Translator's Introduction

Lovers of great literary masterpieces have always faced an immense challenge when studying works written in a language foreign to them. To be fully successful, any work must always appeal to an audience which will have to interpret the original language, even if it is their own, in such a way as to imagine themselves in the characters' spatial, social, mental, and temporal positions. Add to this the requirement on the audience of either becoming completely fluent in the work's original language (which, some would say, is an impossible task), or entrusting their experience to the story's second-hand retelling through the work of a translator, and we quickly become convinced that certain areas of literature may not ever truly become available to us. The author has many times experienced this frustration while gazing at a wall of foreign-language books, wondering what secrets those covers were protecting, and whether there were things other cultures could know that would never be accessible to him. Of course, linguists have told us emphatically that no matter how different languages may seem superficially, they have all been developed to enable their users to express the entire range of human thought with equal facility. While this may be so, it quickly becomes apparent to one who attempts to master even his own language that there will always remain subtle nuances that no amount of skillful translation or language study will ever allow us to fully experience.

Accepting this caveat, we find that there nevertheless remain several reasons for desiring to translate a work of the Ring's magnitude:

1) Live performance in the audience's native language, to attempt to eliminate one of the obstacles to their complete understanding and appreciation of the interpretation of the work.

2) Scholarly study of the work, relatively free from the bonds of language. This translation would strive to embody the meaning of the work in as close to a literal sense as possible.

3) A readable opera libretto, in novel, narrative, free verse, or prose form, intending to serve as preparatory material for a concertgoer's study prior to attending a performance.

Most translations of the Ring which have been undertaken are of type (1) above. While specific examples will be saved for the bibliography, it will always be found (with the full agreement of the translators, no doubt) that these efforts are inherently destined to achieve only partial success. The simple truth is that these masterpieces were conceived and created in a specific language. In the same way that an orchestrator selects a specific combination of instruments in order to achieve each passage's desired tonal effect, an opera's words and music have been painstakingly married in such a way as to convey a thought or feeling that can only suffer when one or the other is forced out of its original carefully-planned setting. Wagner's music dramas are the most notoriously elegant of all in their use of exacting combinations of words and music to define the underlying emotion of each particular situation, and in this lies most of the absolute genius of the Ring. To fully achieve Wagner's intended effects in a foreign language, one would have to provide a translation which retained each vowel, each guttural consonant, each punctuated expression, with no syllables added or taken away for the translator's convenience in word selection, in a similar style, and with obsessive attention paid to an exact translation of the archaic words, contractions, wordplay, idioms, and torturous word order. In short, the only way to fully achieve the ends so desperately sought by the translator is not to translate the work at all! This would once again place the onus for understanding completely upon the backs of the audience, but so be it. If we wish to remain blind to the composer's vivid use of color, then we willingly relegate ourselves to the enjoyment of only his most preliminary charcoal sketches.

The translations in category (2) also suffer, because they are almost always undertaken with the full intent of retaining archaic words and obtuse, ornate style very literally. This usually translates into English in such a way that the student feels with frustration that the work may as well have been left in the original. Has the reader experienced this feeling on first study of a Shakespearean drama? It is only through liberal use of footnotes that many passages can be properly interpreted by a modern audience, and only persistence will pay off as meaning slowly makes its way through the maze of words into the mind. And with Shakespeare, we have no choice -- the works are already in English!

In category (3), we come to the most useful translations of all. The providers of these have bluntly accepted the fact that we should be all studying the works in the original anyway. They owe their existence to the promise of capturing and holding an audience's attention long enough for the desire of continued study to materialize and mature. The meaning is captured, rather than the literal words, and the reader must constantly remain aware of the volumes of content he is missing by not experiencing the work in its original form.

Nonetheless, the present translation is intended to be just that -- a loose capturing of the essence of what the characters are saying and doing, in modern English, the way it is spoken in the 1990s, by everyday people in their everyday language (subject to certain situational stylistic constraints), while retaining the line-by-line (though never word-for-word) meaning of what is actually going on. Purists, and persons armed with German-English dictionaries, will at times be alarmed. The intent is not to satisfy them, nor is it to ensure that the Gods always speak in so lofty a tone that Mozart's infamous quote in the movie Amadeus would apply equally well to them. The sole motivation in preparing this translation was and is to provide a consciously bare introduction to a gloriously monumental work, in the hope that some would be inspired to pursue the careful and thorough study that such a work demands and deserves.

Wagner can rest easy; study of his masterpieces will inevitably lead to the desire on the part of every student to experience his works exactly as he intended them. Fortunately, we all still have that opportunity every summer in Bayreuth. The author's recommendation to the reader is to place himself on the waiting list for tickets to these wonderful performances right now*; in the years it will take for him to acquire a working knowledge of the Ring of the Nibelung in its original form, those prized tickets might well have found their way into his mailbox!

Dan McGlaun
Indianapolis, Indiana
August 1998


*Write for information to:
Bayreuther Festspiele
Postfach 10 02 62
D-95402 Bayreuth