How does one translate “Hamilton” into another language? Such was the challenge for Sera Finale, rapper-turned-songwriter, and Kevin Schroeder, veteran musical theater translator, when they were asked to collaborate on a German version of the show – the first in a language other than English.
The project turned out to be just as complicated as they feared: intricate rhyme schemes, elaborate wordplay, and too many songs. There were drafts, demos, and reviews; A member of Hamilton’s band, Kurt Crowley, learned German to help coordinate the process, and eventually Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator, had to agree or reject every line.
Here are six words that illustrate some of the challenges the team faced as they sought to preserve the meaning and melody of the original text, but in a language with different sounds and syntax. The first line is the original text in English. The second is German lyric poems. The third is the so-called backtranslation, which is what German words literally mean in English.
Hamilton: How does a bastard, orphan, son of a bitch and/a Scotsman, fallen into the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by divine providence, poor, in filth/grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
Hamilton: Wie wird ein Bastard / der vom Schöß einer trostlosen Dirne kroch / Aus ‘nem gottverdammten, verlor’nem Loch in der Karibik / Ohne Titel, ohne Mittel, ohne Werte / Am Ende doch ein Held und ein Gelehrter?
(How a bastard / Who crawled out of the bosom of a grim whore / From a lost, damned hole in the Caribbean / No title, no means, no merits / In the end still a hero and a seeker?)
These are the first words from “Alexander Hamilton,” the music’s opening song, which introduces the title character while describing his humble upbringing. The challenge here was to maintain the original lyrical direction without exaggerating the case or insulting the West Indies. The original German lyric poems referred to Hamilton as “Bastardblag,” an ambiguous word meaning illegitimate brat, to his mother as “Hure,” meaning whore, and to Hamilton’s islands of upbringing as “verdreckten,” meaning filthy. Miranda thought those words went too far, and asked to call her back. “It was almost Trumpian,” he said, referring to the first draft Rough phrase ex-president Used to refer to Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries. “For me that is not the intent of the lyric. I have never wanted to comment on Nevis or St. Croix. This was just a very small part of the world. This is an example of something that could easily get lost in translation if you weren’t using it.”
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Quoted from rap songs
burr: Ah, you debated me/I’m a trust fund, baby, you can trust me.
burr: Schiess mich über’n Haufen, doch/Du bist’n Babe, ich möcht’ dein Badewasser saufen.
(Down me but/you’re a baby, I’d like to drink your bath water.)
Hamilton’s original score includes a number of quotes from American hip-hop songs. Most were cut from the German version because the translations made them indistinguishable. But in an effort to achieve the same effect, translators inserted several quotes from German hip-hop songs into the German piece. In part of the song “The Schuyler Sisters”, when Aaron Burr flirts with Angelica Schuyler, translators find a place to insert a phrase meaning “You’re a child, I’d like to drink your bath water” from the 1995 German songJa Clar‘, which was a hit for Sabrina Setlor, played by Schuester S. Miranda, who listened to every German song that was quoted before agreeing to the quotes, and said he views ‘Hamilton’ as a love letter to hip-hop, as well as being a musical. theater, and he considers hip hop quotes an entry point for some audience. “A hip-hop fan who comes in, perhaps, with his arms crossed, hears those signals and says ‘Well, the person who wrote this obviously loves this culture and loves the music,'” he said. “And so we wanted to continue the opposite.”
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Angelica: So this is the feeling of aligning with IQ/with someone at your level! What interest? / It’s The Feeling Of Freedom, Seeing The Light / It’s Ben Franklin With A Key And A Kite / Do You See It Right?
Angelica: So kribbeln Schmetterlinge, wenn sie starten / Wir beide voll auf einem Level, offene Karten! / Das Herz in den Wolken, ich flieg ‘aus der Bahn / Die Füße kommen an den Boden nich’ run / Mein Lieber Schwan!
(So the butterflies tremble when they take off / We’re on the same level, all cards are on the table! / My heart is in the clouds, I’ve been thrown off the track / My feet don’t touch the ground / My dear swan!)
The original language is full of untranslatable American metaphors and expressions. So the translators were given a license to come up with their own roles in the phrases. This example is from the song “Satisfied,” where Angelica Schuyler prepares to toast Hamilton’s marriage to her sister, and remembers the first time she met him. The images are very different (and references to Ben Franklin have disappeared) but the meaning remains. “This section looks great, and feels the same as falling in love for the first time,” Miranda said. “The metaphor may be different, but it maintains its power.”
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Elisa: You’ve lost all the rights to my heart / You’ve lost the place in our bed / You sleep in your office instead / With only memories / When you were mine / I wish you would burn
Elisa: Du nahmst dir das recht auf mein Herz / Den Platz hier in unserem Bett / Ich lösch unser leben komplett / Dir bleibt nur die Asche / Du warst einmal mein / Ich hoffe du brennst
(You took the right to my heart from yourself / The place here in our bed / I completely erase our lives / All you have left is ashes / You used to be mine once / I wish you would burn)
There were many moments when Miranda et al. German translators were allowed to bend the original meaning in order to preserve the lyric and melody. But there were other moments when they insisted on literalism, and the end of “Burn,” in which Elisa Hamilton expresses her anger at her husband’s infidelity, was one of them. Translators initially sought to have Elisa repeat “brenn’n,” an abbreviated form of “burn,” throughout the song. But that means changing the last line of the song from the words “I hope you burn” to words meaning “All this will burn.” Miranda rejected this idea, insisting that Elisa direct her anger at her husband. The song now ends with “brennst,” which isn’t quite an echo of the word previously used in the song, but it maintains the original meaning: “You’re burning.” “I really just wanted to make sure the last line was personal: ‘It’s not about the world – it’s about you. “That’s what you did, and these are your consequences,” Miranda said.
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Hamilton: Teach me how to say goodbye / Get up, get up, get up / Eliza
Hamilton: Weitergeh’n und Abschied nehm’n / Frei Sein, Frei Sein, Frei Sein / Eliza
(Go ahead and say goodbye / Be free, be free, be free / Elisa)
In the show’s penultimate song, “The World Was Wide Enough,” Hamilton dies. As that moment approaches, he repeats the phrase “rise” perhaps in reference to ambition, revolution, or perseverance, and depicts his wife. German translators initially proposed a lyric poem that preserved the inner rhyme of the lyric, but changed its meaning, using the word “leise” meaning softly, which beautifully mimics the name “Elisa” to replace “Rise up”. But choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler objected, because the movement at that moment made the band more active – “rising up” more than “quietly” – and he felt it was important to maintain the relationship between words and movement. The translators went back to the drawing board, and came up with something less poetic but more protective of dance fears. “The complicating factor is that Andy choreographs the vocals, so when the words under the movement change, what adjustments have to happen?” Miranda said. “I try to keep those in touch.”
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Hamilton: America, you wonderful unfinished symphony, you sent it for me
Hamilton: America, durch deine Brust pumpt Sklavenblut, Moral und Wut.
(America, through your breasts spills slave blood, morals and anger.)
German translators saw an opportunity to fill in a reference to America’s turbulent history with slavery. “Our version is kind of a German perspective on America,” said Kevin Schroeder, one of the translators. “It says ‘an incomplete symphony,’ and that also indicates that there are some flaws.”
Audio production by Arjen Mensinga and Josephine Sedgwick.