Opera and Translation: Verdi’s La Traviata at the Tricycle Theatre

Opera Up Close's production of La Traviata at the Tricycle Theatre.
Opera Up Close’s production of La Traviata at the Tricycle Theatre.

I would urge anyone reflecting on the question of translation to read George Szirtes’ beautiful piece on translating poetry in last December’s issue of The White Review. It has stayed with me for the eloquence with which Szirtes (translator of the International Man Booker Prize-winning Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s work) describes the frequently messy business of translation. He approaches it with the precision of a surgeon (a metaphor he employs in describing the process), and the lyricism of a poet. A snippet will give you a taste of the meticulousness of translation, as well as its need for sensitivity:

First locate the skeleton, said the translator. I want bones. Give me the bones. I want the jiggling bones.

The skeleton of the original must be the same as the skeleton of the model, said the translator. A skull is a skull is a skull…

Now let’s begin to flesh it out, said the translator. Look at the model, how it swells, flexes and sags. Shall we eliminate the sagging?

I am not a translator, but I’m deeply interested in the business of translation. Many of my favourite books have been translated – I’m thinking particularly of the work of Marquez, which I have long adored – and several of my most beloved authors have themselves (to borrow Rushdie’s understanding of the term) been “translated”. They are “borne across”, carried from homelands to foreign countries, and their writing reflects this feeling of displacement, of transposition. The act of translation shifts the focus of their work. It is changed – they are changed – by the journey over.

Nowhere is the act of translating so very changing – or so difficult – as in the translation of opera libretti. Here, the difficulty lies not only in concerns of loyalty to the original, nor in problems of foreign rhymes, of forcing stubborn syllables into appropriate places. Deeper difficulties reside here.

Difficulties, for example, of sound: higher notes require open sounds to be reached properly, a necessity which will have been accounted for in the original libretto. The “singability” – to coin an ugly word – of the sentences is a practical requirement, therefore. The fixed nature of the score is a further tax on the translator, who must match the music with corresponding stresses in his or her words. Should the text be modernized? The flowery, more Latinate language of the past seems better suited to the multi-syllabled music of opera. And should rhyme be done away with completely as a twee extra constraint?

It feels best, given the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing a translator of opera libretti, to leave the words in their original language, and this has been the favoured approach since the Second World War; prior to this the translation of opera was met with more ambivalence, perhaps due to the lack of international movement by singers and the reliance on solely home-grown stars. A natural prioritizing of music over the libretto ensued (Richard Strauss would dramatize this debate of the relative power of music and words in his opera Capriccio, through the courtship of a countess by a poet and a composer). The creation of surtitles in the 1980s alleviated this emphasis on the music somewhat, allowing electronic translations – functional, rarely poetic – to keep the audience abreast of the plot. Meanwhile, many bold souls began undertaking the bloody business of translating libretti, which leads me to OperaUpClose’s current production of La Traviata at the Tricycle Theatre, returning to London after a run at the Soho Theatre last September.

This production is set in America in the 1920s, bringing Verdi’s original forward seventy years and transplanting it across the Atlantic Ocean. The opera responds well to these changes: it is, after all, an incredibly adaptable story, borrowed from Alexander Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, and incarnated endlessly in different guises across the world. The beauty of the music endures despite being diluted to a hard-working trio of piano, cello and clarinet. And it is supported by delightful performances from the singers – Prudence Sanders especially as an impressive Violetta. This production is in English, in a version translated from Francesco Maria Piave’s Italian original by OperaUpClose’s Artistic Director, Robin Norton-Hale (and the singers should be commended for the clarity of their diction in this respect; not unimportant in a performance without surtitles). The translation is clear, delivering the narrative unambiguously.

Yet occasionally I mourned the loss of poetry. Gone were Piave’s beautiful words, the refrain to which Alfredo and Violetta return to admit their love: “…amore misterioso, altero, croce e delizia al cor.” I can’t help but feel that something significant is lost in replacing “croce e delizia al cor” (“croce”, as in “cross” – burden, or torture, carrying with it attendant ideas of predeterminism; “delizia al cor”– delight, or ecstasy, of the heart) with Alfredo’s corresponding lines in Norton-Hale’s version: “You understand me, something has passed between us, surely you understand me and understanding is close to love.” The change is pragmatic, of course. “Croce e delizia” is replaced, syllable for syllable, with “you understand me”. But the oxymoronic horror-joy of the experience of love is numbed in the English version. Alfredo and Violetta understand each other completely, it seems; there is no need for mystery, or for fear.

There’s a beautiful aria a little later on, which Germont sings to comfort Alfredo after Violetta leaves. “Di Provenza il mar, il suol chi dal cor ti cancellò?”, it begins. He is singing of the sea and the soil of Provence, asking who has taken them from Alfredo’s heart. As a result, the aria becomes something of a lament, a look to the past. Yet, in Norton-Hale’s hands, the aria takes a decidedly forward-looking stand: “You are young, time’s on your side… In a year from now this pain will feel very far away.” The desperate nostalgia of the former is replaced with a more constructive emotion. This is, perhaps, better parenting from Germont, but the poignant sense of loss evoked in “il mar, il suol” of the past is notably absent.

What use is all this nit-picking? I suppose it serves to ask two questions. Firstly, should opera be translated at all? And secondly, when translated, should we mind diversions from the intended lines? In other words: how sacred is the original? “In translation proper there is an implicit law,” Umberto Eco writes in Mouse or Rat?, “that is, the ethical obligation to respect what the author has written.” He continues: “It has been said that translation is a disguised indirect discourse (‘The author so and so said in his/her language so and so’). Obviously, to establish exactly what ‘the author said’ is an interesting problem not only from a semantic point of view but also in terms of jurisprudence…”

Does what “the author said” exist in the movement of the story, or in certain idiosyncrasies of tone which a translator can only hope to replicate (a seemingly impossible task, perhaps; but Andrew Porter’s translation of the Ring cycle, celebrated for its simultaneous feeling of naturalness and loyalty to the Wagnerian original, proves that it can be done)? Are details such as the hills of Provence, or the torturous delight of love merely part of Szirtes’ sagging – to be snipped at as the translator chooses? These are difficult questions, problematized by the indisputable good of allowing opera to be made more accessible through the language of its audience. The ENO – who translate all of their productions – has this to say about translating opera:

We believe that singers performing in their native tongue, to people listening to their native tongue creates a subtler, deeper connection between audience and stage than you could ever achieve with a foreign language.

It is a compelling argument. But – to return to the Italian and English translations of Alfredo’s words – perhaps in the straightforwardness of our understanding, something of the wonderful “croce e delizia” is lost.

La Traviata continues at the Tricycle Theatre until July 4.

Xenobe Purvis

About Xenobe Purvis

Xenobe is a writer and a literary research assistant. Her work has appeared in the Telegraph, City AM, Asian Art Newspaper and So it Goes Magazine, and her first novel is represented by Peters Fraser & Dunlop. She and her sister curate an art and culture website with a Japanese focus: nomikomu.com.

Xenobe is a writer and a literary research assistant. Her work has appeared in the Telegraph, City AM, Asian Art Newspaper and So it Goes Magazine, and her first novel is represented by Peters Fraser & Dunlop. She and her sister curate an art and culture website with a Japanese focus: nomikomu.com.

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