The Hector Berlioz Website


By Alastair Bruce [now Lord Aberdare]

© 2003 Alastair Bruce

    My experience of translating Berlioz is essentially limited to one book – Les Grotesques de la Musique, his second compilation (after Les Soirées de l’Orchestre) of pieces from his feuilletons – the regular critical articles and reviews he wrote, mostly for the Journal des Débats. My translation has now been published in the current bicentenary year by the University of Rochester Press, with The Musical Madhouse as its English title.

    To enhance my credentials (or possibly not!), I should say that I have probably by now translated this shortish volume at least three times, over a period of some twenty years. I started in 1982, with the aim of producing a version for the Berlioz Society Bulletin of the whole work – the only one of Berlioz’s books of which there had never been a complete English translation. The results appeared in sixteen instalments in Bulletins 115 to 131, from 1982 to 1987. This was a somewhat literal translation, which could fairly be described as ‘rough and ready’. It also omitted several sections that had previously appeared in the Bulletin in versions by Lisa Goulding and Joan Hills (I added these afterwards), and it included no commentary.

    Some ten years later, during 1997 and 1998, I decided to revise and improve this version – largely for my own satisfaction, although with an eye to the possibility of eventually getting it published. This became a major reworking, during which I received great encouragement and support from Hugh Macdonald, who was eager to see an English version published. By the end of it I had a much improved, and complete, translation, but still with many deficiencies and no notes. During late 2001 I picked up the draft once more, with a view to getting it definitively into publishable form in time for the bicentenary year. As I reviewed the text, I found numerous places where further polishing was needed – either for greater accuracy, or to capture Berlioz’s own tone and style more closely, or to be more easily intelligible for a modern English-speaking readership.

    By the time this process was complete, the University of Rochester Press had agreed to publish the translation, which created a whole new workload: producing notes, identifying sources (for which I have relied wholly on Professor Léon Guichard’s Gründ edition, published in 1969), writing a Translator’s Note, creating an Index, finding illustrations (with great help from Richard Macnutt), and no doubt further tasks still to come – everything, in fact, except producing an Introduction, which has been done in magnificent fashion by Hugh Macdonald, encapsulating everything necessary with his usual fluency, wit and concision.

    So although my experience of translating Berlioz is hardly wide, it is certainly deep! And in general, of course, it is a pleasure to do, because his prose is almost always well-written, clear, and with humour never far below the surface.

    The principal challenge, as with all translation, is to produce a text that is as close as possible to conveying Berlioz’s own tone and style, as well as his meaning, in English. The trick is to end up with what he might have written, not what you would write – one of the dangers of which I became aware as I went over parts of the text for the third (or fourth, or fifth) time was that of polishing it too much, and producing a version reflecting what I felt he should have written rather than what he actually did write.

    The novice Berlioz translator’s morale is hardly improved by the fine examples he has to follow. Jacques Barzun in his Evenings with the Orchestra, David Cairns in his translation of the Memoirs, and Hugh Macdonald in his recent edition of Berlioz’s Orchestration Treatise, have all succeeded brilliantly in conveying the real Berlioz. They know him so well that they seem quite naturally to reproduce his authentic tone of voice, although I am sure the apparent ease with which they achieve this belies the amount of hard work involved. I can only hope to achieve a little of their facility and fluency in my own translation.

    Apart from the constant need to capture the right tone, there are numerous more specific challenges, many of them seeming to be concentrated in Les Grotesques de la Musique. For a non-musician like me, the use of technical musical terms and expressions may present problems – most of which were resolved for me by Hugh Macdonald or Ralph Locke, the Senior Editor of the URP’s Eastman Studies in Music and a huge help and support. I have learnt, for example, that an ‘haute-contre’ is a high tenor, not a countertenor, and also the differences between a viola da gamba and a bass viol and between a flageolet and a flute.

    Harder than this is deciding what to do about Berlioz’s regular puns and witticisms, some of which I completely overlooked at first; others may still have eluded me. In one or two instances I have been defeated by the search for an English equivalent, and have resorted reluctantly to reproducing the French version, with a note. On three or four occasions Berlioz makes use of local dialects, either ‘real’ (eg those of a Vosges countrywoman or a Marseilles coachman) or imagined (as when he writes to Queen Pomaré IV of Tahiti using a sort of Tahitian pidgin-French). Yet another challenge arises in a chapter where he comments on a number of French proverbial sayings, not all of which have English equivalents.

    Another difficulty relates less to translation than to explanation. Berlioz’s text is liberally stuffed with references – classical (especially Virgil), literary (especially La Fontaine and Goethe), dramatic (especially Molière and Shakespeare) and musical (especially Gluck, as well as Beethoven, Spontini and Weber). The task of recognising these references and their sources was greatly eased by Professor Guichard’s earlier detective work for the Gründ edition.

    Nor had I reached the end of the journey when all these issues were resolved. Other matters still remained to be decided upon, with the help of the publisher and others. Should all titles of works be translated into English, or left in their original language, or should some be translated and others not – and if so, which? Should French terms be retained for salutations (Monsieur, Madame, etc) and names of theatres and other institutions? How can the translation be made intelligible to both English and American audiences, without using terms familiar to one but not the other (such as ‘knackers’ or ‘concertmaster’) or with different meanings to each (such as ‘pit’)?

    Last but not least, how to translate the title itself? I had originally assumed that the book would be called Musical Grotesques in English, but it became apparent that the word ‘grotesque’ has different connotations in French and English. Numerous alternatives were considered and rejected – Music’s Grotesqueries, Musical Aberrations, Oddities of Music, Musical Monstrosities, and others – before we settled on The Musical Madhouse, which fits well with Berlioz’s own introduction to the book. My main consolation at this stage was that it was not A Travers Chants that I had chosen to translate – I can imagine all too well Elisabeth Csicsery-Ronay’s struggles with that untranslatable phrase before coming up with The Art of Music and Other Essays as the title of her fine translation. As with The Musical Madhouse, the original French title appears in brackets after the English version.

    Apart from all these complications, and even perhaps with all of them, translating Les Grotesques has been an enormous pleasure, greatly enhanced by the help and encouragement I have received from numerous Berlioz enthusiasts and experts, and by the sense that a successful outcome would result in plugging a gap in the availability of English versions of Berlioz’s writings. I hope readers of this piece, and members of the Berlioz Society, will be able to decide for themselves how well I have resolved the challenges, by obtaining and reading the book when it comes out during 2003. For myself it will be a real delight to have brought to an end the process of translation that started under the aegis of the Berlioz Society Bulletin back in 1982.

Alastair Bruce

See also on this site the full French text of Les Grotesques de la Musique.

Back to Berlioz Bicentenary Special main page

Back to Home Page

Retour à la Page d’accueil