Carmen as she is sung

Some years ago, before the internet, there circulated by various means an “English-as-she-is-spoke” synopsis of the opera Carmen, purporting to have come from an opera house in Italy. One version now on the internet runs:

Act 1. Carmen is a cigar-makeress from a tabago factory who loves with Don Jose of the mounting guard. Carmen takes a flower from her corsets and lances it to Don Jose (Duet: ‘Talk me of my mother’). There is a noise inside the tabago factory and the revolting cigar-makeresses burst into the stage. Carmen is arrested and Don Jose is ordered to mounting guard her but Carmen subduces him and he lets her escape.

Act 2. The Tavern. Carmen, Frasquito, Mercedes, Zuniga, Morales. Carmen’s aria (‘The sistrums are tinkling’). Enter Escamillio, a balls-fighter. Enter two smuglers (Duet: ‘We have in mind a business’) but Carmen refuses to penetrate because Don Jose has liberated her from prison. He just now arrives (Aria: ‘Stop, here who comes!’) but hear are the bugles singing his retreat. Don Jose will leave and draws his sword. Called by Carmen shrieks the two smuglers interfere with her but Don Jose is bound to dessert, he will follow into them (final chorus: ‘Opening sky wandering life’).

Act 3. A roky landscape, the smuglers shelter. Carmen sees her death in cards and Don Jose makes a date with Carmen for the next balls fight.

Act 4. A place in Seville. Procession of balls-fighters, the roaring of the balls is heard in the arena. Escamillio enters (Aria and chorus: ‘Toreador, toreador, all hail the balls of a Toreador’). Enter Don Jose (Aria: ‘I do not threaten, I besooch you’) but Carmen repels him wants to join with Escamillio now chaired by the crowd. Don Jose stabbs her (Aria: ‘Oh rupture, rupture, you may arrest me, I did kill her’) he sings ‘Oh my beautiful Carmen, my subductive Carmen.’

There are questions arising. The English seems a bit too neat, and an Italian opera house would include a synopsis in English about as often as an English opera house would include one in Italian. One discussion on the internet traces this to an English opera house.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that one of the choirs I sing in is performing a concert version of Carmen this week, along with two other local choirs, our local orchestra and soloists from Opera Australia. At the first combined rehearsal, I noticed that our Escamillo and Micaela are a couple (or at least very, very good friends) in real life. I was trying to remember if they interact in the opera (everyone comes and goes at the end of Act III, so it’s hard to be sure – I haven’t watched the opera complete many times, basically skipping all the bits with the soloists). The first opera libretto site I found shows that they don’t (he leaves just before the smugglers bring her out from where she is hiding) (they can’t be a very good bunch of smugglers if everyone can find their lair so easily). 

But it’s also a mildly bizarre translation. It’s close enough, but there are several howlers. I won’t link to it, because I don’t want to name and shame. The soldiers are referred to as ‘dragons’ throughout (rather than ‘dragoons’), and Frasquita describes José as a ‘beautiful dragon’. The translator seems to be very confused about what gender everyone is. Micaela enters. The soldiers sing: ‘To help him, you have to go’.  Later, the tenors sing: ‘But we do not see Carmencita. Here it is.’ Later again, José sings: ‘Tell me about my mother’. Micaela: ‘I bring from him, faithful messenger, This letter.’

There are several instances of adjectives being used in place of nouns. Morales, the corporal, asks Micaela: ‘What are you looking for, the beautiful?’ Much later, Micaela sings: ‘I’m going to see this woman up close Including the accursed devices Ended up doing an infamous Of the one I once loved’. Sometimes the translation is very literal. The factory workers sing: ‘It’s Carmencita! She bore the first shots! It was Carmencita who carried the first blows!’ (why translate the same line of French differently?)

Once there is a complete change of meaning. Before setting out on a smuggling run, the smugglers sing: ‘But take care during the journey, Be careful to take a wrong step’ (instead of ‘Be careful not to take a wrong step’ or ‘Be careful of taking a wrong step’. At one point there’s a pileup: ‘Let’s salute the bold chubs. See the banderilleros, See what a look of cranium! Square! Square! Place at lord alcade!’ The ‘chubs’ are the ‘chulos’. This now means ‘pimp’ in Spanish but at the time referred to the member of the bullfighting team who opened the gate to let the bull into the ring (the connection between that and pimping should be obvious). But the French original on this site also has ‘chulos’ and ‘chubs’ interchangeably, suggesting a scanning error. ‘Crânerie’ by itself is ‘swagger’ (Google Translate) or ‘showing off’ (Wiktionary). ‘Place’ can mean ‘place’, ‘plaza’ or ‘square’, but here means ‘Make way for the lord mayor’.

Even the stage directions aren’t immune. People ‘elevate’ throughout, rather than ‘stand up’, ‘The women are kept at a distance around the square by a hedge of dragons’ and ‘Carmen pushes Jose who lets himself overthrow’.

So who is the translator? The site doesn’t attribute anyone, but I suspect it is Monsieur Google. I checked a few of the above using Google Translate, and they came out word-for-word. But elsewhere on the site, the English translation of The Pearl Fishers (the nearest equivalent opera) is good, so far as I can see. And the site is extensive, so someone has taken a lot of time and effort over it. Why include an obviously incorrect Google Translation when there must be many English translations freely available?

Vaguely related: The Two Ronnies did a parody called Tooting Carmen. (IMDb credits Dilys Watling as Carmen.)


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