Musical Translations: Conveying feelings and emotions in song


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 rising 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 turns 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 phrase and the song’s title Die Schatten werden länger “The shadows grow longer” repeats twice in the chorus, and in each iteration of the chorus 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. 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.

Can something be “untranslateable”?



Scattered across the internet on social media and even translation company’s blogs are lists like “the most beautiful untranslateable” words, filled with words like 生きがい (Ikigai) “reason to live” or しょうがない (Shou ga nai) “It can’t be helped.” or 森林浴 (Shinrinyoku) literally “forest bath” meaning “a relaxing trip to the forest”. Obviously these terms can be translated and these very lists often do provide a gloss for these phrases, sometimes purposely choosing the least succinct and most clunky phrasing of the word or idiom.

These lists make me wonder, what do they mean by “untranselateable”? Could it be alluding to the fact that this concept doesn’t exist literally in English, influenced by the Sapir-Whorf theory that our thoughts are dictated by the language we speak? Alternatively, could it be referring to the fact that there is no single word equivalent for these terms?

Equivalence is, after all, the goal of translation, by rendering the subject text into a target text with the same meaning. Since Cicero, translation has been seen as a dichotomy between a word-for-word or literal translation versus a sense-for-sense or free translation. Yet this dichotomy shows the European bias of Translation Studies, comparing similar languages such as German and French. The very concept of a literal translation is laughable for vastly different languages such as English and Japanese, taken to its extreme it would be utterly incomprehensible.

In the Meiji Era, there were some literary translators who took this foreignizing approach by translating every single pronoun and punctuation as it was in the Russian and French original, leading to a very awkward sounding translation in a language which rarely uses pronouns. Through these translations the term 彼 became associated with “he” rather than “that” and the term 彼の女 for “she” was calqued. (This term was simplified to 彼女 over time.) Interestingly enough, many common words in modern Japan such as 自由 and 社会 were calqued as literal translations during this period.

While equivalence is important in translations, it’s more complicated than simply replacing the source lexicon with a target equivalent. Mona Baker’s textbook In Other Words lists six different types of equivalence: word level, above word level (i.e., collocation, idioms, and expressions), grammatical, thematic and information structure of a text, textual cohesion, and pragmatism. While each word is important, it is the sum of the whole that determines the quality of a sentence and appropriateness of a translation.

After all, just because a term is difficult to translate or doesn’t have a single word translation does not mean it is untranslateable. These words may be stumbling blocks for the poor translator, but there are different methods to deal with such phrases, depending on the context and type of document it occurs in. A term can be translated literally, replaced with a more general term, it can be explained rather than translated, substituted for something more understandable to the audience, or in some cases, omitted.

These phrases and words that express something culturally significant (not necessarily unique) are what makes languages fascinating and allow you a window into a different way of thinking. However, language, like culture, is a living thing which continues to change over time, taking in new ideas and new phrases, calquing, borrowing, and coining new phrases and new ways of expressing ideas, yet also imbuing it with a new meaning over time. These lists are fun and insightful into new terms, yet they are hardly untranslateable.




To Freelance or Not to Freelance, that is the Question

“A majority of translators are freelancers.” This is one of the things I was told at a translation and language workshop I attended in London. It’s both a terrifying and freeing prospect as someone who both loves independence, but also prefers financial stability and certainty. However, in order to make it as a freelancer, one must operate themselves as a business, constantly network, practice self-control, and have good time-management skills. Freelancing can often be a feast and famine industry, in which even well established translators have periods where they barely (or don’t) make ends meets and other periods where they are so busy that they can’t take on all the projects they have.

I have always straddled the line, working full time plus, doing hourly or salaried as well as taking on freelance projects when I could. When I graduated with my Masters in Translation, I had no intention of embarking on a full-time freelance career. I wanted the golden grail of translation jobs, the full-time salaried position in translation.

My near obsession with looking job aggregate sites has been very useful in understanding the market. Most of these salaried Japanese translator jobs are actually administrative assistant and interpreter jobs at manufacturing plants.  (The difference between translation and interpretation is a topic for another day.) While I can’t claim an interest in automobiles or manufacturing, obtaining such a job was my goal as a means to live out my dream to straddle the line of having the benefits of a salaried job yet performing translations.

Yet as I’ve gained more experience in different fields in Quality Assurance, Administration, Interpreting, and Sales, the more I realize that I don’t feel fulfilled working as cog in the wheel for someone else. I yearn for the adventure and independence of freelancing. I yearn for trying to live out my dreams as much as my natural realism tells me the chances of simply making ends meet, or much of a paycheck, are slim. Nothing makes me happier than slowly parsing phrases in a document, learning obscure information about ballet to properly translate French song titles in Japanese into English, combing through complicated official language in government and company publications, understanding new idioms and proverbs, and simply seeing the complexity of language.

Many people who study translation are interested in literary or entertainment-related translations. However, 90% of translations commissioned are technical; after all with global business it’s important to translate user manuals, specs, trade agreements, contracts, and tax and insurance forms. I know Arabic translators that dream of translating poetry, Japanese translators who are interested in the game and anime translation industry, and literary scholars who dream of translating untapped works of literature. Such dreams of highly sought after fields are a tricky thing. Realistically a majority have their dreams crushed or have to compromise on them, yet I do know people who have made it into their beloved field and have the skills to make phenomenal translators in these genres.

For myself, while I enjoy examining the choices made in subtitles of drama and anime, the turns of phrase in musical translations, and the flowing phrases needed for literature, I prefer dense official texts. Official statements by government bodies, new years greetings by CEOs, newspaper articles, lease agreements, and academic articles and conference papers. Something weighty that I can sink my teeth into and research new topics.

In order to translate full-time, in the long run it’s advised to have a specialization. At the moment I am a generalist, mostly experienced in business and academic documents, particularly in the humanities. My own personal goal is to specialize in the field that I debated studying for my masters, international law, but that is a long term goal and only time will tell if I have the time or money to fulfill it.

So here I am at the beginning of this journey, the first step in starting my own entrepreneurship, creating a website to sell my services to direct clients and to one day live out my dream of full time freelancing. After all, one can neither fail nor succeed if they don’t take a chance on achieving their dreams.

I welcome you to Latham Sprinkle Translation and Editing, providing business and academic translations and document review services. I look forward to developing this site and writing my blogs about topics in translation, Japanese language, and general linguistics. Whether you are interested in Japanese translation, need a document reviewer to check a finished translation for layout, or want a proofreader to edit an English or Japanese document, please contact me. Also, if you are interested in learning more about translation, language, and specifically the Japanese language, please check out my blog in the future.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step — Laozi