Interview with Robert Coote About Bach Choir Translations

Ever wonder what goes into producing a Bach Choir concert? It is a combination of the hard work, talents, and unique abilities of the Bach Choir community, and often those efforts have value beyond the performance itself. For example, we receive many requests from performing groups all over the world for permission to use our translations, which we make available on our web site. In this article, Managing Director Martha Westland talks with Bob Coote, member of the tenor section and one of our main translators, about the process of creating translated text for the choir.

Robert CooteMARTHA: How long have you been a member of the SF Bach Choir, and when did you start doing the translations?

ROBERT: I joined the choir in 2001. I was impressed that the choir did its own translations. Since at least the 1990s there have been excellent translators in the choir, including of course native speakers. I think of Leslie King, Michael Kim, Claudia Engle—there were many. I had no interest in doing it myself. I admired what was already being done, and translating had always exasperated me. But after a year or two I offered to look over translations for the concert program with another pair of eyes, if helpful. To show what I had in mind, I gave Sharon Gustavson, managing director at the time, the previous program with suggestions written in. Before I knew it, the job was in my lap.

MARTHA: What languages do you translate?

ROBERT: I do German pretty well, Latin less well, sometimes French, once Dutch (with Niek Veldhuis)—I spent time in Holland when a student. Italian (Alexandra Amati-Camperi), Spanish (Barbara Paschke), Swedish, and the Welsh everyone tussled with in December, are beyond me (though I had a semester of Italian 40 years ago). Whatever the language, I depend on help.

MARTHA: What sort of help?

ROBERT: Translations by others, which may show what I missed or suggest felicitous phrasing. Dictionaries. For instance, for the antiquated or dialectal German that often crops up in our repertoire I frequently use the magnificent dictionary begun by the Brothers Grimm (of folktale fame) in 1838 and not finished until 1961. By the way, I make constant use of my English dictionary as well. For German, I get help from members of the Choir (like Christian Laggner for the current program), my daughter, a Swiss colleague where I taught, the professor of Early Modern German at Berkeley (now the director of Bancroft Library), and others. For Latin, from my wife Polly, whom I depend on to do the heavy lifting, from the history professor where I taught, an expert in medieval Latin, and Alexandra again. While I don’t usually do much research on texts, there are good resources. A few years ago, Michael Marissen of Swarthmore College finally published his critically annotated edition of the texts of Bach’s Passions and Oratorios with English translation. When the choir did the St. Matthew back in 2004, Marissen lent me his typescript and his annotations proved helpful in several places. In sum, I make decisions, but not without lots of input from others.

MARTHA: You may not be a German or Latin expert, but perhaps you bring other talents or skills to the task?

ROBERT: Possibly. Since so much of our repertoire derives from Scripture or church liturgy and theology, my training in biblical studies, church history, and theology can come in handy—though I have to say that here again Polly is very knowledgeable and often clues me in on background, references, allusions, etc. Of course reading the Bible in Hebrew and Greek can be an advantage, for example in realizing why a phrase appears a certain way in Latin or German—or English for that matter. But I have to guard against making problems more complicated than they are!

MARTHA: What is your process in translating?

ROBERT: The process begins with Sally Nielsen (the program editor) and Laurel Elkjer (a former program editor) transcribing the texts from the scores. This is a crucial step and you’d be surprised how often it presents difficulties that they have to wrestle with—yet another unsung service these generous individuals provide for the choir. In order to get something out early in the quarter, I make a provisional translation, expecting to revise phrases, lines, or stanzas after further consideration or consultation. This is why you see these initial translations with the heading “corrections, revisions, suggestions welcome” or something like that. In response, one or two people may volunteer suggestions (I think of David Hammer, Dick Buxbaum, Christian Laggner, all of whom have saved me from embarrassment), but most don’t—I wish more would! You may sometimes see me making notes during rehearsal—that can be me having my own second thoughts about my translation.

MARTHA: Are there any special considerations you take into account when translating?

ROBERT: I never forget the adage traduttore, traditore, to translate is to betray, which I take not as cynical or sardonic but as simply true. Of course there are always problems and issues—that’s what makes it exasperating. Starting with grasping the meaning, which can be hard, but let’s assume I do. Then what’s the right English expression? What to do with allusions and double meanings? What if the text’s metaphor doesn’t work in English? Then we have the two big general questions. The first one is style. Most of our texts are poetic. Should we use poetic language and form to translate poetry? There are good reasons for doing so. But mostly I don’t, for one basic reason. I believe that for the choir and our audience the main purpose of the translation—not least in tune with the character of baroque choral music—is to convey the plain sense of what we are singing. That is challenge enough. Satisfying the constraints of poetic style would make it all the more difficult to achieve the main purpose, let alone exceeding my capabilities. Also, these are texts from a bygone era. As a biblical scholar I have some experience with such texts, and I long ago became skeptical of anyone’s ability to know just what poetic effect they were intended to evoke. In any case, there’s Robert Frost’s famous remark, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”—which Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanssen proved once again.

MARTHA: What’s the second big question?

ROBERT: It’s related to the first. It’s the question of register, which mostly boils down to whether our texts in translation should sound churchy or not, with thee’s and thou’s and words like righteousness and hath and listeth. There are good reasons to go either way. With our texts, churchiness cannot be avoided completely. But when there’s a choice I usually opt for plain-speak instead of church-speak. The Bible was not written in church, as I’ve spent a career explaining to students, colleagues, and, for that matter, other scholars. The church’s hymns and liturgy were written, of course, in church. But Luther said the Bible should be translated in the language of home and street, Bach’s usage followed suit, in line with the piety of his era, and perhaps this is reason enough, given our choir’s heritage, to do the same in representing our texts.

MARTHA: What is most on your mind as you look to the future as program translator?

ROBERT: In this area as in most, there are able people in the Bach Choir. Eventually someone will want to take my place and share in the enjoyment and satisfaction. Perhaps that person is already a member of the choir….