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How Are Operas Translated?

Of all the tasks that can be entrusted to a translator, the one that is probably most feared is the translation of a poem. This fear or difficulty – many times considered an impossibility right off the bat – is due to the fact that in poetry, one must keep in mind not only the meaning of the original, but also its meter and possibly its rhyme. There is, however, an even higher difficulty level, which is the translation of opera librettos.

The translation of an opera libretto must not only maintain the meaning and the meter, but, if one wants a translated version that is useable on stage, one must also respect the rhythm and flow of the melodic lines that were composed specifically in order to accompany the original. Many will claim that this is impossible, but beyond what is impossible, there may be people in Germany who want to see an Italian opera and understand what it is about.

So, what do translators usually do in these situations? How can an opera be translated in such a way as to make it intelligible to an audience that does not speak the language in which it was composed? There are mainly three ways in which opera companies and theaters handle this issue.

The first and simplest way is the literal translation of the libretto, which is handed to the audience in printed form along with the program. This way, the public can know everything that is being sung in a language that they do not understand.

The second solution is to use supertitles, which are projected above the stage. In this case, the translation can be more or less literal, although usually only the essential content of the stanzas is translated so as not to distract the audience from what is happening on stage.

Finally, we have the “feared” case to which we referred at the beginning of this post, representing the maximum difficulty level in translation: rendering the libretto so that it can be performed directly in the target language. As we mentioned, the difficulty mainly lies in producing a translation that adheres to the opera’s rhythm and melody, but which also maintains the meaning of the original as much as possible. In this case, the literalness is clearly impossible, which is why this task requires high creative abilities on the translator’s part, who at the same time will be offered a greater margin of interpretation.

As you can see, this is a supremely difficult task. What about you? If you had to see an opera, which option would you prefer?