Hamilton in Hamburg.

Michael Paulson reports for the Times (or, if you report for the paper, The Times; archived link) on the upcoming German production of Hamilton — amazingly, “the first production of the juggernaut musical in a language other than English.” The process of translation was, of course, complex:

For “Hamilton,” Stage Entertainment executives invited translators to apply for the job by sending in sample songs, and then, not satisfied with any of the submissions, asked two of the applicants who had never met one another to collaborate. One of them, Kevin Schroeder, was a veteran musical theater translator whose proposal was clear but cautious; the other was Sera Finale, a rapper-turned-songwriter whose proposal was imaginative but imprecise.

“Kevin was like the kindergarten teacher, and I was that child who wanted to run in every direction and be punky,” said Finale, who hadn’t been to the theater since seeing “Peter Pan” as a child and had to look up “Hamilton” on Wikipedia. “If you have an open mic in Kreuzberg,” he said, referring to a hip Berlin neighborhood, “and you’re standing there with a blunt, normally you don’t go to a musical later in the night.”

Both of them were wary of working together. “I thought, ‘What does he know?’” Schroeder said. “And he thought, ‘I’ll show this musical theater guy.’”

But they gave it a go. They wrote three songs together, and then flew to New York to pitch them to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics for “Hamilton.” Miranda can curse and coo in German (his wife is half Austrian), but that’s about it; he surprised the would-be translators by showing up for their meeting with his wife’s Austrian cousin.

“Lin is a smart guy,” Finale said, joking that the presence of the cousin ensured “that I don’t rap cooking recipes or the telephone book.”

Miranda had been on the other side once — he translated some of the lyrics of “West Side Story” into Spanish for a 2009 Broadway revival — and he remembered observing how that show’s lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, listened for the sounds of the Spanish words. Miranda applied that experience to the German “Hamilton.”

“I’m going to feel the internal rhyme, or lack of internal rhyme, of which there is a lot in this show, and so it’s important to me whenever that can be maintained without losing comprehensibility,” Miranda said. “That’s part of what makes hip-hop so much fun, are the internal assonances of it, and they did an incredible job of maintaining that.”

Once Finale and Schroeder got the job, the process was painstaking, reflecting not only the complexity of the original language but also the fact that the show is almost entirely sung-through, meaning there is very little of the spoken dialogue that is generally easier to translate, because it is unconstrained by melody. They tried divvying up the songs and writing separately, but didn’t like the results, so instead they spent a half year sitting across from one another at the kitchen table in Finale’s Berlin apartment, debating ideas until both were satisfied. They would send Miranda and his team proposed German lyrics as well as a literal translation back into English, allowing Miranda to understand how their proposal differed from his original.

Kurt Crowley, an original member of “Hamilton” music team — he was an associate conductor and then the Broadway music director — became the point person for the project. He developed a multicolored spreadsheet tracking the feedback process; not only that, but he set about learning German, first from apps, and then with a tutor.

“A lot of the coaching and music direction I do has to do with the language,” he said. “I couldn’t think of any other way to do my job besides knowing exactly what they were saying.”

In some ways, the wordiness of “Hamilton” proved advantageous. “At least we had all these syllables,” Schroeder said. “It gave us room to play around.” […]

There were so many variables to consider. Finale ticked off a list: words, syllables, meter, sound, flow and position. They needed to preserve the essential meaning of each element of the show, but also elide some of the more arcane details, and they needed to echo the musicality of the language.

Figures of speech and wordplay rarely survive translation, but Miranda encouraged the translators to come up with their own metaphors. One example that Finale is proud of concerns Hamilton’s fixation on mortality. In English, he says “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.” In German, he will say words meaning, “Every day death is writing between the lines of my diary.”

There were easy pleasures: The youngest Schuyler sister’s signature line, “And Peggy,” translated readily to “Und Peggy.” But for the eldest Schuyler sister, lyrics got more complicated: In “Satisfied,” a rapid-fire song set at Hamilton’s wedding, “I feel like there’s a thousand extra words they added to it,” said Chasity Crisp, the actress playing Angelica. “I’m still trying to learn how to breathe in the number. It’s incredibly fast. But there’s no other way you can do it — otherwise you wouldn’t be telling the story right.”

