Musical Translations: Conveying feelings and emotions in song

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While I have yet to have the opportunity to try my hands at professionally translating lyrics or plays, I am a big fan of musicals and I used to karaoke my favorite musical numbers and Disney songs on a daily basis with my flatmate back when I lived in London. We would sing songs from Les Miserables, Elizabeth das Musical,  The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof. There’s something about belting out If I were a Rich Man or I Dreamed a Dream that feels cathartic and speaks directly to the soul.

These songs need to be easy to understand, yet convey the character’s emotions to explain their motivations or act as an exposition dump to further the plot of the play itself. Thus, translation of these songs are quite a feat. It’s not a simple matter of translating the lyrics themselves, but creating a new song which conveys the emotions, uses conversational language, has the same number of beats, fits the melody and tone, and allows harmonization at the correct timing.

I Dreamed an Emotion-filled Dream

For example, I Dreamed a Dream, the English translation of J’avais rêvé d’une autre vie (literally, “I Dreamed of Another Life”) is 夢破れて Yume Yaburete in Japanese, meaning “My broken dreams”. Even from the titles, all convey a sense of regret and hopelessness. In English, the title is 4 syllables, whereas the Japanese is 6 syllables, which brings up a further complication of translating musicals in European languages into Japanese. In English, French, or German there are many words with one or two syllables, but since Japanese doesn’t allow for consonant clusters, each word tends to have more syllables so the meaning of the original lyrics often need to be streamlined.

Midway through the song is the turning point, in which the lyrics and accompaniment become louder intensifying the emotion and the tempo slows and the pitch gets higher, indicating heightened sadness. The lyrics of this portion in English is:

“But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
As they turn your dream to shame
The performer holds the note on “Shame” growing louder with rising momentum, which puts emphasis and heightens the emotion of this one word. One aspect of this song in English, which makes it so difficult is that it requires you to hold a short vowel while rise 5 notes and then ending with a consonant. (Ideally, when holding a note, it’s easiest to hold “ah” or “ooh”, but it often doesn’t work to insert a word that ends in these vowels.)
In comparison, this same section in Japanese is:
「夢は悪魔に Yume wa akuma ni
狼の牙が Ookami no kiba ga
望み引き裂き nozomi hikisaki
夢食いちぎり yume kuichigiri
The meaning of these lyrics are “The dream turn into a nightmare. The wolves [bare] their fangs, and tear apart my hope. And devour my dreams.” In which the last syllable of kuichigiri “to devour” is held longer, emphasizing that word.
The beginning of this song reminisces with sadness about a pleasant past, whereas the first 8 bars of this line brings the audience into the miserable present. While it is a wonderful metaphor, the English translation of this musical conveys an abstract idea of a dangerous animal appearing in the darkness; whereas the Japanese states it quite bluntly about living a nightmare. However, the metaphor in Japanese, instead is the fangs of a wolf, tearing up one’s hope and then gobbling up her dreams.
(Since music is best understood by listening to it, below is the official Universal Music Japan performance of Yume Yuburete by Tomomi Kahara.)

However, both the English and Japanese are translations, so perhaps it’s a bit unfair to compare these two different takes of the French lyrics.


The Darkness of Simplification Grows

To understand simplification in lyrics, let’s compare the chorus of Die Schatten werden länger and 闇が広がる Yami ga hirogaru from Elizabeth, a German musical about Empress Elizabeth (Sisi) of Austria. This particular number is a duet between Elizabeth’s neglected and depressed son, Rudolph, who eventually commits suicide, and Tod, the personification of death, who appears in front of him and his mother throughout their lives.

The following video is from the rehearsal in Vienna, the closest I could find to an official release of this in German, featuring Mark Seibert as Tod; a famous actor that has actually performed this role in Japan as well.

While there are many unofficial copies of this song in German and Japanese, I found an official version of this on the Youtube channel for Musica Celeste, performed by Taro Sakurai (Tenor) as Rudolph, Chie Saito (Soprano) as Tod, and Hitomo Nakamuri as the piano player. (Partially because of this musical’s popularity in Takarazuka, an all-female Japanese theater, often the role of Tod is performed by a woman in Japan, which means the melody is often changed by an octave.)

In both versions, the chorus appears three times and changes slightly each time, though more drastically in the original German version.

In the German, the song title Die Schatten werden länger “The shadows grow longer” repeat twice in the song, which in each iteration the song alters slightly, using both biblical and fairy tale allusions throughout the song.

Chorus 1:

Die Schatten werden länger

und doch bleiben alle blind und stumm

Zum Klang der Rattenfänger

tanzt man wild ums goldne Kalb herum!

