Handel’s Brockes Passion and Google’s auto-translate

Ordinarily, I would have been singing at church on Good Friday, but the service I would have been singing at was presented online by the ministers and readers only, with music pre-recorded by the main choir interpolated. Instead, I listened to a performance of the St Matthew Passion of J S Bach, which someone had recently mentioned and which I can’t remember ever having listened to in its entirety.

Today, following a theme, I tracked down a performance of the little-known Brockes Passion by Handel. The text, by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, draws on all four gospels and other sources, and was written during the 30 Years’ War, so there’s rather more blood and guts than in Bach’s versions. (Bach knew the text and Handel’s setting of it.)

The video I found, of an excellent performance by the North German Radio Choir and Le Concert Lorrain with soloists conducted by Stephan Schultz, had no subtitles, so I searched for the text.

Unfortunately, I found a text entirely in German (which I won’t identify), which I got Google to auto-translate for me. The first problem was that the German text is badly typeset. The second was that it’s full of 18th century formal religious and/or poetic words, which obviously Google Translate doesn’t have a large dataset for. For either or both reasons, the English translation was at best questionable and at worst outright hilarious. Sometimes there was an obvious reason for it, even with my low level of German (I can spot obvious cognates, and have picked up a few other words along the way, and Google sometimes does better with single words than with a poetic sentence.

(I don’t want to sound like I’m singling Google Translate out here. One of the few things I know about auto-translation is that it’s very very hard. I’m more surprised that it gets so much right.)

(Strong language warning for one word after the break.)

As Jesus is praying in Gethsemane, Judas enters and sings to the soldiers: ‘That you, who are JESUS, may know well, I will kiss him, And then approach him, with a bright heap.’ The ‘Chor der Kriegs=Kn(echte)’ > ‘The choir of war = Kn (real)’ responds: ‘Attacks, hits dead, but no, you have to catch him alive.’ Peter then sings: ‘Gifff and glows, beam and flu suffocation, burn, smashed, sinking The wrong traitor, full of morose Rencke! You tie up JESUM miserably, And no weather moves? Then then, my undaunted moo, shed the blood that has been sacrificed, because it does not apply and glows, ray and flow.’ Jesus sings to Peter: ‘If you hit the sword, the sword will cool you down.’

The text interpolates the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Later, after denying Jesus, Peter sings: ‘WHAT tremendous Schmertz storms my efforts! My bowels screech on glowing coals!’. Judas also gets a recitative and aria in similar terms: ‘My Schmertz is unspeakable, my plagues innumerable’. He describes himself as a ‘Verzweiffelter verdammter Mörder’, which Google translates as a ‘desperate fucking killer’ (‘verdammter‘ is obviously ‘damned’). (This section reminded me of Javert’s final song in the musical Les Miserables.)

Pontius Pilatus asks: ‘Then what do I do with your so-called king?’ The crowd replies: ‘Path! Let him clean up.’ The first word is ‘Weg!’ which as well as meaning way, path, also means ‘Away with him’ (which another, better translation, which a Facebook friend pointed me to, has). ‘Creutzigen’ is ‘clean’, while ‘kreutzigen’ is ‘crucify’.

During the flogging, the crowd sings: ‘So often the minions invade him with rope and steel.’ (The extended description of and reflection on the flogging is quite graphic.) ‘Finally they led him to the skull site so that they cleaned him up’ (Golgotha = The Place of the Skull, Schädelstätte = skull site). The crowd mocks Jesus: ‘Pfui! Seht mir doch den König an!’ > ‘Pooh! Look at the king!’ (The other translation has ‘Pah!’)

After Jesus’s death, there is an earthquake (Matt 27:51). A member of the crowd sings: ‘Help heaven! what is dis? You gods, how do I get mooed?’ (‘Muht’ means nothing at all; ‘Müht’ means ‘troubles’ – those umlauts matter!)

To bring this to a serious conclusion, Brockes gives St Mary a small singing part. She sees Jesus carrying his cross and sings a short aria by herself, then there’s an exquisite duet (with the words from the other, better source):

Must my child, my life, die?
Must my blood pour from Him? 
Yes, I die for your benefit,
to secure your place in heaven. 

Showing the difference between the auto-translated version and one done by a human, the auto-translation of the last aria is:

From the tears sharp lye,
stand, soul soul, now in peace!
His locked out arm and his closed eye,
unlock the sky and shut up hell.

The one by a human, from the CD liner notes for a recording by Concerto Copenhagen, released on Chandos, is:

Wipe away your tears’ caustic brine 
and be at peace now, blessed soul! 
His outstretched arms and closed eyes 
open heaven for you and lock the gates of Hell!


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