Lieder Line by Line by Lois Philips Duckworth
London, 1979; 365pp.; £24
Song is among the most natural and universal of all music. Yet a lied always sounds élite, even in Germany; in any language, its distinctive music-word mix remains a minority taste. But of course its devotees still seek to make converts, by translating and expounding the sacred texts. Approaches vary widely, and controversially. 50 years ago Richard Capell was trying to catch Die Forellefor us, for instance, with a line or two of impressionistic prose; “jolly little beast, trout, nimbler than we are, for all our arms and legs”, and so on. Then there were the sonorous singing versions of Arthur Fox-Strangways, in which Aufenthalt for example begins, rather memorably, “Moor-stream in spate/ Stormriven trees Wind-circled tor”. But nowadays the main accredited formula is plain prose translation plus the original text.
This book offers similar wares for the same market; so a comparative costing seems called for. The Fischer-Dieskau and Penguin books of bilingual lieder offer some 750 and 300 respectively, at a mere penny or halfpenny for a song. On that basis, Lieder Line by Line with only about 450 for an inflated £24 is by far the worst-buy non-bargain. So everything depends on the worth attached to its new approach. This is a so-called literal translation, boldly thrust in among the German lines, on the left side of each page. On the right are the traditional prose versions. It is fair to say that these latter are among the best I've ever seen. Their occasional faults derive mainly from an uncritical reliance on the literals; thus the mistranscription “sun-breaking” (for “sunbreathing”) blemishes both versions of Morgen. In the acknowledgments, Susannah Finzi is thanked for her work on these prose renderings; on the back cover she is even named as co-author. However the credit may be apportioned, that side of the ledger shows a clear profit. But the left-hand entries are anything but dexterous, and (on my valuation at least) often a liability.
The idea of word-for-word equivalence, printed directly below the original German for close comparison, is novel in book form, and perhaps in theory rewarding. But the practice here is very far from perfect. Sometimes the lines are wrongly aligned; thus the rhyme-scheme of Der Nussbaum and the classical feet of Anakreons Grab have gone sadly astray. So have some of the sources; Wiegenlied D498 is not by Claudius, nor is Von ewiger Liebe by Wenzig. The task of citing other settings of the chosen texts should have been tackled systematically or not at ali. Some of the translation consists of wrong word for word, again in very famous songs. The Erlking threatens rather lamely that he will “need” force; Gretchen yearns for her lover's “hands-shake”, whatever that may be. The ultra-literal, conversely, often verges on the infra-literate. Infinitives are regularly rendered as “to” something. So when preceded by “zu” they all acquire two ‘to's. “Zu leben” becomes “to to live”, “zu singen” is “to to sing” and so on, which strikes me as too too absurd. Then the supposedly literal equivalents for pronouns and possessive adjectives are strangely sexist. Thus in “Meine Ruh ist hin ... ich finde sie nimmer” the lost object is surely just “it” in English; to write “I find her never”, and similarly in hundreds of such contexts, is confusing rather than explanatory. Even less clarification is achieved by rendering native German into pidgin English. To cite just one instance among very many, the method used here distorts Gretchen's movingly plaintive “Mein Busen drängt sich nach ihm hin” into the grotesque “My bosom presses (himself) towards him (towards)”. Who is doing what, and to whom? Such passages seem to me much more obscure than the original text, even for those with no German to speak of.
But of course I may be quite wrong about all this. Perhaps there are many people who for their own purposes will find this approach helpful and acceptable; if so, good luck to it and to them. Those who take lieder really seriously, however, will certainly have to delve very much deeper into German language and literature than these pages permit, and over a far wider field of thousands more songs. Hence my perplexity on discovering that such serious students are apparently assumed to exclude music students, at whom this book is avowedly aimed. More paradoxically still, that latter audience is actually applauded by Dame Janet Baker. Her enthusiastic foreword claims that this word-forword approach is exactly what students desperately need but will never undertake for themselves. My own equally fervent hope is that no young singers or pianists or listeners are ever in desperate need of such a crib; for cribs are designed to accommodate infants, and helpless and somnolent infants at that.
The Musical Times, Feb. 1980 (p. 103) © the estate of eric sams