How We Do It in Germany: Translating

When I first visited New York City last fall I took – as cheesy as it sounds – my Mom on a Broadway Walking Tour. We had a great time listening to the stories about how Broadway used to be, how Times Square used to look, etc. On our way between stops, our tour guide asked me about theatre in Germany.

Back then I told him most of the things I’ve written in past posts over the last few weeks. And then I told him that there are or were productions of classics from Broadway, Off-Broadway and the West End alike, but that in most of them the translating really had been an issue. Our tour guide was confused for a little while and then told me, that – of course – he had been aware that translating was necessary, but not that it could be ‘good’ or ‘bad.’

I specifically had told him about the German version of Rent, which is produced from time to time throughout the country and it finds its audiences – but I’d guess mostly because of how successful it was in the US and how much it changed in musical theatre history and not because how good the German version of it is. Because it really isn’t.

Over the years I keep listening to original recordings as well as translated ones. It is basically like a hobby: listening, comparing, thinking about it. In some ‘branches’ of the German musical-fan-community it even has become quite a sport – using message boards to talk (and bitch) about translations of loved English shows.

The last time a translation was picked at was probably the German version of Next to Normal, which opened last fall in a small town in Bavaria. It had been translated by the director of the production and while I personally think the German lyrics have their own vibe, they fit, they give the music a slightly new direction, in some parts it sounds much more raw than the English version – which is great when you think about it: German as a language is rather different from English. But in some scenes I find myself listening to it and asking myself: How is that even German?

Watch this video on YouTube.

When translating prose, fiction or non-fiction you probably try to find the author’s voice, tone and style and try to find a matching on in your language – which can be hard enough. When translating lyrics on the other hand you can find the lyricist’s style of writing and a German match – but as long as it does not fit the music it simply won’t work.

When German rock singer (and writer) Heinz Rudolf Kunze decided to translate “525,600 Minutes” to the exact same thing in German it might have been the de facto the right translation, but numbers in German are in reverse and can be incredibly long. Listening to this long number sung makes me uncomfortable and distracts me from the ‘actual meaning.’ This translation was made more than 15 years ago and until today nobody came up with a new one for this phrase.

As uneasy as it makes me feel – would you like to challenge an iconic phrase from a show as important as Rent? I certainly would try, but then probably realize there is no way – and do something very similar to what Heinz Rudolf Kunze did.

Watch this video on YouTube.

When producers or theatre directors decide they either do not like the existing translations and don’t find someone to alter these translations for them or simply do not want to do this they came up with another way of showing American or British shows: having the dialogue in German and the songs in English.

Yes, it is as weird as it sounds. Not only are the actors suddenly singing, but they are also changing languages. Das ist fast so als [That’s almost as] if I was switching from German into English – more or less randomly. Music and sung texts are often far less understandable than spoken texts when kept in the same language (I can listen to operas in German and understand – depending on the singer – 30% of what they are singing about), but changing the language from the audience’s ‘own language’ to another one just for the sake of not having to translate it does not do the trick. Sometimes it just shows once more how absurd everything in musical theatre can be and sometimes it is just keeping the audiences from knowing what is going on (inside a character, between two characters…).

Just recently I saw a production of Anything Goes in Switzerland which worked just like that: dialogue in German, songs in English. As you may have read from my descriptions I am not a huge fan of this concept, but with Anything Goes – and this production specifically – it somehow worked. Maybe because of the title. More likely because the directing suggested a kind of ‘being so over the top’ and a small amount of absurdity in some scenes that the actors switching languages was just one more thing on top of so many other absurd things.

(And while I just was about to say that I cannot think of any way to translate ‘You’re the Top’ into German, because this song is so English down to its linguistic DNA – I just found a German version. And it’s not that satisfying.)

Maybe that is the thing with translations.
Or maybe with translating itself.
Or just with how things are translated.

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