How do showtunes get translated?
April 29, 2011 11:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to find information on the translation of musical theater, particularly the songs.

Information is scarce. Musicals get translated into other languages for foreign productions all the time, but I'm having trouble finding any information on the actual translation/localization process.

What I'm most interested in, is whether the people who write the new lyrics of the shows are actually translators, or just lyricists. As an example, Herbert Kretzmer, who reworked Les Miserables into English, was given a literal translation of the French lyrics to work off of. Is this the standard method? Is it the same with both shows translated to English, and Broadway shows translated into other languages?

I have access to a number of academic databases, so if there's any relevant journal articles I could read then fire away (I've already done some searching but nothing has come up).
posted by Gordafarin to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My understanding is that yeah, that's usually how it works. Translator gets a literal translation of the original and that works it into something lyrical. I know that they did Miss Saigon that way, and Hairspray as well.

I'm actually not sure it happens all that often though, to be honest.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:14 PM on April 29, 2011

Response by poster: I'm actually not sure it happens all that often though, to be honest.

Les Mis was done in 21 languages, Rocky Horror at least 8 (including Icelandic), Rent 24, Wicked 6 including Finnish, Spring Awakening 8 including Welsh...
posted by Gordafarin at 12:38 PM on April 29, 2011

Also, all the Disney musical movies translate the songs when they get dubbed into foreign languages. That's a lot of music.
posted by bq at 1:28 PM on April 29, 2011

Response by poster: There really isn't a whole lot of info out there, so I'm not surprised I haven't gotten much response. That's okay. For any future googlers, here's some of the info I've collected.

A tidbit: of the 15 longest-running musicals (from this list), only two have not been translated: Buddy (which has been performed in Germany and Sweden, but not translated as far as I can tell) and Black and White Minstrels. On average the musicals have been translated into ~9.5 languages each, with Rent being the highest at 24, followed by Les Mis at 21. Mamma Mia clocks in at 15, and Phantom and Cats both 13 translations each.

If anyone else is looking for information on this, there is a lot more out there on opera translation. Articles on dubbing have also been useful. Here are a few articles that have been useful to me:
Mateo, Marta. "Anglo-American Musicals in Spanish Theatres." The Translator 14.2 (2008)

Bosseaux, Charlotte. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Characterization in the Musical Episode of the TV Series." The Translator 14.2 (2008)
(on the French dubbed version of the musical episode, and how it affects the target audience's perception of the characters)

Di Giovanni, Eleni. "The American Film Musical in Italy." The Translator 14.2 (2008)

Low, Peter. "Translating Songs That Rhyme." Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 16.1-2 (2008)
There was a special issue of The Translator on translation & music, and nearly all those articles were relevant. There's also a book Song and Significance. Virtues and Vices of Vocal Translation which looks very promising (particulary there's an article on Swedish translations of My Fair Lady) but I haven't had time to find it.

I'll leave you with Chairman Kaga as Jean Valjean and Jekyll & Hyde.
posted by Gordafarin at 6:37 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

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