~wfb/bach.html (but there are links to French translations on: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/ ).

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 15, 2003):
[To Stevan Vasiljevic] The page: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/IndexTextsSources.htm
includes the sources for all sites which includes texts and/or translations of Bach's cantatas and other vocal works.

Walter F. Bischof's site includes translations of about 15 cantatas to Dutch and less than 100 to French. So there is a need for more cantatas to be translated to these two and to other languages.

Furhthmore, there is a room for more than one translation to a certain language. No one translation can transfer the full meaning of the original text. From every translation we can get better understanding of the original text. For example, there are at least 5 translations of Cantata BWV 170 to Hebrew. They can be found at the pages:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV170-Heb1.htm
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV170-Heb2.htm
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV170-Heb3.htm
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV170-Heb4.htm
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV170-Heb5.htm
and they are very different from each other (most of the other cantatas were not so lucky regarding Hebrew translation!).

Boyd Pehrson wrote (January 14, 2003):
[To Aryeh Oron] Thanks for your links. It is incredible, and very good that you've translated over half of the surviving Cantatas of Bach into Hebrew. What great interest and connection with the music when one can actually understand the words being sung. Many American laypeople consider Händel to be the greatest of choral composers, and probably because he wrote in English and they may thus understand the words. It is too bad that more people don't take the time to acquaint themselves with a little German so better to enjoy Bach. But translations help very much to encourage people and give them confidence to approach the music. How right you are that knowing text helps enjoyment.Regarding the religious aspects- one need not be a monarchist in order to enjoy the intimate lives of monarchs in Shakespeare, or a murderer to enjoy a murder mystery. But, one may freely live for the moment as monarch or rogue through the art.

Translating is a tricky business, and German is very difficult to translate. It is even more difficult to do with Bach who set texts to specific musical expression that highlights the words. Two ways of translating would be the artistic and the informational. The artistic would seek to impart musical significance in meter and text regarding the music, and informational would merely translate the texts into a sensitive vernacular. I am a fan of the latter method, since the German language can be so poetic and musical when artistically rendered, and English and other versions have to change too much of the text in order to match the syllables with proper meter.

Thanks for your continuing hard work at informing us on Bach!

Toño Kolias wrote (January 15, 2003):
[To Aryeh Oron & Boyd Pehrson] A few month ago I gave up my search for the translation of the Bach“s cantatas until 5 days ago (searching for the libretto of The zauberflöte) I came across a website that can also be useful for those of us that have not the privilege of "speak-understand" german! Here is the link that have some more Spanish translations of our beloved Bach! http://www.geocities.com/ubeda2002/bach/bach.htm
For those of us (I“m afraid we are very few) who have the privilege :-) to understand Spanish, go and compare both translations of cantata nº1, there we can find a clear example of what Boyd was talking about. Nice to see that our group has woke up!
Happy 2003 to all.

 

Portuguese Translation of Bach Cantatas' Texts

Rodrigo Maffei Libonati wrote (January 16, 2003):
I would like to tell you that Portuguese translation of Bach cantatas' texts are now available in the Bach Cantatas site. So far, only BWV 140 and BWV 199, but the idea is working steadily to offer the texts of a greater number of texts.

I invite you Portuguese-speaker members of the list to take a look. Feel free to make suggestions.

I would like to add that, being Brazilian, I am following Brazilian Portuguese grammar.

 

New Hebrew translation of Matthäus-Passion BWV 244

Aryeh Oron wrote (July 11, 2004):
Couple of weeks ago I attended a concert performance of Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 conducted by Hermann Max. The Hebrew translation used in the programme notes was about 15 years old by the late Gideon Tamir. This is a poetic translation, which makes for most enjoyable reading. However, I was somewhat disturbed because in many places the connection between the sung text and the written translation was rather loose.

Translations of librettos can be roughly divided into three groups:

A. Singing translation: Keeps the original rhythm and the flow of music, intending for performance.
B. Reading translation: Keeps the spirit of the text, but sacrifices original rhythm for more poetic reading.
C. Listening translation: Allows the listener following the text while listening to a performance of the work. This kind of translation scarifies both the original rhythm and the poetic aspect of the original text.

