Two Hans’s too many?

So, last weekend, I sang the tenor solo’s in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.  It was a wonderful experience– the score is magnificent and fit like a glove, I was sharing the stage with one of the world’s most prominent young singers, the performance went well and the audience response was enthusiastic.  The piece raised one interesting problem, though: translation.

Das Lied von der Erde is written in German, but the poems were originally written in Chinese.  They were written by the great poet Li Bai, but Mahler’s era was a bit different from our own… he wasn’t setting Li Bai’s text, or even a good translation, but a so-so translation of a so-so translation.  The result?  The text that Mahler set, doesn’t bear much of a resemblance of to what Li Bai wrote.  Li Bai’s first poem is 15 lines long, but Mahler’s translation lasts 29 lines.

Not that this is a problem, exactly.  I mean, if the result is as beautiful and striking as what Mahler wrote, what does the process matter?  What gets me is, here you have a European composer setting an Asian poet of great reknown, except he’s not really setting his poetry, or making much an of attempt to do so.  Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if the only exposure Chinese audiences had to, say, Shakespeare, was a version that sounds like “Maybe I should say the ways you’re similar and different to a summer’s day?  Should I say it?  You are way better than a summer’s day, totally, in every way, like for real.”

At the end of the day, though it’s of course problematic to see Asian texts appropriated, not too conscientiously, for the success of a Western composer, that’s nothing new in Western art.  What’s more unfortunate is the loss of quality in the poems.  Li Bai is considered a great poet for a reason… much greater a literary figure than Hans Bethge or Hans Heilman, the translators involved.  Even in (a more faithful) translation, there’s something subtle and haunting about Li Bai’s imagery:

“Hundred years of wealth amounts to what?
Everyone lives and dies only once
Lonely ape sits, howls the moon over the grave
Must empty this cup of wine in one gulp.”

It’s a shame that Mahler’s audiences can’t enjoy what these poems have to offer, can’t hear what Li Bai has to say, in his own terms.  Because it’s great art!  And that’s part of why we go to the theater.


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