My story is in many ways atypical: I was born in the tumultuous land of Venezuela, but I grew up in the cold and structured Netherlands. In many other ways, my childhood might be familiar to you: I was obsessed with the Disney Renaissance films, I was in an amateur musical theatre group, and I loved reading and writing.
I grew up speaking three languages and consuming inordinate amounts of media. Cartoon Network and Boomerang were in English, but Fox Kids and Nickelodeon were mainly in Dutch. I also spoke Spanish at home, and my little brain was obsessed with the animation dubbing process.
After many years, I started to get more and more conscious about translations and asking technical questions. How do lyrics soar? What makes them feel good? Why are some of the choices made in translations disappointing or amazingly satisfying?
Let’s explore these answers together! Without further ado, welcome to my article about my three favorite things: musical theatre, language, and creating moving, accurate translations.
These Rhymes Won’t Write Themselves, You Know?
One of my best friends – Niklas Wagner, a musical theatre translator and writer in Germany – will write his Master of Arts thesis about the German Hamilton translation done by the brilliant Kevin Schroeder and Sera Finale. (That whole process deserves its own article!)
When Niklas proposed his thesis subject to his American studies professor and told her about Kevin and Sera, she had a reaction that I still chuckle about: “There are people who … do this? … As a job?”
When Niklas shared his career aspirations, she told him she had never considered that there are people working as musical translators, but that when she stops to think about it, of course there must be because musicals don’t translate themselves.
She’s absolutely right – that’s where we come in!
Now, to be fair, I don’t believe our job is something most people outside of the arts should even think about for too long: when something is translated well, you’re supposed to not notice. It should function like a perfectly-painted wall; you’ll only really notice the wall if there is an imperfection.
But even people who are very close to the material can be quite confounded by how we get to work. Allow me to elaborate.
I have the absolute privilege to work with my friend Ryan van der Heijden, with whom I just finished working on the revised version of Disney’s AIDA in the Netherlands. Ryan and I got the job in August of 2022 after an interview in Amsterdam and an audition process. After this, we spent nine months working on the translation of this constantly-evolving show.
During rehearsals in March, an actor and the music directors asked us if we could change a sung line because the closed vowels made it harder for him to belt. Ryan and I went to work adjusting the line under the pressure of a ticking clock, but these things take time – a luxury most rehearsal processes don’t have.
When he asked us if we were done after only 15 minutes, we explained that changing the words in a line requires us to change every line that rhymes with any word in said line. Their ask was to change one word, but our task was to write four new lines of lyrics, not just one – and that required more time. He stared at us for three seconds racking his brain, and then exclaimed: “Of course … all lines have to rhyme!”
So in the professor’s defense: even musical theatre actors, who work with our words every day, can be puzzled by the process.
The Holy Script
In the Netherlands, musical translations are a relatively new artform. The first major translation for a musical was in the 1950s for My Fair Lady, made by Seth Gaaikema. That means that most of our parents are older than this craft!
In our collaboration with book writer Davig Henry Hwang for Disney’s AIDA, he remarked that “musical theatre translations are getting much better and more detailed.” It shows! There is a much larger dedication and a bigger pool of people working at a very high level than ever before.
However, quantity doesn’t always equate to quality. For example, the Dutch translation of one of my favorite musicals, Elisabeth, completely misses a rhyme in one of the major songs … in the chorus. Absolutely outrageous!
Painters have color, light, and the illusion of depth. Musical theatre translators have syllables, melodic accents, and rhythm. Together, these elements form the foundation upon which we carefully build.
Ryan and I adhere to unwritten codes about how to treat someone’s words with honor. We know how long it takes to write a musical, how a lyricist chooses each world with the utmost care, and we regard the original book and sheet music as “sacred” – an inside joke we have which is not really a joke at all.
Moses had his stone tablets. Here are our own commandments for translating a musical theatre work from its original text, taken from our Dutch-to-English translation process:
1.) Well-rhymed is half-done
As many Maestras know, song lyrics primarily consist of internal, slant and/or perfect rhyme, alliteration, and metaphors. Sometimes, we are in-luck: the English word or idiom in the original libretto matches the Dutch one and the translation is happy sailing. But that doesn’t happen very often.
