Translating and interpreting in the field of classical music


Translators who work in the more “conventional” fields of software, business, patents or whatever, may or may not be aware of the surprising amount of work that exists out there in the rather more obscure field of classical music.

Most of it is in the form of program notes for CDs, as a huge amount of classical music is recorded in Japan. Disks which are intended solely for the Japanese market have their notes in Japanese only, but anything which is meant for export comes with an English translation. I have only ever come across J<E translation in this particular niche – when foreign disks are imported into Japan, the Japanese divisions of the major record companies tend to commission new notes from Japanese critics instead of translating the original ones.

Another related field in which there is a certain amount of work is concert programs. These too are usually written only in Japanese, but occasionally, particularly when high-profile artists from abroad are involved, English translations are deemed necessary.

The third major field is interpreting for concert musicians during master-classes. Very often, well known concert pianists and violinists give lessons to talented students during their visits to Japan, and they need interpreters. I have only ever done this kind of work in Japan – since I came to Dublin four years ago I have not heard of Japanese musicians giving master classes here, and the chances of such are unfortunately remote.

Background Knowledge

As with any translation, a vast amount of background knowledge is necessary. In the case of classical music, naturally most has to do with musical terminology, accurate names of compositions, correct renditions of musical keys etc.

Obvious examples would be names of musical forms, most of which have Japanese names, such as 交響曲 for symphony, 協奏曲 for concerto, and 狂詩曲 for rhapsody. More difficult than this is the fact that composition titles appear in Japanese, and the Japanese title is often very different from the original. The original title, or its English equivalent (depending on which is more commonly used) has to be searched for, and used in the translation. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is known as 田園, his Pathétique Sonata is 悲愴, Liszt’s “Années de pèlerinage”, a set of compositions depicting the composer’s travels around Europe, is translated as 巡礼の年報, and Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” is known as 椿姫, after the original play “La Dame aux camélias” by Alexandre Dumas.

The musical notes, which in English are named from A to G, are called イロハニホヘトin Japanese, the first seven letters of the old kana alphabet. Sharp (one semi-tone higher) is 嬰 and flat (one semitone lower) is 変, major keys are 長調, and minor keys are 短調. Thus, “C-sharp minor” becomes 嬰ハ短調.

A surprising amount of things which have to be checked and verified actually have nothing whatsoever to do with music. The reason for this is that very often, information about the background of a composition is given, including details of where it was composed, who commissioned the work, who wrote the words of a song, who published the poem etc, so place names, names of publishers, magazines and obscure Russian poets make an appearance, and are all written in katakana.

Examples of this are:
This work was composed in the summer of 1997, during a stay at Lake Fryksta, deep in the forests of Sweden.


A lengthy search revealed that the magazine in question is called “Nouvelliste” and the poet’s name is A. Fet.

The internet is an essential tool for retrieving obscure pieces of information such as these. I have a number of musical dictionaries and encyclopaedias, which are sufficient most of the time, but in cases like these, the internet is the only place where such details can be found. If I had done this kind of work before the age of the internet, I imagine I would have spent long hours in libraries doing a lot of research.


One of the hardest things about classical music translation is the nature of music criticism in Japan. My impression, over the years, is that rather than striving to explain things in as simple terms as possible, Japanese music critics tend to use their writing as a tool for highlighting their own erudition and intellect. They do this by using obscure vocabulary, difficult kanji and long sentences, and by writing texts which are abstract in the extreme (sometimes bordering on incomprehensibility) which only serve to compound the mystique of music instead of deconstructing it.

Here are some examples:


In English this became:
The aim of the composer, making use of the player’s own voice and such unusual composition techniques as multiphonics and quarter-tones, was to put the performer in an extreme situation in which there is no dividing line between the instrument and the human body.

Here, no attempt is made to explain the meaning of the German term “Sturm und Drang” which probably means nothing to the average reader. I suspect that it is far more impressive to say “this sonata was composed in 1766, the start of Haydn’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ period” than to say simply “this sonata was composed in 1766”.

An example of a long and rather verbose sentence:

By far the worst cases are when composers write program notes about their own, usually highly avant-garde compositions.


In an attempt to create an actual sublation (Aufheben), the particles of smoke extracted from the “black milk of dawn” each create a complete scale (mode), spellbinding the space while perpetually changing speed. I really wanted to add my prayer for sanctification through becoming a time particle at the end of the rise of “the black milk of dawn”.

The jury is still out as to whether this kind of writing represents the height of genius or the height of pretentiousness, but from the point of view of getting the job done, “chokuyaku” is the only option in cases like these.


I actually got into this whole area through interpreting, when I was asked by my piano tuner, who knew I was a (fairly) accomplished amateur pianist with a wide knowledge of music, to interpret for a visiting concert pianist who was going to give master classes and private lessons during an upcoming concert tour of Japan. Until I left Japan, that particular pianist made fairly lengthy visits on a further six or seven occasions, and I was invariably hauled in to interpret for his increasingly numerous lessons. On one occasion he made a couple of recordings, and I was asked to translate the program notes, and from that time I have done all the program notes for that particular record company and occasional ones from other companies as well.

Interpreting for piano lessons is not really different from any other interpreting job, except that phenomenal accuracy in conveying nuances is of paramount importance as the changes required in the student’s playing are often extremely subtle. Because of this, I think that only an interpreter who is also a player can do the job satisfactorily. Another thing is that a six-foot tall foreign pianist can be extremely forbidding for a petrified Japanese student, so as interpreter I also had to play the role of “comforter”, softening the edges of the pianist’s sometimes rather sharp comments. Once, I remember the pianist told an unfortunate student that her fortissimo was “horrible”, which I translated as 「もう少しやわらかく弾いてください」because I knew that a more direct translation would probably send her off in fits of tears!

Another difficulty in that particular case was that the pianist in question was Russian, with rich but rather chaotic English, so understanding what he was getting at was sometimes quite a challenge. He had learnt English through reading and knew an amazing number of difficult words but often stumbled over basic ones. On one occasion, after freely using words like “undulation” and “penetrating”, he asked: “what do you call the square, glass thing in a wall?”

Jonathan Baum