Reflections on the Honor’s Project: Choral Translations

Read Lauren Ladner’s own thoughts on her 2021 Honor’s Project

One of the most difficult aspects of my research was finding a suitable topic. Although I conducted extensive preliminary research, my topic ended up concerning an issue that was right in front of me at the time: that is, Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzen. Millsaps Singers sang the Liebeslieder my sophomore year, and although we sang it in German, our edition also had an English text. I remember reading the poetic, or artistic, translations of each song and being struck by the differences in syntax and meaning between the text meant to be sung and the poetic translation of the original German. If one asks choral professionals about how or when to use translations, you will likely get the impression that singing the original text—no matter its language—is considered best practice. Many choral professionals I encountered have expressed some amount of ambivalence about using translations at all, or, at the very least, can recognize a “good” translation from a “bad” one. But what does that even mean? What makes a translation “good” or “bad”? And if we don’t like translations, why do they continue to be published?  

These questions, which I first voiced to my advisor, Mr. Trotter, became the driving force behind my research. Through a survey of relevant articles from the Choral Journal and Musical Times, I mostly discovered a great deal of debate about why one shouldn’t use translations. I did not find any articles discussing when using a translation might be appropriate, or why translations came about in the first place. This survey was the first step in a long research process; for nearly six months, I read as many articles on my topic—or topics near my topic—as I could. Stopping the research process was incredibly difficult. Accepting that I would not (could not) know everything on this topic was a hard pill to swallow.  

However, my honors paper and its conclusions were born out of this difficulty. The history of choral translations from the Renaissance to 1900 reveals that they came about to allow an audience or choir to hear and perform music even if they did not know the original text of a given piece. For the United States’ community choral societies and church choirs, this accessibility was a necessity—since America lacked a distinct musical identity, most music at the turn of the 20th century was imported from Europe and had to be translated. The heritage of translations is one of accessibility, and this attitude persists today. Whether academia likes it or not, there are definite pedagogical advantages to using a translation. For example, choral conductors, instead of laboring over the fine points of German diction with 45 singers from South Mississippi, can focus on developing musicality, tone, or technical skills with their choir. However, I do urge choral conductors re-conceive choral translations as a pedagogical tool; rather than a nuisance to be avoided, or a destination for an amateur ensemble, translation-as-tool can aid choirs in establishing firm musicianship skills before tackling more difficult pieces that necessitate learning foreign diction. As an ensemble develops, it is critical to keep challenging them to maintain growth—foreign diction can be one of those challenges!  

So, as you contemplate your own honors project in the humanities, I would urge you to look not on the internet, or in the library, but around you for a research question. What do your professors not know? What do they ask questions about? What in your field is contentious, and what is your opinion? These are questions that will help you not only find a topic, but also conduct research that will ultimately contribute something worthwhile to your field.