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A case in point: 'O mio babbino caro' from 'Gianni Schicci' by Puccini.

O mio babbino caro, mi piace, è bello bello,

which translates to:

Oh my dear father, I like him, he is very handsome.

In English - on the page - this looks to be rather a plain lyric. When it is sung in Italian with an orchestra it becomes one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. I don't know - maybe everything just sounds better in Italian ;)

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This isn't specific to opera. Lyrics we can't understand have a tendency to sound more meaningful and profound to us, because we impose our own sense of meaning on them. We assume that they are the perfect marriage to the music that we imagine them to be. This is true not only of foreign-language lyrics, but also gibberish lyrics, unintelligible lyrics, and lyrics that don't make literal sense.

On the other hand, when you do understand the lyrics, a song that previously was just interesting noise to you can gain new depth and richness. It really depends a lot on what the lyrics actually say. I've personally found it about 50-50 in terms of whether looking up the meaning of a previously unintelligible lyric has deepened or cheapened the meaning of a song for me.

With that said, good lyrics are not just about literal meaning. Poetry --which, after all, is what lyrics really are --is notoriously resistant to translation. One part of this is that a lot of what is most important in a lyric is the pure sound and rhythm of the words. A song like O Mio Babbino Caro is much more beautiful in Italian not just because the literal meaning seems pedestrian, but also because the actual sound of the words themselves is more beautiful in the original. The literal meaning of the lyric to "Yesterday", one of the all-time great English language songs, is almost painfully plain, but it makes an incredibly apt match with the melody (one that Paul McCartney labored for several years to discover).

  • Excellent answer! – eeijlar Feb 19 '18 at 18:49
  • @eeijlar Thanks! This is a topic I've thought a lot about. I've always been fascinated by nonsense lyrics --songs with a lot of "na na nas" or "la la las." Something else to keep in mind too --poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. Even non-sung verse can easily go from transcendent to flat when it switches languages. – Chris Sunami Feb 19 '18 at 19:21
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I just want to note that there is similarities in those two lines to other minstrelsy numbers in terms of context: Oh My Darling Clementine. It is a simple address that fits in the context of the opera as a whole but alone it is rather plain.

The second note is the translation gets rid of several poetic features. Namely the repetition on the second line (è bello bello) as well as the alliteration that begins each line (O mio. . ., mi. . .) and the alliteration on the two strong words (babbino, bello bello).

Compare it to the similar address in the refrain of the song I cite:

Oh my darling

Oh my darling

Oh my darling, Clementine

We have a repetition of the first line, as well as a rhyme. The rhythm is trochaic save for the last word which is interrupted to conclude the hypermeasure with a cut syllable. This is done over music that escalates in tension and release over a single phrase.

In O mio babbino caro, the refrain descends in a lullaby fashion that in the context of the whole opera is fleshed out further. Why is she saying "Oh dear father!" so? One needs to know the rest of the opera.

But as Chris says, the fact that you don't know what the lyrics are saying but can hear the music and understand that what the song is supposed to be sweet and beautiful, it is not surprising that you expect the lyrics to be more intricate or more self-contained in gravity. This problem, if you want to call it that, is because you are importing context onto the music on which you do not know the context of. It just sounds good to your ear.

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