"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
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!.|
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)
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?