While most of my songs set to music words by poets writing in English, so far I have also set poems in German, French, Spanish, Polish and Afrikaans. Some of the poems I’ve set in other languages, I’ve found set to music by others using English translations. Most recently, I chanced across a recording of music by George Crumb, setting the first of the poems from Lorca’s suite “la selva de los relojes.” Forest of Clocks.
While I am dependent upon translations and lots of page turning through dictionaries to delve into the words of a foreign language poem – and lots of listening, if I can find them, to recordings of the poems being read aloud – to capture the phrasing and rising and falling intonations of the words – I always decided against using an English translation. Somehow, the translations never quite capture the original intent and flow of the poems, so I struggle along to get the sound of the original language into my head. Many composers do not. The Crumb version of the Lorca poem, while great music, somehow, to my mind, failed to capture the sound world of Lorca’s Spanish text.
It is also fascinating to me how the shape of the musical lines and the rhythms that spring to mind when writing in another language change dependent upon the language. The melodies in my Spanish songs would never have come out the way they did if I had been setting an English translation. The accents and rhythms of Spanish are just too different from English and open the door to a different set of sounds.
And while I love the translations I have of Rilke’s poetry, I somehow couldn’t imagine setting his words in anything other than his original German (or French as the case may be).