Lost in Translation

One of the first CD booklets I wrote was at the behest of the late lamented Ted Perry. It was for volume 1 of a new series on his Hyperion label called The Romantic Piano Concerto (Piers Lane playing Moszkowski’s and Paderewski’s concertos). That was in 1991. I have written several others for Hyperion in the intervening years (in fact I have just finished the booklet for volume 65). In total, I have written over a hundred booklets for all the major labels and not a few smaller ones.

I cite Hyperion’s booklets not because of my involvement with them or the merits (or otherwise) of my writing but because they are the industry models. They set the standard to which others should aspire. The French and German texts are scrupulously translated by specialists in their field. Hyperion, of course, is not the only record label to produce consistently excellent booklets to go with their recordings. One only has to think of Chandos, Dutton, Naxos, EMI as was, Sony, and some of the smaller indies. But Ted Perry was, perhaps, an exception as far as his booklets were concerned, taking personal control over the typeface, the design, the house style, accuracy and clarity of each. He was a stickler for good English. Since his death, those standards have been carefully maintained.

Whether it is Hyperion or another company, a decent CD booklet – in print or on line – is part and parcel of the product the customer is purchasing. Why, then, do many record labels fall below an acceptable standard? Why, when they have spent money, time and effort in recording great music by great artists, do they fall at the final fence and suddenly become sloppy?                                                                                                                                          Most of the culprits are international or foreign (by which I mean based in non-English speaking countries) labels. Time and again one comes across a booklet essay written by some erudite French, German, Italian or Scandinavian scholar, musician or musicologist, full of original research, interesting observations and essential information about the music one is listening to. The writer has, presumably, been commissioned by the label because of their expertise, authority and ability to write in the native language. Good. What happens next? Too often the original text is passed on to someone who, to be generous, has an incomplete knowledge of the English language. Sometimes this extends to someone who has only a passing acquaintance with it and an old-fashioned dictionary. The idiomatic use of our tongue is beyond their ken. The next stage is for the translation to be handed back to the booklet editor – should the label employ anybody in this role – who invariably has even less familiarity with English than the translator. Marvelling that the 1500 words has been handed in by the deadline, but unaware that what they have been presented with is a dog’s breakfast of ungrammatical prose littered with syntactical errors and solecisms, the text is passed on to the printers for distribution throughout the world.

And thus what the readers of these essays get – the disc buyers of China, Japan, South America, Russia, and all those other countries where English is a second or third language – is a garbled approximation of English. Take that a step further. This corrupted version of English will be copied, the grammar taken as accurate, and hey-presto one of the most beautiful languages in the world has been disseminated without care or reverence to a generation that does not know the difference between good or bad English.

Let me give you a couple of recent examples. Here are a few sentences from the booklet for the superb Deutsche Grammophon recording of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No.1 featuring the charismatic Serbian virtuoso Nemanja Radulović: ‘Through concerts and Cds [sic], Nemanja Radulović firmly aimed at a young music audience.’ What did he aim at a young audience? A gun? A catapult? Or something else? Did anyone get hurt? Then we read ‘His performances and stage presence arouse the public’. We had better not go there. In the biographical section we learn that at the age of fourteen Radulović ‘moved to France and perfected with Patrice Fontanarosa at the CNSMD of Paris.’ What is it like to be perfected? Is it painful? Is it something you have to do with someone else or can you be perfected on your own?

And this from Sterling’s new disc of music by Manuel Ponce, where you can guess (sort of) what the writer / translator is driving at without being quite sure: ‘[The work] is a sonorous construction where the subject – resonance – binds and perdures along the piece, acting as concatenation of internal union.’ And this: ‘Among the diversity of the first theme’s exposition we may find surprising moments of resounding syncretism that recreate and superpose two opposing structures within the musical discourse…’. Sterling’s translator did, however, introduce me to two new English words. One would only find them in a translated text: ‘oneiric’ and ‘autochthonous’. The Spanish word for the former is ‘onírico’; for the latter it is – what a surprise – ‘autóctono’. The Spanish-English dictionary has done its job – literally. In both senses. The translator has not.

So here is a message to the putative Ted Perrys of those international and foreign-based labels who think they have got it right but haven’t. Here is an easy solution which would go some way to improving your product: once you have the translated text on your PC, hand it over to someone whose first language is English. Naturally, ask them to use the translator’s text as the template but get them to check grammar, idioms and spelling. Ask a friend. Give them a nice bottle of wine as a thank-you or take them out for dinner. It won’t add much to the budget, and you’ll end up with a product that is worthy of your label, your customers – and my wonderful native language.

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