As an avid listener, I believe that for the contemporary listener, who realizes the importance of connection between words and music in Bach's vocal works, the listening translation is the most useful. I decided to transform this need into action, and sat up to do my own Hebrew translation of Matthäus-Passion. The result can be found in a form of PDF file at:http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV244-Heb3.pdf

I now enjoy this sublime work even more than I have ever done, and I hope that other Hebrew readers would find it also useful. Any suggestion for corrections/improvements is most welcome.

Sue Katoll wrote (July 17, 2004):
[To Aryeh Oron] Recently I was listening to my new recording of Cantata BWV 78. I have only the most rudimentary German (basic vocab. for Bach, such as herz, heilige, etc.), but read a little French. I was mostly looking at the German vis-a-vis the English, but looking at the French as well. I was interested that at one point the English used the active voice, but the French used the passive voice.

I was very interested to read your description of various types of translations. Thanks!

 

Bach in Arabic

Aryeh Oron wrote (December 5, 2004):
Talking about Bach and Islam, does any of you know if Bach Cantatas and/or Bach's other vocal works have ever been translated into Arabic?

Are Bach's vocal works performed in Arabic/Islamic countries? While updating the world-wide schedule of concerts of Bach's vocal works, I have not been able to find any, but it might be because the concerts are listed in Arabic.

Eric Bergerud wrote (December 5, 2004):
[To Aryeh Oron] A while back the list was able to come up with only a handful of Bach performances in English which is, after all, a first cousin of German. Linguistically Arabic isn't quite on the other side of the globe from German, but at least half way. Of course translating for performance would be much different than translating for analysis, so it's an interesting question. I wonder if translations of the Bach chorale works for any purpose have been made in any of the non-European languages. Considering the status that English now holds as world language in the arts and sciences I'd be suprised. Either way it would say something about the interest in European classical music in other parts of the globe. (Anyone have any idea how to contact a musician connected with the Japan Bach Ensemble? Might be an obvious place to direct a querry.)

Aryeh Oron wrote (December 6, 2004):
[To Eric Bergerud] I have translated almost all the Bach Cantatas into Hebrew, in what could be called 'listening translation'. I mean a translation that allows the listener following the text and understanding what is being sung. It is neither a singing translation, nor a poetic one, but I hope that it serves well the goal.

Thomas Manhart wrote (December 6, 2004):
[To Aryeh Oron] Whether there are translations, I don't know. But there are performances in islamic countries of bach works. e.g. the choir of the german christian community performed recently bach's magnificat in kuala lumpur, malaysia. and one of our friends here on the list is preparing a bach festival in jakarta, with indonesia being the country with the highest amount of muslims in the world. choirs there regularely also perform mottets by bach. As soon as I know of any more bach performances ard our area here, I will try to upload them onto our concert calendar.

Eric Bergerud wrote (December 6, 2004):
[To Aryeh Oron] Sorry, I was a little slow on the uptake here: I remember you remarking about this in the archives. To the best of your knowledge were you the first to do so? Hebrew is a live language these days and Israel a classical music hub, not to mention the extraordinary role played by Jewish musicians in Europe in the past two centuries or so. It would say something (I'm not sure what exactly) if translating Bach into Hebrew had not already been done.

I do envy the experience actually. I've found that many opera librettos are best left unread (anyone detect a Bel Canto fan here?): I sure wouldn't say that about Bach's choral works. Back in my salad days, translation, usually poetry, was used as a tool in advanced German language instruction at university. In a way, I think I got closer to Goethe and Heine than I did to any English language poets simply because one had to look so closely at every word. Ultimately the structure thus showed itself far more clearly than consuming a poem a sentence per gulp.

Career twists have taken me away from an intensive use of German in the past thirty years. Fortunately my interest in Bach cantatas which surfaced somehow a couple years back has improved my languished skills quite a bit. (Funny: I've often had dreams "auf Deutsch." Maybe Schumann was on to something.)

