Multilingualism in the Musical Domain

Updated: Apr 16, 2018

If we move from a monolingual (and national) aspect to a multilingual (and transnational) aspect, a further complexity arises: musical terminologies used in both European and non European cultural systems express not only the musical concepts which operate in the different countries, but also reflect the profound differences existing between the a variety of systems and the varying interpretations given by culture in each system.

Although most people may think that translation involves text alone, it is seldom that simple. When one deals with a text that will be set to music and sung, for example, the translator takes liberties to make the song sound natural and appealing in the target language. However, when one works with the setting of religious texts to existing chant patterns, any change in the text must be approached carefully because the replacement of one synonym by another could be dogmatically incorrect. The Orthodox Church has always used the vernacular, the language of the people, for its church services; Greek and then later Church Slavonic was subsequently translated into other languages as necessary. To date there is still no consensus in many of the musical traditions of the ideal form; even the English translations themselves differ.

Today there is a strong need for worldwide sharing of art information as internationalization and increasing globalization of market economy and social patterns of life have created a situation where the need for art information from foreign countries and from different cultural systems is greater than ever before.

Such requirement is not new, but it is getting increasingly complex to meet under the pressure of the rapid cross-border transactions occurring between people of different cultures and languages. It is no doubt that the exchange of information is largely dependent on language, to be intended not only as a system of symbols, but also as a mean of communication, a tool for mediating between different cultures. As regards the language of the music, such languages properties have a major impact on the exchange of musical information. In such a context the system-bound nature of musical terminology, the complexity of musical languages, musical translations issues and comparative music aspects are major issues having important implications for effective retrieval of music across languages. Musical translation is an essential function for cross-language retrieval systems.

In fact, while it can be assessed that everyday language already implies a formalized way of communication, musical language introduces an additional system of formalization. Although musical translation demands accuracy and certainty, it is bound to use abstractions, whose meanings originate from particular changing cultural and social contexts. These contexts produce a certain degree of ambiguity, which increases when the art cultures and systems are enormously different from each other. On a practical level the problems raised, from musical translation view, are strictly connected with those related to the variety and diversity of musical systems. The whole process of interaction between musical languages can be identified as finding equivalents across cultural systems. Translations are done for different purposes, often so that the reader can access the materials in a language s/he can understand. Usually the ordinary layperson is not part of an official translation team. Yet even among experts, there can be disagreement.

Comparative research principles, musical terminology and its translation strategies are extensively examined in the works of terminologists abroad. The aim of their studies refers to the analysis of various musical languages and musical terminology used in different cultural systems.

Music dictionaries of the EU and USA were inspected, the issues of translation from one cultural system to another, the problem of equivalence and difficulties in musical translation. In this comparative research on musical terms of cultural systems is analyzed by specialists focusing on semantics of texts and formation of terms in different cultural systems.

It turned out that musical translation is an interdisciplinary study. It is in close relation to translation and cultural studies, linguistics, terminology and comparative art.

The methodology to be applied for a comparative approach is a systematic one. Systematic in this respect means the analysis of a concept as part of a structure of concepts which has been created for a particular art purpose. Each concept has to be seen as a component of a art solution for a particular aspect of real-life. This sociological reference to facts outside the music is the only direct connection between different cultural systems and should be used as a thematic outline for single terminography projects.

The role of contrastive analysis in different art languages and of methods/techniques in translating musical documents has increased. One of the primary reference sources for musical translators is bilingual music dictionaries which provide equivalent terms in a target language. Most musical terms are to be ascribed to the category of “culture bound-terms” and do not have straightforward equivalents in a target language, therefore, their translation poses special challenges to the dictionary compilers.

Translation of musical texts is characterized by the researchers as “combining the inventiveness of literary translation with the terminological precision of musical translation.” One of the biggest challenges that the musical translators have to cope with is translation of musical terminology.

Musical terms denote the concepts which are created for a particular cultural system. Their creation is based on values and experience of a given nation, so they are closely related to the culture of the nation. Most of them are to be ascribed to the category of “culture-bound terms.”

The nature of musical terms, and culture-bound terms in general, made translation researchers reassess the conception of equivalence in terminology. It is no longer regarded as relationship between identical terms, but as a continuum ranging form absolute equivalence to indirect relationship between concepts.

Consequently, absolute equivalence is possible only when the terms of different languages refer to the same concept. Such full equivalence between musical concepts in different cultural systems is possible only in exceptional cases.

Musical translation requires both cognitive and communicative approach to the material - the knowledge of source and target cultural systems and the assessment of the recipient and the function of the target text. Different translation strategies should be used for lay readers and for musicians, as well as for the texts to be used for information purposes and for the texts to be used as musical documents in the target language.

Translation strategies for musical terms, as other culture-bound terms, range from target language (onwards TL) oriented strategies to source language (SL) oriented strategies. However, the same language may have several variants of art languages as “a language has as many art languages as there are systems using this language as a art language.”

Translation researchers suggest several strategies for translation of musical terminology; the most common of them are functional equivalence, formal equivalence, borrowing and description (paraphrasing). Each of the strategies has its advantages and disadvantages which are discussed below:

Functional equivalence

- similar to that of SL musical concept:

This strategy uses the TL musical concept, the function of which is similar to that of the SL musical concept. Functional equivalence allows the readers to relate the source cultural system with their own cultural system and to “access the unfamiliar through familiar,” but it may confuse the recipient by creating an impression of identity of musical concepts in the source and target cultural systems though in most cases their equivalence is only partial.

Formal equivalence

- literal translation:

The core of this strategy is linguistic equivalence or literal (“verbum pro verbo”) translation. It allows to preserve the semantic content of the SL term intact and to present it in a form natural for the TL users. The main advantages of this strategy are that the equivalents are unambiguous and presented in the TL usual lexemes.


- adapted terms become neologisms in the TL:

The strategy of borrowing uses a transcribed (transliterated, if necessary) or an original form of the SL term. Transcription is usually done together with naturalisation - the linguistic adaptation of the SL term to the rules of the TL. Linguistically adapted terms become neologisms in the TL. The main advantage of this translation technique is again unambiguity of the equivalent. Compared with other translation strategies, this strategy is the most SL-oriented one, it preserves the semantic meaning of the SL terms intact, but, at times, ignores the TL linguistic system and a lay reader needs.


- short explanation of the meaning:

This strategy constitutes paraphrasing - short explanation of the meaning of the term. The main advantage of this strategy is transparency of the terms - the reader can perceive their meaning at once without consulting any other sources.

Also, interpretation of musical texts is always to a certain extent an issue of knowledge of language; the language in which the composer and musicologist have formulated the rules of music. As interpretation of texts means the interpretation of their meaning, the semantic theories of linguistics and philosophy of language are being resorted to.

Natalia Rojcovscaia

from Master Degree Thesis "Structural and Semantic Analyses of

Musical Terms in English and Russian. Russian Translation Strategy"

Institute of International Relations of Moldova

#music #language #linguistics #multilingualism #terms

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