Category Archives: copyright

Profit from abuse

It occurs to me that my last blog entry re: singing the Creation tomorrow is the third time I’ve complained here of “new translations” of great German works (the previous times being the St John’s Passion and St Matthew’s Passion).

Perhaps I should also offer some brief explanation of what is wrong with them – apart from the obvious spuriousness of the reasons offered for having “new” translations.

  1. These are not new translations.  They are very minor tweaks of the well-known translations choirs have long been performing.  They are at the level of the variations one routinely dreams up at idle moments in rehearsal.
  2. They are less singable than the original translations.  The worst (by far) here was the St Johns Passion, but all of them have made things worse.

OK, let’s find some examples from the Creation while I still have the score.  Just to show it’s not all bad, let’s start at the beginning with one tweak that is actually a trivial improvement on the original.  The very first chorus entry

and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters


and the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters

A trivial change, to a line that comes directly from the King James Bible as well as being a literal translation from the German.  Removing one syllable brings it into line with the German, and the calm and tranquillity of Haydn’s music immediately before God’s most famous utterance, יְהִי אוֹר.

Sadly that’s the exception.  Let’s turn now to the example our conductor gave in motivating the “new” translation to the choir.  The original source for this is Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

The German line is pretty faithful to that:

Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes,
und seine Hände Werk zeigt an das Firmament.

The familiar translation takes a little licence to fit the words to the notes – this kind of creativity is of course at the heart of translating lyrics to music:

The Heavens are telling the glory of God,
the wonder of his work displays the firmament.

The “new” translation here takes exactly the same licence, but rearranges the words:

The Heavens are telling the glory of God,
the firmament displays the wonder of his work.

The justification is that it makes the grammar more everyday, less archaic.  As against that, the old translation aligns the prominent words “work” and “firmament” directly with the German, thereby better fitting Haydn’s music.  In this instance the differences are so minor I find it hard to say either version is better or worse than the other.  What really stretches credulity is to claim it as a different translation – a new piece of work[1].

Where it really makes things worse is where some gratuitous change makes it altogether less singable.  The most egregious examples of this are in the St Johns Passion, but the Creation has a few cases in point.  As I write I’m struggling to bring them to mind, but one minor instance I can recollect:

and to th’ethereal vaults resound


on high th’ethereal vault resounds

Neither of these is remotely similar to the german:

und laut ertönt aus ihren Kehlen

(literally “and loudly rings out from their throats” – which would even fit the music!)[2]

But this change introduces ugliness and difficulty.  Any phrase ending in “s” can tend to be a hazard for choirs, as the “s” sound can be untidy – it only takes one singer to do a Corporal Jones and it sounds a complete mess.  To end a fast phrase in “ds” – still worse “nds” – is positively ugly and rather difficult even in the most accurate and disciplined performance.

This is not the worst example: there are one or two so bad we are reverting to the “old” words.  It’s just one that came to mind as I write.

As I said the first time I encountered one of these “new” translations (the St Johns Passion):  I can only conclude that the sole reason for the “new” translation is to assert copyright on a score that would otherwise soon be out of it.

I wonder what would happen if anyone were to challenge this copyright in court?  I hope it gets struck down for the gross abuse that it is!

[1] To be honest, neither translation is a satisfactory fit to the music here.  There’s a longer note in the middle to which both the syllable dis[plays] (original translation) or the (new translation) are very poor fits.  Beckmesser rules!  A potential solution to this is to make every occurrence a dotted rhythm, extending the preceding word – this works best with the old translation where it’s “work” being extended.  But that impoverishes the music  – Haydn gives us instances of both variants for a bit of variety.

[2] OK, in context it makes a little more sense: it’s praise of God that rings out or resounds.  There’s nothing in the German that could translate to vaults, singular or plural, ethereal or otherwise.