Die Schatten werden länger

es ist fünf vor zwölf

die Zeit ist beinahe um!”

Translation: “The shadows grow longer. And still they remain blind and silent.  To the sound of the Pied Piper, People dance wildly around the Golden Calf! The Shadows grow longer. It’s 5 before 12. This time is almost up!”

Chorus 2:

Die Schatten werden länger

und die Lieder werden kalt und schrill!

Der Teufelskreis wird enger,

doch man glaubt nur was man glauben will

die Schatten werden länger

es ist fünf vor zwölf,

warum hält jeder still”

Translation: “The shadows grow longer and the song grows cold and shrill! The vicious circle narrows. Yet people only believe what they want. The shadows grow longer. It’s 5 before 12. Why does everyone stay still?”

Note: The song changes to a higher octave in the second line so the lyrics emphasize this octave change.

Chorus 3:

Die Schatten werden länger,

was geschehn muss das muss jetzt geschehen!

Der Teufelskreis wird enger

und man muss dem Unheil wiederstehen!

Die Schatten werden länger

Kai…ser Rudolph wird der Zeit entgegen gehn!”

Translation “The shadows grow longer. What must happen, must happen now! The vicious circle narrows, and we must withstand calamity! The shadows grow longer. Emperor Rudolph will face down time!”


Compared to the German, the Japanese version contains much more repetition and is devoid of the flowery imagery of the original lyrics, due to the constraints of fitting the lyrics into each bar.

Chorus 1:

闇が広がる、人は何も見えない Yami ga hirogaru. Hito wa nani mo mienai

誰かが叫ぶ、声に頼りにさまよう Dareka ga sakebu. Koe ni tayori ni samayou

闇が広がる、その世の終わりが近い Yami ga hirogaru. Sono yo no owari ga chikai.

Translation: “The darkness grows. The people can’t see anything. Someone cries out. I wander reliant on that voice. The darkness grows. The end of this world is at hand.

The Japanese translation has lost the fairy tale and biblical allusions, leaving only the main theme of the song, emphasizing the feeling of being surrounded by darkness, a sense of loneliness, and a growing reliance on his “friend” Death. The last line, captures the basic idea of “Es ist fünf vor zwölf”, an illusion to Cinderella and the idea that time is almost up, although it adds that specifically this means the end of the world.

Chorus 2:

闇が広がる、人は何も知らない Yami ga hirogaru. Hito wa nani mo shiranai

誰かが叫ぶ、革命の歌に踊る Dareka ga sakebu. Kakumei no uta ni odoru

闇が広がる、その世の終わりが近い Yami ga hirogaru. Sono yo no owari ga chikai.

Translation “The darkness grows. The people don’t know anything. Someone cries out. They dance to the tune of revolution. The darkness grows. The end of this world is at hand.

The imagery of “dancing” is taken from Chorus 1 and brought to the Chorus 2, but instead of alluding to the Golden Calf in the Old Testament, the song instead references the spirit of revolution in Austria at that time. The clever lyrical reference to the musical octave change had to be lost due to syllable constraints.

Chorus 3:

闇が広がる、今こそ立ち上がる時 Yami ga hirogaru. Ima koso tachiagaru toki

沈む世界を救うのはお前だ Shizumu sekai o sukuu no wa omae da

闇が広がる、皇帝ルドルフは立ち上がる Yami ga hirogaru. Koutei Rudorufu wa tachiagaru

Translation: “The darkness grows. Now is the time to take charge. The one to save this sinking world, will be you. The darkness grows. Emperor Rudolph will take charge.”

Much like the previous lines, the Japanese forgoes ambiguity for the sake of clarity and conciseness in order to fit with the melody. In fact, up until the last verse both the German and Japanese uses the pattern 7 syllables, 11 syllables, except for in the very last line, in which the Japanese is 14 syllables since Rudolph’s name goes from 2 syllables to 4 in Japanese, Ru-do-ru-fu. The first half works fairly well into the melody itself since the first part of Koutei (Emperor) is held for two notes so the long vowel isn’t out of place, although it’s a little awkward to fit Rudolph’s name into the melody itself.

Conveying Meaning and Emotion in Song

In the end, musical translations are not about translating the lyrics of the original, but rather creating a new song, which stands on its own and works within the wider context of the play itself. This song may slightly change the nuances of the original, keep only the basic ideas and feelings of it, and clarify the original meaning of the song. At the end of the day, the most important thing for any song in a musical is to capture the voice of the character and to be singable for both the actors and musical fans alike.

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