Translating Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges: Interview with Zoe Challenor

post dateFebruary 24, 2015  •   post categoriesNews  •   post comments number4 comments

On 1st March I will sing the role of the Child in Ravel’s opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges for Opera Mint Wales in an exciting new translation by Zoe Challenor. I invited Zoe for an interview to find out more about the process of translating the opera and the challenges that she faced.

Hi Zoe! Thanks very much for giving me your time, it’s great to have you here. I’m having so much fun singing your words but, as a fellow translator, it really strikes me what a challenge it must have been for you!

It was a huge challenge! But I wanted to take on the challenge because the original translation, which was done in the 1920s was really out of date and quite stilted. It didn’t do things like reproduce the rhyme. The grandfather clock song, for example, part of its appeal and “manicness” is the constant rhyming; he just can’t stop rhyming! The original translation didn’t reproduce that for example.

Yes, that part in the French literally makes me laugh out loud every time I hear it! What was the general approach that you took? Did you start at the beginning of the opera and work through or did you start with certain sections?

Yes, I did work chronologically through. There were bits that I left and came back to and bits that I changed later on. There were also some standalone sections which I took out and worked on. For example I worked on the wallpaper section for ages alongside everything else.

Yes, I noticed in that bit you turned the sentence round didn’t you? In the French it’s “nous n’irons plus sur l’herbe mauve Paître nos verts moutons” and you’ve turned it round in English and said “gone are the days when we grazed our green sheep out on the purple grass”, so the green sheep and the purple grass have actually been turned round. Was that to do with fitting the syllables?

Yes, the wallpaper is being described, the idea is that things are an odd colour and it’s doesn’t necessarily matter which odd colour it is. You’re obviously very restricted with fitting the music syllabically. That doesn’t matter when you translate text on its own but when you’ve got music as well it does. I was constantly finding myself with spare syllables at the end of a phrase. I would sometimes add an extra note into the music, so tie two quavers instead of having a crotchet, but I didn’t like to do that too much. I didn’t like the idea of changing the music so wherever possible I found a way of sorting it out with the words rather than doing that.

Yes. I noticed, for example, that you changed the colour “blue” to “yellow” when the Child is talking to the Princess and I assume that was also to make the syllables fit.

Yes, that’s right. I was also very reluctant to use “filler words” which you sometimes see in those instances, like “oh”, “just” and “how” because those words don’t mean anything and I think they weaken what you’re trying to say.

The title of the piece presents another question because “sortilèges” can be translated in various ways, can’t it?

Yeah, that’s right. I’ve seen it translated as “The Child and the Magic Spells” but that is a functional translation. It tells you what the French means but it’s not very elegant. It’s “clunky” and it uses a lot of words. What I understand that is happening in the opera is that the child is being enchanted. The child is being changed in some way through all these experiences that he has. To be able to say the same thing in just 3 words, it was more concise and titles need to be concise.

So, tell me about some of the other challenges that you faced; what were the biggest problems that you had?

Some were vocabulary-based. There were some stage directions and things that were quite hard to translate. Every now and again I would exhaust all resources, ask French natives and still after I’d gone through all the channels there were a few things that were quite tricky. The Chinese cup and the Wedgewood teapot were a big challenge, there was a lot of stereotype in there and I had to ask myself how that would have gone down in the 1920s and how it would go down now; was it ok to carry on with that or did I need to transform it into something completely different? There is what looks like complete nonsense on the page when the Chinese cup is talking but actually when you speak it out loud, it’s not nonsense; it actually means something. For instance, when you speak out “Çaohrâ toujours l’air chinoâ” it means “that will always sound Chinese” but the way it’s written out on the page looks nothing like that and you wouldn’t necessarily understand it unless you spoke it or heard it sung. The original translator decided not to translate that but there’s so much going on there, there are so many layers and levels that would be lost on an English-speaking audience unless I translated it. It makes no sense if you’re performing to an English audience to have a Chinese cup suddenly burst into song in French. The Wedgewood teapot is a stereotypical English boxer – slightly thick, lots of brain cells knocked out, all brawn and muscles. That was another challenge because we’re dealing with an English stereotype in French. They talk about “le roast beef” and we talk about “the frogs” and what rings true about English stereotypes in France doesn’t ring true in England. The joke in French is that he’s speaking Franglais but that’s not a joke that will translate into English because the stereotype, for us, has nothing to do with French. Another way of dealing with it might have been to create a French stereotype speaking “English-French” – to reverse the whole thing but I wanted to keep the English stereotype.

