perjantai 17. helmikuuta 2012

On Musical Translations, Their Quality and the Original Texts

 "You'd never get away with all this in a play,
but if it's loudly sung and in a foreign tongue,
it's just the sort of story audiences adore;
in fact a perfect opera!"
- Charles Hart & Richard Stilgoe: The Phantom of the Opera

It regularly baffles me that some musical fans demand that a musical should be performed in its original language (usually English) even in a foreign country. Most examples I've seen have come from German and Finnish fans, mostly because they are used to the original (English) cast and want to hear the "original" experience just as it is in West End or on Broadway. (Which leads us to topic Replica vs. Non-Replica Productions, but about that I will rant talk about later. Meanwhile, check out this excellent blog post.) For example in Germany some jukebox musicals even are performed with English songs and German dialogue, which for me sounds silly but apparently has some point. Granted, it saves money in short and small productions, and in some cases the lyrics aren't important at all. Honestly speaking, the translations also quite often suck.

However, the original text isn't automatically better than a translation of it. In my opinion, a musical often sounds better in a foreign language simply because the listener doesn't understand it as well as their native language and isn't so used to hearing it, so everything sounds much more original, creative and exotic. For example, Frank Wildhorn's love songs sounded really great to me in Hungarian, until I learned the language a bit more and realized that the translations had exactly the same lame clichés as the English lyrics. I just hadn't heard those clichés in Hungarian that often, so for me they hadn't yet become clichés. Earlier the same happened with German. Nowadays you get so bombarded with English language that, for me, everything now sounds lame in English. (In Finland e.g. TV shows and movies aren't dubbed but subtitled, unless they are for young children.)

Most people also don't understand foreign languages nearly as well as they think they do. Most often this happens with English, because, you know, everyone speaks English and yada yada. Yes, you can understand exactly what they say on stage, but on the same time you are very likely to miss most of the culture-related connotations, intertextuality and other such hidden meanings that form the text "behind" the actual text. Even the native listener may not explicitly realize everything they get from the text, but it's still there and affects on their interpretations of the songs, characters and plot. It's a fact proved by scientists that an average person always gets much more out of things in their native language than in a foreign one. I may be wrong, but I also think that the actors get much deeper in their roles when they understand every aspect of the text they're performing and the text is also good. Not forgetting how painful it is to hear people sing for three hours with bad accent.

This leads us to the importance of using good, professional translators in musicals. Too often I've seen someone like the conductor's wife or the director of the production do the translating, just because professionals cost too much and hey, everyone can translate. (<-- Sarcasm.) Besides, it's a musical, it doesn't matter what they sing because people come there to be entertained and hear the singer's voice and see a good show, right? This may well be true with for example the early musicals of 1940's or operettas, when the main point of the show was the star actor who was singing the songs. The songs contained only one thought or feeling, and the action stopped while the actor sang. (Ironically, many old Finnish translations of operettas I've heard are much more stylish than modern translations of works from the same era.) A modern example would be French musical spectacles like Notre-Dame de Paris that often require some adapting when brought to other countries, where slightly different things are expected of musical productions.

In most modern musicals, the songs advance the story and are essential for understanding what's going on. In such situation you cannot trust that the listener will understand the story based on only the spoken parts, especially if the musical is sung-through and there are no spoken parts. The text must be in a language that the listeners understand well, and the translation must be possible to sing, easy to understand, and it must contain all the important information and preferably also the hidden meanings.

Amadé writing with Wolfgang Mozart's blood in Mozart!.
Who is a good, professional translator, then? Someone who is capable of seeing the explicit and hidden meanings of a text and expressing them in another language, so that another person can make their own relevant interpretations of it and sing the result. Of positive examples I could mention Michael Kunze, of whose work Sir Tim Rice once said that the German translation of Aida is better than the original English text.

Sadly it's a rare species, at least in Finland. In most Finnish musical translations I've heard, it seems that the translator hasn't understood the source language (with the Finnish Elisabeth as the best/worst example), couldn't write grammatically and semantically correct Finnish (again, Elisabeth), couldn't read notes and fit the lyrics into the music so that the result is singable (Rebecca), or didn't understand different styles like the differences of language used in a brothel scene and used by an upper-class lady (Evita). In worst cases the translator is a combination of these lovely traits (Les Misérables). From this point of view, I can understand why fans would often rather hear the original lyrics than a bad translation.

But who says that a translation automatically sucks? Wouldn't it be better for everyone to demand more high-quality translations than demand no translations at all? A good translation is not a Mission: Impossible. It simply requires more effort from the translator, more time (and yes, money) given by the theatre to the translator, and people recognizing a good translation and knowing to ask for one. As long as people assume that it's a bad translation because that's the way musical translations are, they also get what they've asked for: a bad translation.

This is one reason why I am so happy about the Finnish translation of Tanz der Vampire being so excellent. It has received explicit praises from both theatre critics and the audience, which tells quite a lot, because a common truth is that a translation is usually only commented when there's something wrong with it. Another common - though sad - truth is that a translator has done their job really well when the audience doesn't notice the existence of the translator but explicitly praises the text.

Just for your entertainment: a man with a huge turban.
(Egri csillagok, Győri nemzeti színház)
In the best case one excellent translation could make people see that musicals can also be translated well, which hopefully makes the theatres and the audience ask for better translations, which in turn might make the translators set higher goals for themselves. This also requires that the theatres give the translator a chance to make a better translation, because if you pay and set a deadline for a quickly made translation, all you get is a quickly made translation, and if you settle with that, nobody wins in the situation. Offer more time and more money, and a good translator with any self-respect will make a better translation.

