I Google-translate old Italian arias and not-quite-as-old German lieder.
For the past 8 years I’ve been taking lessons in classical singing. Part of being able to perform a song is to first ‘get inside’ it – understand what kind of message is involved and what the emotion and atmosphere surrounding it are like. Since the songs are often in languages I know only a little (German) or not at all (old Italian), I’ve found it helpful to start the process by putting the lyrics into Google Translate and translating them.
When we start work with a new song, my teacher often plays the melody for me and sometimes also tells me a little bit about what it’s about. After that I try to find out more. First I check to see if I can find some kind of translation. Many of the songs have been used in teaching classical singing for a long time, so once in a while there is some kind of translation online. However, they can be surprisingly hard to find.
At first I tried looking up everything word-by-word in a dictionary, but that was slow and not that successful. You would have to know the modern equivalents of words in an old language to be able to look them up, and I couldn’t do that. When I put the whole thing into Google Translate, there were words here and there that didn’t get translated, but I still got a general idea of what it was saying.
I’ve used this method since then with new songs. If I can capture some key words – maybe a word is repeated throughout the song, or it’s emphasized somehow or used at a high point in the melody – and get an understanding of those, that is a good start, even if I don’t get a full understanding of the entire song.
I also often translate into both English and my native language of Finnish. Doing it into 2 languages is a good method – you might get something in one of the languages that the other didn’t succeed at, so between the 2 you end up covering mostly everything. And given the options of no understanding or some understanding, I’ll take the latter.
Also, of course Google Translate does not produce a beautiful narrative like the original, but I don’t expect it to. The original is old poetry, after all, and that is difficult even for human translators. What I need is to understand a bit of what it’s about and capture some keywords.
Once a pretty funny thing happened where I found out I had completely misunderstood the translated lyrics of a song I was working on. It was in German and there was just one word I didn’t understand so I put it into Google Translate. Something about the translation of that one word gave me the impression that the speaker in the poem was a woman who was just content to be dancing around with other country folk. It turned out that it was actually about a man who was somewhat lewd and disgusting!
Finally one day I was singing it with my teacher and a pianist. We got to talking about what it’s about, what the feeling and atmosphere should be during each part of the song. I told my teacher what I thought it was and she corrected me. Whereas my earlier rendering had been slightly solemn and serious, after the explanation I understood the humor and playfulness of the poem and was able to match the slightly mischievous tone much better. It became much more fun.