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?

10 helmikuuta 2012

Empress Elisabeth travels to South Korea

Elisabeth (Kunze&Levay) premiered yesterday in Seoul, South Korea. I'm not usually into Asian theatre scene, because I don't know the cultures or languages, and the Japanese and Korean etc. style of staging musicals usually doesn't appeal to me. But I must say I've been impressed by the South Korean take on Kunze's musical, first Mozart! and now Elisabeth. They're blending modern and traditional style in a way that, for me, hits the timeless and time-breaking world of Kunze's musicals perfectly. The characters portray feelings and emotional situations very familiar to modern spectators, even if their context is historical, and I think these photos are a perfect mixture of both. I dislike bringing the characters of historical stories into modern or some imaginary weird world, which happens too often especially in opera when people desperately try to "spice up" the traditional stories, but these photos show that it's possible to make (or at least promote) costume dramas with a stylish touch of modern style, too, without losing the historical costume drama aspect.

Photo sources: Cafe.naver.com & MusicalElisabeth.com (warning, loads slowly)
Photo copyrights: EMK Musical Company

Elisabeth (Kim Sun Young and Ok Ju Hyun)

The Death (Ryu Jung Han, Song Chan Eui and Kim Jun Soo)
Lucheni (Kim Su Yong, Choi Min Chul and Park Eun Tae)



The three Rudolfs

Based on the photos I've seen, the actual staging is slightly more traditional than in these early press picturses, but the general feeling of them is still there. I'd like to see a production like this done in Europe as well, since this semi-Gothic-Victorian-Modern-something style is popular here, too. For smaller theatres afraid of expensive costume dramas with hoop skirts and whatnot, a bit more modern take could be an interesting solution.

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