At Penn Humanities Forum’s 28 February 2017 seminar, Lily Kass asked us to consider what happens when a text is translated across multiple languages, multiple genres, and multiple cultures, landing back in the source culture in an intermediary genre but in still another language. Such is the back history of Da Ponte and Antonio Sacchini’s late 1790s’s opera, Evelina; or, the triumph of the English over the Romans. Although the opera’s roots are in William Mason’s 1749 closet drama, Caractacus, a Dramatic Poem: Written on the Model of the Ancient Greek Tragedy—and though it goes through a couple of generic and linguistic transformations in France—when the opera returns to London it dressed as an Italian opera with an Italian libretto based on the French, not the English text. Moreover, when the text returns to London nearly half a century later, it appears in an entirely different political environment, necessitating us to recognized another generic translation.
Akin to a game of telephone, the series of translations ostensibly maintain the basic thrust of Mason’s lines through the series of translations. Yet, because the musical score requires adjustments be made as the text moves across languages, change is introduced. Sometimes, however, changes appear for no discernible reason, and we’re left to speculate what sort of effect the word choices would have on the audience.