Hamilton auf Deutsch

The German cast of Hamilton

Translating always means approximating the meaning of the original text. That is especially the case for translating literary texts, where it’s not just a matter of finding equivalent meanings but also of conveying the feel and style of the original. When the texts are poetry that makes the process even more complicated, as there is a need to make decisions on issues like rhyme, alliteration, meter, rhythm, etc. Then there is the cultural component. Literary texts are embedded in socio-historical contexts, which may be familiar to the intended readers of the original. Translators need to determine whether to simply convey the cultural context as in the original or add or explain so that it is understandable to the readers of the translation. Then there is humor and word play. Music complicates further, as the translated language must fit in to the time constraints built into song lyrics.

Translating the celebrated musical Hamilton into another language has all those complications and more. The story told in the musical is deeply enmeshed in the history and mythology of the founding of the United States. The story and the central figures in it are well known to anyone who has attended schools in the US. For those not having that background, the dynamics of the exchanges among characters in the musical, taken from historical accounts, will be unfamiliar. Then there is the kind of music in Hamilton, namely hip-hop or rap. While that style of music originated in the US, it has spread across the world, so the musical form will likely be familiar, at least to young theater goers. However, in the US, the cultural context of rap is tied closely to African-Americans and that is reflected in the musical, at least in its original stage version and movie, in which the main characters are Black.

So, translating Hamilton into German was no easy task, as pointed out in a recent piece in the New York Times: “Hamilton is a mouthful, even in English. Forty-seven songs; more than 20,000 words; fast-paced lyrics, abundant wordplay, complex rhyming patterns, plus allusions not only to hip-hop and musical theater but also to arcane aspects of early American history.” It wasn’t just the challenge of keeping the musical character as close as possible to the original, it was also the problem linguistically of going from English to German, as the piece states, “a language characterized by multisyllabic compound nouns and sentences that often end with verbs”. Translations from English to German often end up being considerably longer than the original. That was going to be a problem here. So, the translators had to be flexible and creative, finding ways to keep the wordage down, while maintaining the essentials of the content and including as many of the artistic effects in the lyrics as possible. The latter included the internal rhyming that is characteristic of rapping and is used extensively in Hamilton. The translators were able to work with the musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who monitored the translations to make sure the lyrics in German fit the spirit of the original. The New York Times article and a piece in National Public Radio provide examples of the wording in German. The clip below shows the results.

The German Hamilton started playing this month in Hamburg; it will be interesting to see how German theater goers react. One of the interesting aspects of the German production is that the makeup of the cast mirrors that of the New York production, with actors of color playing the main roles. The fact that this was possible in Germany is a demonstration of the surprising diversity in contemporary Germany, with waves of immigration having significantly changed the homogeneity of the population there. In fact, many in the cast are immigrants, or the children of immigrants. Not all are German citizens, but they all speak fluent German, mostly as their first language. For my money, the songs sound very good (and natural!) in German.

Locker room talk

Locker_RoomThe infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording of Donald Trump on the set of a soap opera in which he boasted about using his celebrity to fondle and abuse women has been dismissed by Trump and his supporters as “locker room talk”. What does that mean? Apparently, the idea is that this is how men talk when they are among themselves, as they would be in a locker room, with the implication that this is meaningless boasting, not to be taken seriously. Many professional athletes, who have spent a lot of time talking in locker rooms, have expressed their disagreement with that perspective, claiming that comments about women are not the normal subject matter of the banter.

“Locker room talk” is apparently not an easy expression to translate into other languages, being a term with a lot of US cultural baggage. That was made clear to me as I as watching the German news recently, in which locker room was translated as “Umkleidekabine”, meaning a changing cubicle, normally a place where one would be by oneself, not a locale for communicating with others. “Locker room talk” was variously translated as “Männergerede [men talk] in der Umkleidekabine” or “Gequatsche, wie Männer es in der Umkleidekabine machen” [nonsensical talk, as men tend to use in changing booths]. What doesn’t come through in the German versions is the cultural connotation of male locker room culture. I’m curious about how locker room talk is being translated into other languages. Another term in that regard is “quip”, which is how vice-presidential candidate Pence described Trump’s comment during the last debate, that Clinton will be “in jail” if he is elected.

