“The poet doesn’t invent. He listens.”“Le poète n’invente pas. Il écoute.” Jean Cocteau


Translation is elusive and contradictory. Every translator is confronted with various theories about translation only finally to be confronted with the fruitless impossibility of translation itself. The historical evolution of these theories is traced in Hugo Friedrich’s ‘On The Art Of Translation’ and summarises the three choices for any translator.
Ancient Roman writers “conquered” texts – “The translator considers thought content a prisoner which he transplants into his own language with the prerogative of a conqueror.” The source text for the Romans is defeated, and surrenders to a better ‘original text’ (now in Latin). Renaissance writers “stole” texts – translators in the Renaissance were less concerned with fidelity to the original text than stealing artistic ideas and creating new styles of writing. 18th century writers “respected” texts, with a much more worldly awareness of the individuality of languages, and a general resignation to the impossibilities of translation.

The great English writer and translator John Dryden divided translation into three approaches;
’metaphrase’ (‘translating word for word, and line by line, from one language into another’)
‘paraphrase’ (translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view but their words are not so strictly followed as his sense’) and
‘imitation’(‘where the translator – if he has not lost that name – assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion’).


Translators of Cocteau have veered between all three of these approaches. Cocteau’s language is deceptively simple and pared down – it is natural and unnatural at the same time. One possible approach to translating Cocteau (a more Roman one) was adopted by Rosamund Lehmann in her 1957 translation of his novel  ‘Les Enfants Terribles’. Lehmann’s is a full conquest – she makes the English entirely idiomatic and fluent, and Anglicises the characters and setting. Another approach, which moves more towards the 18th century respect for other languages rather than domination over them – allows the translation to feel somehow ‘French’. The 18th century writers and translators Diderot, D’Alembert, Schleiermacher and Humbolt were adamant that this was the correct approach for translation. The translator ought “not to leave the reader in peace and to move the writer toward him, but to leave the writer in peace and move the reader toward the writer.”


This production of Orphée is not a relocation of the original setting but a reflection on the multiple mirrors of piece itself, and of  Le Testament d’Orphée, Cocteau’s later film about the film Orphée. “Frenchness” is integral to both films and our approach to the translation has been to try not to anglicise it too much. We have avoided overtly English colloquialisms or anything that either dates or updates the piece – the translation is as neutral as possible. The intention for the translation is that it is invisible.


But the Glass/Cocteau Orphée has a third dimension. The film script has been translated by Philip Glass into music, and the responsibility of the translator is as much to the composer as to the writer. The rhythm, sound, stress and dynamic of the setting of a word or phrase is as important as its meaning, tone or intention. Glass’ setting of Cocteau’s script is absolutely brilliant – it is both fluent and innovative, flawlessly French but also somehow, and perfectly, American. Translation of this libretto feels like act of wanton destruction. But translation is important to the English National Opera and translation is currently central to the company philosophy. An intensely time-consuming and pernickety task, working with co-translator Emma Jenkins has been brilliant, as we throw possible phrases across the desk at each other, looking for Derrida’s definition of the most ‘relevant translation’ – “What is most often called ‘relevant’? Well, whatever feels right, whatever seems pertinent, apropos, welcome, appropriate, opportune, justified, well-suited or adjusted, coming at the right moment when you expect it”.


Walter Benjamin conceived of translation as an “afterlife” of the work of art, an idea which feeds perfectly into the opera itself – a musical translation of a film script, which was a translation of a play into a film, which was the translation of a myth into a play, which is a myth central to the whole history of opera…
The intention of our translation is to add another invisible layer to the mix.