Most of the job is obsessing over finding the perfect solution and coming up with clever options at very inconvenient times, like at 2:00 a.m., under the shower, or at parties where I am trying to focus on others instead of the word traffic in my head. Ryan and I have dubbed this phenomenon when all of these ideas buzz around our minds for the entire duration of a translating project “zooming”.
Our goal is to keep all ideas intact and write lyrics that feel as strong as the original material.
2.) Character is key
Each character in a musical has their own personality, background, and use of language. Growing up, one of the things that got me heated every time I heard a mediocre translation was when young characters would use slang that hadn’t been hip for decades or use vocabulary that was far too advanced for their age.
Ryan and I both started performing as young kids, so with this shared background in mind, we sometimes treat translation as an acting exercise. We continuously ask ourselves: “Would this character really say this?” This quest is extremely enjoyable and equally important to the process.
It is integral to our approach that each character maintains their own voice in our lyrics – that the nuances of their character are not (literally) lost in translation.
3.) Play with your words
There is nothing harder than translating a joke.
Some jokes don’t work because they are too specific to the area and culture in which the show takes place. Some jokes don’t work because some metaphors or idioms don’t exist in another language. Sometimes it just comes down to two countries having senses of humor that don’t match.
Something that works on paper doesn’t always have to work in real life, and the energy in the rehearsal room with all of the actors present usually tells us what we need to know: we need to come up with something snappier, more dramatic, or maybe something drier.
Explaining to the original writers why our new joke completely strays away from the original and asking them to “trust us, because this is really funny” is an interesting process. Thankfully, the laughter in the room usually says enough. There is nothing more satisfying than when you have the opportunity to come up with a completely new joke that lands.
It is our job to make the localization of the joke click for a Dutch audience while preserving its original purpose in the scene and story.
4.) That sounds about right
Lyrics are where we encounter the factors of sound and diction. This step is essential for the intelligibility of the words for the audience and performability for the actors.
You can always see the panic in someone’s eyes when they read a lyric that must be belted on a vowel that does not sit well. All lyrics are tested by us before they are performed, and we flexibly deal with actors’ requests.
The craft of translating musical theatre will always be uniquely intertwined with its inherent form, which differs greatly from prose or straight plays because the words have to sing, literally and figuratively.
You Call This Archeology?
Every single language has its own strengths, weaknesses, and intricacies.
Some words don’t exist in English that do in Dutch or Spanish, and vice versa. Spanish and English are widely considered “rich” languages with many organic possibilities for rhymes and motifs. Dutch is not regarded as a “pretty” language, but that’s also why I see it as a great challenge to be somewhat of a lyrical Indiana Jones – discovering which beautiful words have been buried by the sands of time that we can dust off again.
This was quite an interesting conversation to have while translating Disney’s AIDA, since we had to dive deep into the emotional world of Ancient Egyptian royalty. Ryan and I have worked on translating projects involving shows such as Dear Evan Hansen, Waitress, and Mean Girls, but you’re not going to find lyrics like “sucking dick for meth”, “In the Dark Dark Chocolate Pie”, or “sexy Eleanor Roosevelt” in a show like this. AIDA was way more challenging because it required the correct use of regal language while still matching the contemporary tone of the show.
We spoke to an Egyptologist at the University of Leiden and did our best to get the most historically-accurate terms, but sometimes, especially with the fast-paced nature of live musical theatre, clarity and catchiness go above accuracy.
Somehow It Always Works Out
In the end, every project I undertake is super exciting for me because I get to build a bridge between two languages. I’m always asking myself how to make the voyage from one side to the other as smooth as possible. Navigating this with an amazing friend like Ryan by my side makes it all the more fun, qualitative, and fulfilling.
In one of the magazines Niklas has meticulously collected over the years (one of hundreds of tickets and programs from every show he has ever visited) from the 90s, there is an article with the brilliant translator and lyricist Michael Kunze.
The article asked: “And what if the many German syllables just won’t fit on the existing notes, not with all the will in the world? Is it allowed to make an exception and make two eighth notes out of a quarter note?”
Ryan, Niklas and I agree wholeheartedly with Kunze’s response: “Somehow, it always works out.”