Texas in Norwegian

people-in-norway-are-using-texas-as-slang-for-cra-2-28065-1445536485-5_bigI’ve been familiar for some time with the small German-speaking community in Texas, centered around towns in the Texas Hill Country, particularly Fredericksburg and New Braunfels (home to a very nice German restaurant). Unfortunately, the Texasdeutsch dialect is dying out. The clip below describes the dialect – note the opening scene in the wonderfully named town of Weimar.

But apparently, Norwegians in Texas are doing fine, according to a recent article in The Guardian, about Clifton, the “Norwegian Capital of Texas”, although it’s not evident that the Norwegian language has survived there.

The piece was prompted by an article in Texas Monthly about the use of the word “texas” as an adjective in contemporary Norwegian, meaning crazy or wild. The article cites a number of articles illustrating the use of “texas” in spoken and written Norwegian. It most commonly appears in the expression, “det var helt texas”, describing something wild and chaotic. In a report from the BBC, the use of the word is traced back:

[The use of texas] became part of the language when Norwegians started watching cowboy movies and reading Western literature, according to Daniel Gusfre Ims, the head of the advisory service at the Language Council of Norway. ‘The genre was extremely popular in Norway, and a lot of it featured Texas, so the word became a symbol of something lawless and without control,’ he says.

Ims mentions in the interview that Texas is not the only US state that is used in this kind of metonymy (a thing or concept being called not by its own name, but by another name which is associated with it): “Norwegians also use the term ‘hawaii football’ to describe an ‘out-of-control’ match”.

The Guardian actually asked people in Clifton if they had heard of the “texas” adjective use in Norwegian – no one had.


waldInteresting story on NPR today on words that are difficult to translate into English because they express concepts for which we do not have an equivalent single word.  The list comes from a request at the Web site Maptia for readers to submit such examples.  The full list is presented nicely at 11 Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures.  The first example, from German, Waldeinsamkeit, meaning being alone in the woods is one familiar to me, as it was created by Romantic writer Ludwig Tieck in his story Der blonde Eckbert (1797).  German is likely to be one of the languages with the most such words as it’s characteristic of the langauge for speakers to create new compound nouns, which can be amazingly long.  One of the longest was in the news this summer, as it was officially “retired”, due to the fact that the law which referenced it was removed by the EU: Rindfleischetikettierungsuberwachungsaufgabenubertragungsgesetz (law delegating beef label monitoring).

Other nice words in the list:

  • Culaccino: The mark left on a table by a cold glass (Italian)
  • Iktsuarpok: The feeling of anticipation that leads you to go outside and check if anyone is coming (Inuit)
  • Pana PoʻO:  The act of scratching your head to try to remember something (Hawaiian)
  • Dépaysement:: The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country (French)
  • Sobremesa: The time spent after lunch or dinner, talking to the people you shared the meal with (Spanish)
  • Pochemuchka: Someone who asks a lot of questions (Russian)



Texas German & Nietzsche’s Sister

TexGer0120Logo2Interesting examples of code-switching (German mixed with English, like the combination of German was and English whatever) in a NPR story today about Texas German, a variety of the language still spoken by several thousand Texans living around the town of New Braunfels, between Austin and San Antonio. It’s one of only a few areas in the U.S. where there are still German-speaking communities.  Best known are the Amish communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  As mentioned in the story, one of the unusual aspects of Texas German is the fact that it is based not just on one or several dialects but on a relatively large number.  Also of interest are the words from the “new world” that were invented and imported into Texas German.  Skunks are not known in Germany, so the Texas German came up with Stinkkatze (smelly cat, in standard German Stinktier).