In that section, I notice you’ve kept most of the text that’s already in English but you’ve changed certain words like “costaud” to “sturdy”. It says “black and costaud, black and chic, I punch your nose” and you’ve changed it to “black and sturdy, black and stout, I punch your snout”. Why didn’t you just keep the original English as it was?

Well, I made the decision not to keep any French words and I also wanted to keep the idea of the boxer character. I thought “chic” would be incongruous in English, although it’s true we use “chic” in English. Later on there is rhyme so I kept the rhyme here too, with “stout” and “snout”. Having Franglais just doesn’t make sense when you’ve got an English-speaking audience so I looked for a way of making it all work in English.

Opera Mint’s musical director, Ben Pinnow, also asked a question about the chorus of insects. The frogs say “honhin” repeatedly in the French whereas in your version they say “inno”. He wondered why you didn’t keep “honhin” because his take is that this was Ravel’s way of saying that he had understood the joke about French frogs and giving them a French accent.

I think that’s a rather lovely idea! Perhaps that’s something I missed and I could revise. When people have a good reason like that for doing it a certain way I think that’s wonderful.

Would we have your permission to reinstate the French “honhin” in our production then?!

Oh goodness, of course! There are lots of places where it is possible to make a different decision. Part of the reason behind the decision I made was that I tried to make the translation singable and I tried to make it sound natural. Ravel was part of a movement of composers who wanted to work towards more “naturalistic” word-setting with music. I tried to keep with the spirit of that by trying to make it sound as natural as possible. When there were decisions that had to be made, like with the china cup and the teapot and things like the grandfather clock, I tried to go for something that’s coherent and that works. Also from a singer’s point of view, I tried to make things singable, for example trying not to write an “ee” vowel on a very high note. You’re a singer yourself so you understand.

Well, of course the problem is that the singer will likely have to change the vowel sound and therefore the text may not come across as clearly so it makes sense to write something that is singable so that the singer can be understood more clearly by the audience. And also to make the lives of us singers easier of course!

Yes! One example is the child singing “méchant et libre”. I turned those round so you have “free and bad” instead of the French “bad and free” so that you have the “a” vowel on the higher note. Also, the fire sings “gare” of a very high note. I used “beware” because it has few consonants and it’s easier to sing that open vowel on a high note.

Making the opera singable must have been a great challenge in itself.

Yes, this isn’t like other types of translation, there’s a whole other layer to consider. In a way, it’s like translating two different things because there are the words that Colette wrote and also the notes that Ravel wrote. Ravel has already made interpretive decisions by doing that. So when you translate opera you are actually working with two source texts rather than just one and that affects what you do with the translation.

So how else did being a singer and a musician help you where another translator who isn’t a musician might have struggled or missed certain things?

Besides the technical aspect, I think really just a connection with the act of singing and what the singer’s job entails. I wanted it to sound natural and real, almost as if it were spoken. There are parts that are supposed to sound stilted or very stylised (bits that rhyme, the Grandfather clock or the Shepherds and Shepheresses, they’re meant to be very old-fashioned). But the Child we’re meant to identify with and he’s not supposed to be too distanced from us in terms of language. I wanted it to be natural so that somebody standing up on a stage could communicate the story to the audience with as little in the way as possible; so that the words are not a hindrance and the language doesn’t get in the way.

Your translation has already been performed once. How did it feel to hear it?

It was amazing! It was performed at London College of Music and it was really lovely to hear it brought to life by real people. I also got the chance to talk to the performers afterwards and that was lovely as I got a sense of how they found it and what their reaction had been.

Thank you so much for talking to me Zoe. I hope I manage to do your work justice in my interpretation of the child!


Zoe Challenor Zoe is a choral director and singing teacher at Trinity Laban Junior Department with an MA in Translation and Interpreting studies from the University of Bath. She has won awards including the Norma Greig Prize for French Song at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, the Colin Brummit Vocal Scholarship and the Joan Cross Commemorative Award.

Opera Mint Wales will perform Zoe’s English translation of L’enfant et les Sortilèges on 1st March 2015 in Cardiff. Further performances and a recording are planned for May 2015 and will accompany a film illustration of the opera which will then be toured.