What Does This Mean? Translating Historic Texts for Performances

Florio Dictionary

At the Newberry Consort, we love bringing different historical eras to life, performing music in a variety of languages from Elizabethan English to early German, Italian, French, Dutch, Polish, Spanish and even ancient Chinese.

But for our singers, who must understand and readily communicate the texts they sing, presenting works in ancient tongues can be a challenge.

Ellen Hargis, co-artistic director of the Newberry Consort, spends hours translating many of the works that the Consort performs into modern English so she and the other singers can fully appreciate  their meaning. These translations also appear in program books and are incorporated into the evocative projections designed by Shawn Keener that are featured at our concerts.

Although it’s challenging, translating is a labor of love for Hargis, who has an abiding love of languages. Indeed, her study of languages is, along with music, a life-long pursuit. As a college student, Hargis was torn between studying music or Romance languages. She eventually realized she could do both, and went on to study historical linguistics as a graduate student.

“One of the reasons early music really appealed to me was the beautiful texts,” she says. “I found the old versions of languages really fascinating.”

And after performing early music for so many years, Hargis says she has gotten very familiar with the archaic vocabulary, idioms and phrases that were commonly used in Italian and French poetry from the middle ages through the baroque era.

“I probably would do just fine in 17th century Italy,” Hargis jokes. “Although that wouldn’t help me get to the train station in Italy today!”

Hargis says the art of translating poetry from one language to another is being able to understand what the poets were trying to convey and then provide a similar translation in English that captures the meaning as well as the beauty of the words.

A well-developed understanding of the ways in which Renaissance-era poets invoked mythic gods and goddesses is one crucial skill. For example, in the 16th century, Venus was also known as “Ciprigna” in Italian, “Citharea” in English, and “Cithere” in French.

Recently, Hargis says she ran into an early-Italian text referring to the “son of a blacksmith,” but she realized from the context that the poet in fact was referring to Cupid, whose father was Vulcan, blacksmith to the gods.

Hargis says all of the detective work is well worth it so the singers can convey the nuanced emotion behind each song effectively.

“I need to get really granular with the texts,” she says. “The most effective performers understand what what every syllable means, as well as understanding the imagery.”

The process of translating historical texts is not easy. First of all, you can’t always use a modern dictionary to look up words because spellings and meanings change so much over time. That’s why Hargis and many other early music scholars rely on historical dictionaries.

For the translation work for Dangerous Love, which will feature music from 17th-century Italy, Hargis has relied on an Italian-English dictionary called “Queen Anna’s New World of Words,” published by John Florio in 1611.

In addition to the linguistic complexities of this work, it can be hard to decipher the words themselves because orthography wasn’t standardized yet. Spellings, word divisions and accent marks weren’t consistent, and in manuscripts, the calligraphy can be difficult to read. “Sometimes you can’t tell if something is an accent mark or an ink blot,” Hargis says.

Hargis says she usually prepares a translation for the singers first, and then she creates a different one that’s more simplified that appears on the supertitles during the Consort’s performances.

“I want to retain the elegance of the poetry, but at the same time, I want people to be able to glance at the supertitles and then be back on the musicians, so I don’t want to make the language too complicated,” she says.  

To hear these beautiful Italian texts live, be sure to buy your tickets for the Newberry Consort’s next concert: Dangerous Love: Playing with Fire!

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