When composing his epic, four-installment opera Der Ring des Nibelungen, Richard Wagner wasn’t content just to write the music; as he had done with his previous operas, he wrote the text as well. Wagner intended his work to be comprehensive. As a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work”), Wagner’s form of theater would encompass music, text, stage direction, and even the design and construction of a new theater, all guided by a single controlling vision: his own. Although Wagner’s musical innovations are well-known to audiences—his thorough-going chromaticism, his extended forms, the importance of the orchestral accompaniment in spinning out leitmotivs—his text is not always given the same appreciation, especially among non-German speakers.
When introducing students to works in foreign languages, I’ve noticed an assumption on many listeners’ part that the words are completely comprehensible to native speakers, and that their meaning for them is as clear as the translations that often appear as subtitles on video or projections in the theater. There are many reasons that this is not so, and vary depending on the composer and the language in question; undoubtedly some operas are easier to understand than others. The musical setting of the text (not to mention individual performance conditions) can emphasize clarity or destroy it, just as the range of English-language music theater runs from the transparent to the obscure.
In the case of the Ring cycle, the challenges go beyond that of translating from one language to another: Wagner borrowed and expanded a technique called Stabreim (“stave rhyme”) from the Icelandic Eddas, the medieval saga that, along with the German Nibelungenlied, provided the basis for his exploration of the Norse gods and their fall. Stabreim, far from being a rhyme scheme as we might conceive it, is a form of poetic meter based on alliteration, the repetition of initial consonants at key points within the poetic line. Wagner, believing the Eddas to be a spontaneous (and thus pure) outpouring of unconscious folk creation, sought to channel that supposed primitive force by imitating and expanding upon it. Thus, his text is both deliberately archaic and in some places obscure; it’s comparable, I think, to English-language writers borrowing “thee” and “thou” from Shakespeare and the King James Bible to channel some of their solemnity and sense of antiquity, but goes even farther. According to one translator, an anecdote has it that Wagner’s grandson Wieland, when directing productions of the Ring, would have the cast translate their lines into German—that is, modern German—in order to understand their parts. If true, that certainly puts our difficulties into perspective.
It has proven challenging to translators, as well, and as is often the case, they have sometimes had to prioritize the meaning of the text over Wagner’s alliterative scheme (or his exclusive use of German root words, or the complex use of puns that saturate the text). Still, there are a few places where the alliteration is too good to resist. In Scene One of Das Rheingold, the dwarf Alberich, overcome by lust, is taunted by the three Rhine maidens for his ugly appearance (it is, of course, this teasing that leads him to steal the Rhine gold and renounce love, the decision that starts the plot moving). Wellgunde, one of the maidens, rebukes Alberich by singing (at 8:50 in the embedded video):
Pfui, du haariger,
The alliteration in the last two lines paints a detailed (and insulting) portrait of Alberich, calling him a Schwarzes (black), Schwieliges (callous) Schwefelgezwerg (Schwefel meaning sulphur and zwerg meaning dwarf). Alberich is more than just a little person, however: in Wagner’s interpretation of Teutonic mythology, the Nibelungs were a race of skilled metal workers and miners that toiled in the ground in their own realm (Nibelheim), separate from either men or gods (think of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, or the dwarves** of J. R. R. Tolkien, who drew on many of the same medieval sources for his Lord of the Rings). When zwerg is used, it is a term of disparagement (as in Scene Three, when Alberich calls his brother Mime a Tückischer zwerg, a shifty or treacherous dwarf). Elsewhere in the text, Alberich is referred to either as a Nibelung or occasionally as an Alp (elf). So, right off the bat, Wellgunde’s taunt calls attention to his ugly appearance, darkness*, and his connection to the deep earth (in fact, Alberich appears to have reached the Rhine by climbing out of a cave underneath it).
What have translators made of this? It’s one of the more colorful examples of alliteration in the text, so most translators have tried to preserve it. In the video (from Robert Lepage’s recent staging at the Metropolitan Opera) the lines are subtitled as “You’re a hairy, horrible thing! So hideous and spotted!” It’s safe to say that there have been more ambitious renditions of Wellgunde’s insult. A 1904 translation by Charles Henry Meltzer has it as
Faugh ! Thou hairy
and Humpy old oaf!
The adjective “sulphurous” can be taken literally, but also has a connotation of spitefulness: a poisonous disposition. The uncredited translator of The Authentic Librettos of the Wagner Operas (Crown Publishers, 1938, although apparently the Rheingold translation also goes back to 1904) renders it as
Faugh! You hairy
and horrible imp!
and shriveled up dwarf!
Note the loss of any reference to sulphur; “shriveled up” could refer to Alberich’s size, old age, or (obliquely) sexual undesirability.
Stewart Spencer, in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion (Thames & Hudson, 1993) has
Ugh! You hairy,
and blistered dwarf!
I like this one; it’s a vivid and incisive description of a creature living too close to volcanic fissures underground. Finally, lest we assume that subtitles, with their bias toward ease of reading and keeping the plot moving, must be devoid of interest, I present the translation used for the 2002 production at the Staatsoper Stuttgart, staged by Joachim Schlömer:
Urgh! You hairy,
misshapen old hog!
You randy, wrinkled,
It’s as if each translator has tried to do justice to the alliterative excess in Wellgunde’s insult but without repeating their predecessor’s choice of words. Fortunately, while the polyglot heritage of English vocabulary makes it challenging to construct extensive rhyme schemes (by comparison to the Italian terza rima of Dante, for example), the variety of words available provides almost unlimited potential for alliteration. One could conceive of Alberich as a “miniature, mephitic miscreant,” a “pestilent, pint-sized playboy,” or even a “callous, coal-black Casanova”—none are exactly the same as the original, of course, but what translation ever is?
*The Eddas also mention “dark elves,” which some scholars think may have been dwarfs by another name; in any case the concept has branched into its own category, separate from dwarves, in modern fantasy literature.
** The plural “dwarves” was popularized by Tolkien, and has become standard when discussing them as a fantasy race; I have used the more standard “dwarfs” in this article except for explicit reference to Tolkien’s treatment of them. Hence the discrepancy.