Lost in Translation- The Art of Translating a Musical

Jonathan Fong

As a specimen of the rare breed that is the international Broadway aficionado, the majority of my exposure to musical theatre has been from various international tours and regional productions; I’ve been fortunate enough to have productions of such well-known musicals as Wicked, Evita, Cats, and more swing by my humble abode of Macau (or Hong Kong, which is close enough for me to go, see a show, and be back for dinner). Now, while most of these productions have been English-language replications of the original productions of the musicals in question, quite a few have, in fact, been translations into the native language here where I live - Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese). These translations have intrigued me for as long as I’ve been a thespian; I find the way by which they adapt the source material of a musical for its new audience in a new language to be fascinating. Note that I say adapt, not convert - these translations are never simply a direct conversion of the work into a new language and to describe them as such would be a devaluation of the translation itself. Rather, each translation is the result of a creative process in itself, through which the musical is brought to a new audience in a new light altogether.


Of course, translations should, obviously, keep the musical itself intact; Elphaba should still defy gravity, while Roger and Mimi should still struggle with AIDS. Well, isn’t the best way to preserve the work to directly translate the work, thus preserving every part of it? While such translations might retain, in a literal sense, the basic traits of the musical, most of the time they do so, sadly, at the cost of the artistic characteristics of a musical - subtle yet powerful things such as wordplay, idioms, rhymes, and more become, at best, ‘just another line’; at worst, completely nonsensical. Indeed, it is not just the literal, but the underlying essence - the intent and meaning - of a work that must be preserved; yet, there is no consensus as to what exactly ‘preserving the essence’ of a work entails. Indeed, when looking at translations, one must remember that languages are not merely generic tools for communication, differing only in, say, how you write words or perhaps where you put them in a sentence; rather, languages are products of the culture they originate from, with the most effective translations being assimilations and acculturations rather than simple conversions.

Of course, there are the basics - for instance, verb tenses may differ (some languages, like Spanish, have several different tenses or verb forms for something expressed using just one tense in English), while words and phrases may exist in one language that have no equivalent in any other language nor that possess the same effect when used in a different cultural context. Effective translations, in this regard, may not be verbatim nor say exactly what the original text does; however, what they do retain is the effective intent and meaning of what is being translated. For instance, the Spanish translation of Wicked’s ‘Defying Gravity’, used in Wicked’s 2013 Mexican production, rather than directly translating the famous lyric “So if you care to find me, look to the western sky”, instead phrased the lyric as “Voy hacia el horizonte donde se pierde el mar” (in English - “I’m going to the horizon where the sea disappears”), which, while not being an exact translation (and removing the reference to Elphaba being the Wicked Witch of the West), captures the underlying meaning of what the lyric is trying to say, thus allowing the audience to not just hear, but understand what is being said to the same extent as an audience seeing Wicked in English.

There are also, of course, the factors of alliteration, assonance, and rhyme schemes, each powerful literary devices used in song, rap, and more - the effectiveness of these literary and musical characteristics, and the impact should they be lost, should not be underestimated. Rhymes, assonance, and more allow songs and the spoken word to flow fluidly, in a way ‘guiding’ the audience’s ear and mind through a song. I find that in this regard, effective translations will generally aim to either preserve the original rhyme scheme or assonance of the work through clever word choice and/or wordplay or replace the original with a suitable yet different rhyme scheme or assonance which flows with the original melody or rhythm of the work. An example of this can, again, be seen in the Spanish translation of Wicked, with the first two lines of the final verse being translated as:


Voy hacia el horizonte donde se pierde el mar

Un mago me predijo llegará tu hora volar


(In English:

I’m going to the horizon where the sea disappears

As the magician/wizard predicted, my time to fly has come)


If the original English lyric of “look to the western sky” were to be directly translated, the last word of the phrase would likely be ‘oeste’ (Spanish for ‘west’), which, unlike ‘mar’ (Spanish for ‘sea’), doesn’t rhyme with ‘volar’, the Spanish word for ‘fly’ (or ‘to fly’); thus, the use of ‘mar’ not only preserves, as described prior, the meaning of the lyric itself but also the rhythmic flow of the song.