All this could be said about any work of art that's object to translations: novels, songs, subtitles, dubs, poems. In my DVD of Rocky Horror Picture Show there are no subtitles during the songs even though the songs include essential information about the story, whereas when the film was shown in TV, Yle's translator had done excellent job with the subtitles and they made me laugh, hard. It annoys me that people don't appreciate their native language, good musicals, translators or good storytelling enough to demand that they could actually understand what's going on on the stage. Sometimes a visually entertaining show with catchy tunes is enough, but why shouldn't good lyrics be a part of the experience?

6 kommenttia:

Siiri kirjoitti...

First of all, thanks so much for mentioning my blog! Can't wait for your non-replica rant! :D

This is all very true, couldn't agree more.

Too often Finnish translations range from awful to horrible... Tanz der Vampire, A Little Night Music and RENT (well, the 2011 Lahti version, I don't know if there are other translations) are the only really good ones that come to mind!
And yeah, musical DVDs without subtitles during the songs are painfully annoying! I don't demand the translations to have rhymes there or anything, but something could be nice...

ihmepensas kirjoitti...

Thanks for your comment! :)

I haven't heard RENT, but I agree about A Little Night Music. Well, Juice was and is a legend, and for a good reason. I once read an article in which Juice comments on translating Sweeney Todd, and he had quite good points about the whole business. I think the book was "Käännetyt illuusiot: näytelmäkääntäminen suomalaisessa teatterissa". Another good Sondheim translation was Company, of which I recently heard bits in a musical concert, but I don't know who has done the translation. And My Fair Lady's lyrics by Reino Helismaa are apparently very good.

Tanz der Vampire's good translation is also nice in that sense that it shows that a good translation doesn't require a legendary lyricist like Juice or Jukka Virtanen (whose translations, to be honest, aren't very good), but a normal though educated person can create something excellent, too.

Siiri kirjoitti...

Ooh, I think I should try to find that book from somewhere...
Also, they should put up a production of Sweeney Todd somewhere in Finland - if for nothing else, for the translation, I'm rather curious about it! :D

Indeed! And also agreeing with you about Jukka Virtanen. It sometimes seems that he writes two painfully clichéd or just plain painful lines by every good line in his translations... :P If there ever is a new Finnish production of Les Mis, let them do a new translation.

ihmepensas kirjoitti...

The book itself is mostly a bit outdated (still living the time of "story -> song interrupting the story -> story" musicals), but Juice's part was fun. He wrote that Sondheim's lyrics were so full of meanings that he would have needed a new role for a bass to sing footnotes from the edge of the stage. :P I'd love to see and hear Sweeney Todd, it's so nicely twisted.

I hope for a new Les Mis translation, too, and it appears we're not the only ones. I read bits of the Finnish text in ÅST until I had to stop because of my facepalm-eyeroll-giggle reactions, and later I watched the concert DVD with Finnish subtitles that were the same translation used on stage.

Elwingda kirjoitti...

A very interesting blog post. Thank you for this :)

I absolutely agree with you on the point about not completely understanding a musical or play in English due to cultural connotations and culture-specific humour. However, I'll also have to point out that considering the amount of money tourists generate by seeing shows in the West End and Broadway, in order for a musical to be successful and run for several years, it is essential that it's not too culture-specific. A great score may do the trick because people can relate to the musical even if they don't understand very much of the dialogue (probably one of the reasons why musicals often run for longer than plays) but still.

I think it's very difficult to say whether a translation is 'better' than the original or vice versa. I personally hold the pessimistic view that a perfect translation does not exist because I find something is always lost. If it's not on the meaning then it is in the pronunciation or the sound of words.

What I tend to find interesting is the extent to which musicals for example take in account differences in cultural background to make the audience in the target language identify with the musical in the same way that the original audience would have. Take for example the Finnish production of 'Legally Blonde the musical'. The "Gay or European" line in that had been changed to "Gay or Swedish" which, as a translation is obviously rather inaccurate but evoked a roaring reaction from the Finnish audience because it was spot on on the cultural aspect.

For me the best translations are those that complete the original text by bringing out meanings which may not have been as explicit in the original but on a closer look, they are there. They make you understand the whole show a little bit better :)

ihmepensas kirjoitti...

Elwingda: Thank you for your interesting comment! I agree about the tourism matter, though luckily the themes are at least inside the Western culture so general that most people know what's going on in most musicals. In Finland it's mostly Finns who go to theatre and we don't have such musical tourism as in London, so here the creators can concentrate on Finns as their target audience.

Jokes are probably the most difficult ones to translate, and there usually isn't a way to translate them word-for-word accurately, so you must indeed translate the idea of the joke - or any aspect of the original text. I don't think a translation can ever be *perfect* in the sense of matching the original text completely accurately, but it can, for example, kind of make up the lack of some aspect by adding or highlighting some other aspect. It's always about compromises, what to keep and what to leave out or change or add when you can't have it all.

I do think that for example the German translations of Frank Wildhorn's musicals are both stylistically and content-wise better than the clichéd and quite lame English texts, and personally I also like Michael Kunze's German translation of Sunset Boulevard better than the original English text, but of course it's often a matter of taste, too.