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A Word About Translations

September 18th, 2016

One of the fascinating aspects of presenting this old music for a new audience is the question of translations. Attitudes to translation change and different circumsstances require different approaches to transaltion. When we’re performing liturgical music in Latin, many traditional translations exist. I have long prefered to draw biblical translations from the Douay translation of the Vulgate, first published in 1609, one year before the King James version. More than once after concerts, members of the audience have asked why the translation of some psalm wasn’t the one they’d always known. After all the King James translation is a 17thy century transaltion. In a way though King James is a bit too good.

The King James version is a translation of the original languages, Hebrew in the case of the psalms, and is therefore a more “accurate” translation of the original. The Douay version is a translation of the Vulgate, which is itself a translation of the original, traditionally ascribed to St. Jerome in the 3rd century. My point is that the singers are singing the Vulgate, not the Hebrew, the audience are best served by a literal translation of what the singers are singing, even if it doesn’t match the “original”.

With the Pastor Fido texts I encountered an interesting problem. At first I figured it would be easy since there was a very good, roughly contemporary English translation by Sir Richard Fanshawe and published in 1647. However, Fanshawe chose to write his version in rhymed couplets and was much more concerned about communicating the sense of any particular passage than the exact meaning of the original Italian.

For example, the first setting we will perform from Il Pastor Fido, comes from Linco’s monologue to Silvio in Act I, Quell’ augellin che canta. The Italian reads:

Quell’ augellin, che canta
sì dolcemente e lascivetto vola
or da l’abete al faggio
e or dal faggio al mirto,
s’avesse umano spirto,
direbbe: ‘Ardo d’amore, ardo d’amore’.
Ma ben arde nel core
e parla in sua favella,
sì che l’intende il suo dolce desio.
E odi a punto, Silvio,
il suo desio
che gli risponde: ‘Ardo d’amore anch’io’.

A more or less literal translation would be:

That little bird which sings
so sweetly and flies merrily
now from the fir to the beech
and now from the beech to the myrtle,
if it had human understanding
it would say: “I burn with love, I burn with love.”
But it does really burn in its heart
and speaks in its language,
of his sweet desire
And hear now, Silvio,
its beloved mate
which answers it: “I also burn with love.”

While Fanshawe wrote:

That little bird which sings
So sweetly, and so nimbly plyes the wings,
Flying from tree to tree, from Grove to Grove,
If he could speak, would say, I am in love.
But his heart sayes it, and his tongue doth say’t
In language understood by his deer Mate:
And Silvio, heark how from that wildernesse
His dear Mate answers, And I love no lesse.
The Cowes low in the valley; and what’s this
But an inviting unto amorous blisse?

The sense is there, but it wouldn’t really help a listener to appreciate the musical tricks that Monteverdi or d’India used to grace their settings of Guarini’s blank verse.

  1. Anonymous
    September 25th, 2005 at 13:19 | #1

    Looks great Warren. I’m looking forward to hearing, if time permits, the first concert of the season. We could all use some musical uplifting these days.

  2. Warren Stewart
    September 25th, 2005 at 13:49 | #2

    Thanks so much. I’m just about to post the rest of the program notes – sorry you missed them but I hope you can make the concerts!

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