Translation Across Time

Photo by Dominic Hargreaves.

On Saturday, April 30, I will be presenting a short talk at Boston University as part of Enter Textuality: Shifting Perspectives through Editorial Studies, the 2016 graduate student conference in editorial studies. The title of my talk is “Translation Across Time: A Case of Semantic Drift in the Musical Lexicon.” The conference is organized by the BU Editorial Institute. Here is the abstract:

The words with which generations of Western musicians have chosen to describe even the most basic of musical phenomena form an intricate tangle of cognates, loanwords, and homonyms. Some performance traditions retain the antiquated terminologies with which they have always been associated, while others have kept pace with (and helped to shape) current usage. To prepare in modern English edition the writing of a French theorist from the Baroque therefore requires the translator to negotiate not only the lexical divide that separates one language from the other but also the historical divide that separates its author’s seventeenth-century usage from that which is most likely to be understood—in English or in French—by the musicians of today.

The translation of Denis Delair’s Traité d’Acompagnement pour le Theorbe, et le Clavessin (1690, rev. 1724) by Charlotte Mattax (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) remains the only published edition of the text available in English. Although Mattax undertakes to modernize some of Delair’s theoretical language for the convenience of her readers, the editorial complications that result from this decision reveal some of the difficulties inherent to the business of translating words about music across multiple historical dimensions.