Bob Henderson wrote (December 6, 2004):
The music is in no need of translation. I came to love Bach as a person who did not read German. Today I do (read German). The fact that I can now understand the text has not measurably increased my appreciation. I am not denigrating those who labor to make the text understandable to those who do not read German.. But this added appreciation is not necessarily necessary.

Eric Bergerud wrote (December 6, 2004):
[To Bob Henderson] I am not suggesting for a minute that one has to learn German to appreciate Bach choral works. I would suggest that reading the libretto does add a significant dimension to the experience. This is not to say one has to sit with a text in hand and follow along at every listening. I sure don't. But I do enjoy it when I do. I should this would be true for many other listeners. If so, if one doesn't read German, a translation of the text would come in most handy.

Doug Cowling wrote (December 6, 2004):
[To Eric Bergerud] It's worth remembering that cantata and oratorio texts were printed and read by congregations during performances. It is said that James Levine was finally converted to surtitles by the argument that libretti were always read at the opera until Wagner turned out the lights.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (December 6, 2004):
[To Thomas Manhart] Neither country of course being Arabic-speaking. It does however express quite a bit of toleration of something so non-Muslim.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (December 6, 2004):
Doug Cowling wrote:
< It is said that James Levine was finally converted to surtitles by the argument that libretti were always read at the opera until Wagner turned out the lights. >
I thought your sentence was going to continue after "JL was finally converted......"
with "to Christianity"

or "to Islam".

If only to surtitles, that's an improvement.

Eric Bergerud wrote (December 6, 2004):
Bach in translation

[To Doug Cowling] I will certainly stand correction on this but my understanding is somewhat different. As I understand it there were short flyers available before service that described the message of the sermon and included a listing of the chorales to be sung and a synopsis of the musical message if a cantata was to be given. Are you suggesting that a whole text was available for the parishoners at large? I should think this would have been quite an expense and a major bother. A cantata would only have been performed at one or maybe two of the four churches Bach was responsible for. Be nice to clear this up. As for librettos being available during opera performance I know this was sometimes true in England at the Italian opera. I don't know if this was true in Italy at the Italian opera. <G>

Jill Gunsell wrote (December 6, 2004):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< (Anyone have any idea how to contact a musician connected with the Japan Bach Ensemble? Might be an obvious place to direct a querry.) >
You could try this: takeda@bach.co.jp

Mr (I think) Hiroyuki, their webmaster, who could put you in touch with someone in the BCJ, I expect. We were in correspondence in 2000 - it may still work.

Mitsuo Fukuda wrote (December 6, 2004):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< have any idea how to contact a musician connected with the Japan Bach Ensemble? >
If you have a message or question to a member of Bach Collegium Japan, please upload it on this list. I will transfer it to one of the members, who surely gives an answer. And he will allow me to send it to this list.

Thomas Braatz wrote (December 6, 2004):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
>>I will certainly stand correction on this but my is somewhat different. As I understand it there were short flyers available before service that described the message of the sermon and included a listing of the chorales to be sung and a synopsis of the musical message if a cantata was to be given. Are you suggesting that a whole text was available for the parishoners at large? I should think this would have been quite an expense and a major bother. A cantata would only have been performed at one or maybe two of the four churches Bach was responsiblefor. Be nice to clear this up.<<
From what I can tell from the research that the editors of the NBA have conducted, they really would have liked, in some instances, to know what the message of the sermon for any of the usual cantata services was. All they can go by, if they are lucky, is to know which pastor by name delivered the sermon and which passage from scripture (usually they guess that the sermon must have been based upon the standard epistle or gospel readings for a given Sunday) may have been used. Although I have not seen the direct evidence from the period, it seems very likely that the customary 'hymn board' listing the hymn numbers in sequence was used to let the congregation know which hymns were to be sung.

There is very direct evidence from various sources that Bach, in Leipzig, was required to pay out of his own pocket for the complete texts of his cantatas to be printed for distribution in the churches where they were to be performed. Based on such evidence (often facsimiles are found in the NBA KBs), the editors are able to confirm, in case of ambiguities or difficulty in reading the originals, the correctness of the handwritten text in the original score and/or original parts. Unfortunately, only a limited number of such 'leaflets' and not the entire yearly cycles have been preserved for experts to view today.

