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Translating French Opera module

An English Libretto

"The availability of a clear, accessible English translation of the libretto of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride was for me as director of the opera a vital aspect of the Byre Opera’s production of the work in 2015. This was because:

  • we were working with a young and relatively inexperienced cast and needed them to be able to engage quickly with the musical and dramatic aspects of their roles with minimum technical barriers
  • we wanted to be able to attract new local audiences who might not be familiar with opera.
  • the opera, and its composer, are not well known even to those in the audience who were familiar with opera. The background story (which would have been familiar to elite audiences in 1779) assumes knowledge that a modern audience will normally not possess. The English translation helped to make this piece more accessible to all ages and stages." (Jane Pettegree, Director of Iphigénie in Tauris)


When, in Summer 2013, I was approached by the St Andrews Music Centre about the possibility of producing an English libretto for a production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, I elected to undertake the first stages of the process through a new, innovative course: FR4110 Translating French Opera. The honours module ran for the first time in September 2014. Three of the students who took the course were soloists in the cast of Iphigenie in Tauris (as it became in English), and thus participated in the creation of the text that they later sang in performance. Drawing on the work that the students had done, I then prepared the final version of the full libretto myself, ironing out some issues with word stress and musical setting, and providing the text with a unified voice.


The Translating French Opera module caught the attention of the Times Higher Education magazine, who published a feature article on it on 11 June 2015:

The Translation Brief

To produce an English translation of Guillard’s libretto for Gluck’s opera, Iphigénie en Tauride, to be performed by St Andrews Opera in June 2015. The opera will be performed in English translation in order to maximize the connection between performers and their roles and between the performers and the audience. The ultimate goal of the English translation is thus a dramatic one. The translation should aim to convey the core literal and connotative meaning of the source text and to reproduce, to the extent possible, its clarity and musicality. Above all, the translation must fit the music i.e. the number of syllables in the translation should be identical (or almost identical) to the original. Every attempt should also be made to retain the salient phonic characteristics of the original, including word stress, rhyme, assonance, alliteration and onomatopoeia. Students are encouraged to depart from a like-for-like translation in one key aspect: the opera will be set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic world and a modern (but not colloquial) idiom should be employed. Contractions, neologisms (e.g. to denote rituals and ritualistic behaviour) and slogans that echo current debates about foreigners and alterity may also be used.

Distinctive Features of the Course

  • a real, practical goal: student work formed the starting point for my final version of the libretto performed by Byre Opera in June 2015
  • two music workshops with the opera director (Jane Pettegree), the music director (Michael Downes) and a professional singer (Brian Bannatyne-Scott) during which students heard their work performed and received immediate feedback on it
  • emphasis during the semester on pooling resources: in a mixed group, students brought and shared different skills including a nuanced understanding of the original French text, creative solutions to translation issues, a feel for the rhythms of language, and musical ability
  • individual final choices assessed in the final assignment
  • on-going conversations between the group and the director of the opera

Course Assessment

FR4110 is assessed by 100% coursework, as follows:

  1. 20-minute oral presentation on a short excerpt from one act of the libretto. Emphasis on work in progress and the discussion of the respective merits of a range of possible translations (30% of final grade)
  2. Final translation of two consecutive acts of the libretto with accompanying introduction and notes. Emphasis on justification of individual final decisions (70% of final grade)

Student Testimonials

  • Working towards a public performance project really added to the appeal of the module.
  • The ability to collaborate with other students, staff and director, was vital.
  • Pooling ideas was incredibly helpful as each student had different approaches.
  • Lots of the students were not singers but brought other skills to the table.
  • The brief evolved to further define the aim of the translation. These were often a result of class discussion about the difficulties of incorporating certain ideas into the translation.
  • The practical and performance nature of the project encourages students to produce their best work
  • People outwith the university have been incredibly interested in the project and have been very intrigued to ask questions about the process and result.


The relationship between the Byre Opera’s production and the translation of Iphigenie in Tauris was reciprocal and organic: just as the students had done, I tailored the final translation to the director’s brief, which had evolved in the course of our on-going discussions throughout the semester and beyond. The production was thus directly influenced by the translation and our collective goal was always to speak in a meaningful way to a twenty-first-century audience. This is perhaps most evident in the English libretto’s depiction of the deep friendship between Pylades and Orestes (involving a subtle interplay between images of brotherhood and comradeship), and in its approach to the distinctly uncomfortable tension in the opera between locals and outsiders (the use of the word and concept “foreigner” and recurring images of people arriving in Tauris—literally—from overseas).

The impact of the translation was most apparent, however, in the way it affected first the performers in the opera and then, of course, the audience (see sections on Rehearsals and Performances for further information).