Mark Herman: Opera Translator and Publisher

Alumni PhotoWhile second careers are not uncommon for engineers, few follow the path of Mark Herman ’63 to become an opera translator and publisher. After receiving a B.S. from Columbia and M.S. from Berkeley in Chemical Engineering, Mark worked in air pollution control for what is now part of the Environmental Protection Agency. After a few intervening jobs, he found a home at Exxon, where he stayed for 15 years.

While working there as an environmental engineer, he informally began his second career by translating various materials for the Exxon library. Then, he and his wife Ronnie Apter received a commission from the Bronx Opera to translate Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio into English for performances in New York in 1979. The production, and the translation by Herman and Apter, were favorably reviewed in The New York Times.

Mark writes, “Opera translation requires both musical and linguistic training. . . While at Columbia, I played saxophone and clarinet in the Band, the Barnard Gilbert & Sullivan Society orchestra, and in pit orchestras for various college productions. I also wrote most of the script for the 1963 Chemical Engineering Senior Show. Later, while working for Exxon, my wife and I sang in community choruses and received professional vocal training.”
Mark’s language training consisted of high school Spanish and college courses in scientific Russian and scientific German. He took seriously the idea that “a Columbia Chemical Engineer can do almost anything” and so plunged into translating.

In 1986, Mark and his family left New Jersey so that his wife could become a Professor of English at Central Michigan University. In Michigan, Mark became a contract translator for Dow Chemical, translating primary technical literature from German and Russian into English. He and his wife continued their opera translations.

The couple now have made 20 opera translations performed throughout the U.S., Canada, and England. Seven were commissioned by and have been or will be published by Ricordi in Milan, the original publisher of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini. For translations not commissioned by Ricordi, the couple has self-published the works, in the form of complete dual-language piano-vocal scores.

These scores, purchased by libraries around the world (including Columbia’s), usually include extra features. In their new edition of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, the original German folk tale and the classic 1823 English translation of that folk tale by Thomas de Quincey will be included.

Mark writes, “Our next project will be Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, which we hope will result in the first set of separate piano-vocal scores for the two very different versions Mussorgsky composed. In all previous editions, the two versions have been so intermingled that it is difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins. After that, who knows!”

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