Translating poetic songs: An attempt at a functional account of strategies

Peter Low
University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Poems have often been turned into songs, notably as German Lieder. Classical singers use translations of these in several different ways: as cribs for themselves, in printed programmes for their audiences, as singable versions, etc. Since no single target-text is ideal for all of these purposes, the Skopostheorie of Hans J. Vermeer may help translators to match their strategy with the particular skopos (“goal or purpose”) of their translation. The author identifies five specific functions which a song-translation may serve, and proposes a range of five translation strategies intended to match these particular skopoi. A demonstration is given of how these strategies produce different English versions of a few lines from a Baudelaire poem.

Table of contents

This article concerns the translating of those poetic texts which have come to be used as “Art Songs”. Some well-known examples are the poems of Goethe which Schubert turned into Lieder and the Verlaine poems set to music by Debussy: these have been presented many times as songs to audiences of different languages. The texts’ authors intended them to stand alone as poems in their own right, and published them as words without music. Hence they can be distinguished from song-lyrics, which are texts written by song-writers or lyricists for the express purpose of being set to music. Although this distinction is not always a clear one—there exist gray areas and cross-overs—it can be made easily in most cases, particularly in European works after 1800. A song-lyric is born into the song genre; a poem, born as poetry, may later “acquire [ p. 92 ]dual nationality” by being used as a song-text, in a different part of that language’s cultural polysystem, and perhaps even in a different period (as for example when sonnets by John Donne were set to music by Benjamin Britten).

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