Inspired by this blog post, I set off to translate some of the vocal repertoire I'm currently working on(accompanying, not singing.)
My first thought was to tackle Schumann's Dichterliebe; I've been playing it for months now with only a basic knowledge of the text. However, I have neither studied any German, nor possess a German dictionary. I opted for a less daunting task, "L'Heure Exquise", a short song by Reynaldo Hahn with French text by Paul Verlaine. Having studied French for 3 years of high school and one semester of college, it was far more accessible.
I started by opening up the score, and putting a post-it note over the "poetic" translation, to be referred to only in times of desperate need, a.k.a., if I was completely unable to make sense of a phrase using a dictionary or translate.google.com.
The first phrase drew attention to something I had not been aware of: which word in it was actually the verb.
"La lune blanche luit dans le bois": "The white moon shines in the woods"
Luit is the action word, from the verb luire, to shine. Knowing the function of each word grammatically is one of the first keys to not sounding like an American attempting to sing in French. It seems like my choir/voice teacher constantly points out, "Why are you accenting the word "the"?" Don't just know what the word means, but also know what purpose it serves.
Skipping ahead to the last verse- I've found translation to be even more important in order to understand phrases.
"Un vaste et tendre apaisement semble descendre du firmament": "A vast and tender calm appears to descend from the firmament"
The way this part of the text is set is extremely speech-like, so knowing what you are saying is key to keeping the text from running together.
See the score here.
Listen here- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJIz86Mtyek @ 1:25.
Also, paying closer attention to the word 'firmament' brought a new, deeper understanding of the music for me- I found that the English and French words were both the same, so I needed to define it. "Firmament" is "an expanse", or the "arch of the Heavens as described in Genesis." Certainly added a new perspective to a word that I had previously glossed over.
I hit somewhat of a roadblock at the end of this phrase.
"Un vaste et tendre apaisement semble descendre du firmament que l'astre irise".
"Astre" was the easy part ("star"), but "irise"? I resorted to sneaking a peak at the translation on the score and found "que l'astre irise" was translated to "which the orb clads in rainbow colors". Rather grad, but it made sense, considering "irise" and the English "iridescent", but further examination showed there was no apparent verb form of the French "iriser", save for the passive "to make iridescent". So now I was dealing with translations to words that didn't even exist in English.
Finally, I assembled the text in all three forms to compare- not too bad. (Click to actually read it.)