What it takes to be an opera translator- Part 1

It was on a hike in the Colorado mountains that I first talked with Jeremy Sortore about what he does as an artist. As impressive as is his background in voice (he holds a master's degree), acting and teaching, what really intrigued me was his experience as a translator for super or sub titles for operas. This interview is an extension of that original conversation, focused on what the job truly entails, how one gets to do it and what are the pluses and the minuses of the job. 

"I asked the director if I could do the translation 
and they offered to pay me" 

How did you get to work as a translator for opera super-titles?
              I'd always been around an opera company because my mother worked for an opera company when I was a kid, so it was always in the back of my mind. When I was in school doing my undergrad in music and voice, I was cast in an opera and realized that the opera company at the school was gonna need title and I stepped in. I just asked the director if I could do the translation and they offered to pay me, probably a little less than they would have had to pay someone else, and that's how I got started. So I built up quite a library as I was going through school and then started advertising when I was done with my masters and already had a library available to rent.

"I had enough experience that professional 
companies started to take notice" 

How did you end up becoming a professional translator?
              It was a process. At first I was just working with the university music departments, and then other universities' music departments, and from then it went on to small semi professional companies. After a certain point I had enough experience doing that that the professional companies near by started taking notice when they needed somebody to operate the titles. From there I started doing their translation as well. It was step by step.

Do you specialize in one language or do you translate them all?
              My most comfortable language is French although I end up translating a lot more Italian than French, simply because it seems to be what is produced a little bit more, so I'm becoming more comfortable in the Italian. So far I just have French and Italian libretti, and a translation of the Magic Flute because I had done the show couple of times and I knew it very well, but German is my worst language.

"The most difficult thing is to show up to work"

What are some of the main challenges you encounter when you translate?
              The most difficult thing is to show up to work because I do it all by myself, so consequently when I get up in the morning, the hardest thing, as it is for any writer I think, is to sit down and start. Once I've made that commitment and sat down for the day and decided that I'm at work, then it's fairly easy to stay focused. It's a discipline because nobody is really keeping track of me, how much I work or how little I work. So that's the most challenging thing. But for a most technical standpoint, the main concern with translating is trying to find a balance between being too literal and taking too many liberties.

How much creativity do you have when you translate?
              Some. Certainly nobody, from an audience's perspective, wants to sit there and read a word for word translation of what's on stage. It doesn't flow very well. The purpose of the title is not to give you the complete libretto, it's just to help you follow along. It's not supposed to be  a poetic device as much as to help an audience member follow the plot and not be lost. So often I have to work with directors who have really disparate views on how literal or non literal the translation should be.

"Older directors leave me to my own devices, 
younger directors are very hands on" 

So it is a collaborative project.
              It can be, and it is becoming more so for better or for worse. When I first started I would just show up at my job and nobody paid any attention to the titles, so I had complete freedom in what I was doing. With some of the younger directors that are coming along now, directors who have never known opera without titles, the titles are a real integral part of the production. A lot of the older directors still leave me to my own devices and some of the younger directors are very hands on. And it's difficult because sometimes they have very different views about the translations.
I worked with someone recently who wanted a very literal translation, and so I had to end up re-writing most of the translation to be nearly words for words and I hated it, but as the super titles author coordinator, I'm not particularly high on the totem pole as far as getting to make those decisions, so I had to redo that one. And I found that the next time I tried to do a translation, my bias was a little more literal. So the next director told me:  "you translated too much." So I had to go back and redo that one. So it taught me a lot. It taught me to stick to my guns.

"I write the English translation and send it to a Spanish translator who translates my translation" 

How much in advance before an opera is produced are you given the job?
              I do most of my translations right now for Opera Colorado. They have been very  generous in the past year or two to give me my contract for the entire year all at once. So that gives me a lot of time to plan and figure out when I'm going to do the translation in between other jobs and performances. At Opera Colorado we do both translations in English and in Spanish. So I write the English translation and send it to a Spanish translator, and they translate my translation. It's not the ideal situation but it is much easier to find and English to Spanish translator than it is to find a French to Spanish translator. I like to give that company a month before I will need it back a week before using it in tech rehearsals.
I like to give myself about three weeks to get through the score. The preliminary translation takes me one and a half to two weeks, and then I spend some time polishing it and making it more readable.


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