A Note on the English Versions of the Poem

We do enjoy songs in languages we don’t know in a whole variety of ways, often whilst following a translation as it displays, word for word, the equivalent of the original vocabulary. Mostly the music takes pre-eminence, the text is some sort of bonus, a bonus which is only partially understood.

However, we should remember that, in the case of the majority of these songs it was the poem which came first. So the poem must have some quality that ‘inspired’ the composer, that ‘struck a chord’ and it is this that underlies the writing of the song. And, of course, it was more than just the words, it was the poetry of the text.

Several very famous singers have insisted that the listener does not need the words, their artistry is such that the meaning is fully conveyed. However, our appreciation of a song sung in our own language is quite different; the texts add a vital dimension which we would not wish to be without.

The problem is to find a way to allow the listener to appreciate some measure of this essential third dimension of a song, the poetry, without a working knowledge of the original language.

In these English versions of the poems I have tried to convey some sense of this poetry, the quality that gives life to the text, to help the reader to a fuller appreciation and enjoyment of the song.

Translation is not a perfect science and so there have been changes; as a consequence the listener will not be able slavishly to follow the text during the performance as they may have been accustomed to. I hope that there are gains in understanding the totality of the songs as the composers conceived them and that these will outweigh any losses.

Many very well-known settings in translation of, for instance, Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Byron, Sir Walter Scott etc. lose nothing from the fact that the German translations, say, frequently bear only limited comparison to the originals. They are true to these originals, yes, in their fashion; meaning that, despite the words having been changed a little, or even quite a lot, they do manage to convey a flavour of that original, characteristic quality. The translators of those classic songs have managed to capture the essence of the original in the new language and this has been recognised by and has inspired the composer. I hope that I have to some extent been able to match their achievement.