The story calls to mind a recent NY Times article also about German in the Americas, in this case about a German colony in Paraguay, Nueva Germania, founded in 1887 by German anti-Semites, including the sister of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  This is the same sister, Elisabeth, responsible for distorting her brother’s ideas to make them much more anti-Semitic.  According to the article, the town of Nueva Germania today is a model of multilingualism, far removed from Elisabeth’s vision of an Aryan stronghold:

While there are still a few blond-haired children running around, after generations of intermarriage, many of the town’s 4,300 residents have German surnames but are indiscernible from other Paraguayans. Nueva Germania’s dominant language is Guaraní, the indigenous language widely spoken in Paraguay; even those families who still hew to old ways, speaking German at home, mix it with high-pitched, nasal Guaraní and some Spanish.

Describing a towering tree in the yard of her farm with few branches around its trunk, making it daunting to climb, Ms. Fischer, the descendant of Nueva Germania’s pioneers, called it simply “ka’i kyhyjeha,” an indigenous term roughly translating as “monkey’s fear.” “Guaraní and German are so different from each other,” she said, “but they mix well for us.”

What a horror for Elisabeth Nietzsche, German mixing well with an indigenous language!


German rock


Dieter’s dance party on Sprockets

Story today on NPR about German pop singer Herbert Grönemeyer, one of the more popular singers in Germany in recent years.  He has a new album in which he sings some of his best known songs in English.  This has always been a dilemma for German singers, whether to record in English, so as to reach a larger audience.  Even within Germany there have been periods when radio stations would be more likely to grant air play to German singers if they sang in English, as the overwhelming number of songs played were in English, building that expectation for listeners.  Of course this has been in issue in rock music not only in Germany but for all rock singers whose native language is not English.  Interestingly, hip-hop, has gone mostly native in non-English cultures, as can be heard in popular German, French, Turkish, etc. hip-hop groups.

Predictably in the NPR interview, Grönemeyer had to address the perennial question from the US when it comes to popular artists in Germany:  what about David Hasselhoff,.  American journalists may know very little about contemporary German music, but they do know that David Hasselhoff has been very popular in Germany, not just for Bay Watch, but for his singing, hard for Americans to understand.  Scott Simon in the interview also brings up the old stereotype chestnut that in Germany there is “taste for some of the darker material than we do in this country or they do in the U.K.”  You need only consider the popular SNL skit Sprockets, in which Mike Myers played the very dark and eccentric Dieter (“Touch my monkey!”) to see this idea perpetuated.

“Public viewing”?

German or English?

Watching the German television news yesterday (Tagesthemen), it struck me that the use of English words stuck into the middle of German sentences is getting worse and worse.  The first was a reference in the broadcast to “der zweitgrößte airport” in Bulgaria  (second-largest), the second to a “Stasi connection“.  It’s not that there aren’t perfectly good and normal German words for airport (Flughafen) and connection (Verbindung) – it’s just that the English equivalents are used instead.  For me, the most perplexing aspect of this is that you will hear broadcasts in which an Angliscism such as “airport” will be used, then a few minutes later, the same presenter will use “Flughafen” instead – where is the vaunted German consistency?  If German TV execs like English so much, how about using subtitles rather than dubbing for the many instances in which interviewees speak English?  Or how about going further and, as is done in other European countries, subtitling all English language movies and TV programs?

It isn’t only on TV that this kind of strange and jarring code-switching goes on in Germany.  It’s particularly prevalent in advertising, where it’s maybe more understandable – use of (mostly American) English phrases gives the impression that the company or product is up-to-date.  It’s not surprising either that many Anglicisms show up in German hip-hop music.  I suppose it’s done on the news for the same reason, but I find it very annoying.  I imagine many native English speakers feel the same.

Particularly distressing are the English terms that either don’t exist in English or have a different meaning.  The German for cell phone – Handy – comes to mind as an example of the first and a term heard frequently during the recent European soccer championship – public viewing – for the second.  The phrase when used in Germany refers to an outdoor big screen set up to watch live TV (usually sports).  It’s not just nouns.  Here are some “German” verbs:  downloaden, leaken, trampen (hitchhike).  Of course, other languages import English expressions as well, especially technology terms, but I can’t imagine any others do it to the extent it’s done in German. It’s so common that there is a widely accepted word for the practice:  Denglish (Deutsch + English).  Are there reasons Germans do this more than any other culture?  Is it a sense of linguistic inferiority?