Thomas Manhart wrote (December 6, 2004):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] Indeed, none of those countries are arabic speaking, aryeh asked for islamic countries.

I don't find it such a surprise, because it is mostly the christian minorities performing bach in islamic countries. in mixed choirs, however, like I know from some university choirs in indonesia, muslims as well as christians join the bach concerts. indonesia is in that sence a country of great tolerance for which I admire indonesia very much, as art is then seen for the art's sake crossing religious boundaries.

I went with my muslim friends through some of the cantatas, and in texts, where jesus is not expilicely mentioned, the texts would be versatile usable for both religions.

Eric Bergerud wrote (December 7, 2004):
[To Mitsuo Fukuda] How nice. What I'd like to know is whether any or all of the Bach chorale works have been translated into Asian languages. Any information would be nice, but it would be particularly interesting to know if this has been done in Japanese and Chinese.

Mitsuo Fukuda wrote (December 7, 2004):
[To Eric Bergerud] Yes, almost all of the Bach chorale works have been translated into Japanese. As for Chinese, I do not know.

Because I know about the Japanese translation, I answered by myself.

Thomas Manhart wrote (December 7, 2004):
[To Eric Bergerud] For our interreligous concert project, we will translate a cantata into malay; we have not yet chose which one though, our choice of musicians is small and we will have to think practical. As soon as we have done it, I will send it to the group.

Rianto Pardede wrote (December 8, 2004):
[To Aryeh Oron & Thomas Manhart] Adding something to what Thomas have mentioned below..., I count myself as being fortunate as I was present in the performance of Christmas Oratorio Part I BWV 248/i in Jakarta on Friday night last, local time. Paired with excerpts from the more popular Händel's Messiah, that performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio was the first time ever in this far corner of the world, albeit only part I.

The performance were by the Nusantara Symphony Orchestra and Choir (which, excepting the conductor, were made up completely by Indonesians). The Tenor and Bass soloists were Indonesians, while the soprano and Alto were two beautiful ladies from neighbouring Australia. Despite some major annoyance coming from the soprano and the trumpet, it was a good performance, nevertheless. Yes, I was fortunate.

Aryeh Oron wrote (December 11, 2004):
Bach in many languages

Thomas Manhart wrote:
< for our interreligous concert project, we will translate a cantata into malay; >
I shall be glad to host in the BCW translations of the Bach Cantatas & his other vocal works to ANY language. This is one of the best tools to make Bach's music more accessible to many people world-wide, who do not understand German. The BCW already includes translations into French (all), Hebrew (almost all), English, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese. Malay would be a nice addition, but every other language is welcome as well. If you have a translation you want me to host in the BCW, please send it to me off-list. Please remember to get the permission of the translator.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (December 12, 2004):
[To Aryeh Oron] So would Slavic or Russian. Are there any Slavs or Russians on the lists?

I also still haven't forgotten about translations into Italian or Latin. We still (I think) need to work out a schedule--maybe one akin to the format of the discussions suggested for next year (a.k.a. Chronological Order)?

Aryeh Oron wrote (December 12, 2004):
[To David Glenn Lebut Jr.] Are you ready to translate the cantatas into Italian and/or Latin?

Rianto Pardede wrote (December 13, 2004):
[To Aryeh Oron & Thomas Manhart] Adding something to what Thomas has mentioned below; I count myself as being fortunate, as I was present in the performance of Christmas Oratorio Part I BWV 248/I in Jakarta on Friday night last, local time. Paired with excerpts from the more popular Handel's Messiah, that performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio was the first time ever in this far corner of the world, albeit only part I.

The performance were by the Nusantara Symphony Orchestra and Choir (which, excepting the conductor, were made up completely by Indonesians). The Tenor and Bass soloists were both Indonesians, while the Soprano and Alto were two beautiful ladies from neighbouring Australia. Despite some annoyance coming from the Soprano and the trumpet, it was a good performance, nevertheless. Yes, I was fortunate...

Regards,

Rianto Pardede
Indonesia
"Bach dulu, baru itu"

PS: I can hardly wait for that Jakarta Bach Festival 2005 :)

 

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