In some cases, even the very pronunciation rules of the language into which a work is translated can be entirely different. For instance, tonal languages such as Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and more, which are common particularly in Asia, use different ‘tones’, or pitch inflections, to determine (combined with context) what is being said - to put it simply, if you get the tones wrong, people won’t be able to understand you due to the sheer number of characters/phrases which share tones but have different meanings; in Mandarin, for example, you could end up gravely insulting someone’s mother instead of simply stating the Chinese term for a type of horse. This has the effect of, to put it lightly, really screwing with translations of musical works written in non-tonal languages like English (as the majority of musicals are) whose melodies don’t take the use of any sort of phrasal tone into consideration. Effective translations of works into such languages will take into consideration the tones being used, choosing words, phrases, and/or characters effectively to not only preserve the rhyming, assonance, and more of the original (as described above), but also allow the tones to ‘flow’ smoothly and aid audience comprehension; this is far easier said than done, of course, as there are only so many ways you can convey an idea or concept through language. Indeed, the best translations of musicals take in consideration not just the literary but also the musical characteristics of the musical, allowing them maintain both meaning and rhyme/assonance without significant loss in comprehension by ensuring the ‘tones’ are not overly disrupted by the melody and rhythm and vice versa. A particularly effective example of this, which I actually saw live myself, would be the Mandarin Chinese translation of Cats, used in the 2012 Chinese tour of the feline musical; for instance, the following lyrics from the song ‘Journey to the Heaviside Layer’ were translated as such:



Up, up, up, past the Russell Hotel

Up, up, up, up, to the Heaviside Layer


飛,飛,飛,越過高高山巔 (Fēi, fēi, fēi, yuèguò gāo gāoshān diān)

插上翅膀飛到九重高天 (Chā shàng chìbǎng fēi dào jiǔchóng gāo tiān)


While the use of ‘飛’ (pronounced Fēi; meaning ‘fly’) for ‘up’ rather than the equivalent direct translation of ‘up’ (上; pronounced Shàng) may seem like a simple poetic choice of phrasing, it actually allows the melody to be sung more naturally. The vocal melody of the song calls for ‘Up, up, up’, or rather ‘飛, 飛, 飛’, to be sung on the same note without variation; as ‘上’ (Shàng) is pronounced with a falling tone (pitch decreasing as the character is pronounced), it thus conflicts with the melody due to it grammatically requiring a change in pitch. On the other hand, ‘飛’ (Fēi ) is pronounced with a level tone (staying on the same pitch throughout the character’s pronunciation); thus, its use not only retains the original underlying meaning of ‘ascension’ or ‘rising’ of the lyric but also makes comprehension of the phrase easier for the audience.

Last but certainly not least, the cultural appeal of a translation must be considered. To consider any work of musical theatre, and hence any translation of a musical, entirely independent of cultural factors and relevance is, simply, ignorant - every musical has its own cultural references and allusions which may appeal to its original audience but not to the audience of a translated version of itself; the most effective translations I’ve seen are the ones who have managed to successfully account for cultural factors. An example of this is, once again, the aforementioned Mandarin Chinese translation of Cats - for example, in the original English version of Cats, the song ‘Bustopher Jones’ makes reference to several foods typical of English pub fare, such as curry, mutton, and rice pudding. These are, for obvious reasons, quite unfamiliar to a Chinese audience; thus, they were changed in translation to more common staples of typical Chinese cuisine, such as steamed dumplings (小籠包), roast duck (燒鴨), and more. Thus, the audience were able to relate on a personal and cultural level with the translation to the same degree as the original audience could with the original English version of Cats (and laugh along just as hard - the changes brought down the house when I saw it, at least).

Indeed, to effectively translate a musical is to balance the changes and modifications necessary to satisfy and negate each of these factors - underlying meaning, rhyming/assonance, and culture - with the artistic, literary, and musical characteristics of the musical itself, thus making the musical just as effective for its new audience as it was for its old. Only thus can a musical be truly, fully, and completely translated without anything, whether it be meaning, cultural relevance, or literary/musical characteristics, being lost in translation.