A few English phrases — well-known to fans, repeated often, and easy to understand — remain, including a reference to New York as “the greatest city in the world,” as do some English titles and American name pronunciations.

But most of the quotes from American musicals and rap songs are gone; in their place are references to the German hip-hop scene, including a description of Hamilton and his friends as “die fantasticschen Vier,” which means “the fantastic four” but is also the name of a band from Stuttgart, plus a moment when Burr says to Angelica, “You are a babe — I’d like to drink your bath water,” which is a line in a classic German rap song. […]

The principal cast members are all fluent in German, and many of them were skeptical that the translation could be done effectively. “At the beginning I was afraid that they won’t get the essence of what ‘Hamilton’ is — that they wouldn’t get these little nuances, the play on words and the intelligence of it all,” Crisp said.

Fans were worried too, and weighed in on social media. “People are skeptical when something really cool is being put into German,” said Ivy Quainoo, the actress playing Eliza. “Hamilton has all these New York rap references, and this East Coast swagger — how is this going to translate?”

Photos, examples, and plenty of anecdotes at the link; I was struck by the variety of immigrants in the cast. Thanks, Bonnie and Sven!


  1. Ivy Quainoo is German, born to parents from Ghana. DE, do you know anything about the surname (and the usage of the given name Ivy among Ghanaian Germans)?

  2. PlasticPaddy says

    Umuofia Kwenu!!!! (Long Live Umuofia!) – Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
    There is an igbo community in ghana…

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    All the Quainoos whose origins I can establish from the Intertubes go back to Ghana, and specifically to the (mostly) Akan-speaking south. (The most famous one in Ghana itself is probably the erstwhile general, Arnold Quainoo.) I don’t know what the origin of the name is (definitely not Igbo …) It can’t be Twi, but I think it could be Fante. The commonest spelling seems to be Kweenu.

    Ivy is a common enough name in Ghana itself. Quite a few names remain popular there that have fallen out of current favour in the UK.

  4. I was mildly surprised by Ghanaians having a kid in Germany and giving her an English name. Is Ivy fully indigenized in Ghana, with no particular connotations of sophistication?

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    I think it’s not so much sophistication exactly as acculturation; English given names are (unsurprisingly) commoner among groups like the Fante that were overrun earliest by the Brits. Ashanti seem to prefer to go by Akan names.

    The longest-conquered bits of Ghana also tend to be where most of the sort of people who had the resources to get to Europe originated, partly because they are richer, but also because of longer-established educational institutions (often the outcome of missions, again leading to the liberal bestowing of “Christian” names.)

    The Kusaasi (at the other end of Ghana, and conquered by the Brits only in 1904) traditionally only have a single Kusaal given name (as with the Mossi, everyone knows what clan they belong to, but, unlike the Mossi, the Kusaasl don’t use clan names like surnames.) However, in modern English-or-French-speaking official contexts, Kusaasi use an English or French name (baptismal if they are Christian, but otherwise picked just because they like it) as a personal name, and write their real names as surnames. (There are comparatively few Muslims, but they naturally enough use standard Arabic personal names.) In traditional culture, personal names are much more mutable than in modern western Europe; it’s quite usual for the same person to go by different names in different contexts. The names used in interacting with Europeans may well not be names people use much in real life; and, contrariwise, someone who interacts a lot with Europeans may find it convenient to adopt a European name for the purpose.

    I’ve known at least one Nigerian in the UK who decided that they wanted to be known by an Igbo name rather than the English name they’d always gone by before, I presume for ideological reasons. Ghanaians seem to be more relaxed about such issues.

  6. My thought is, an American would name their daughter Colette if they wanted a fancy-sounding name, but might be less likely to do so if they are expats living in, say, Berlin. On the other hand, Michelle is acculturated enough in America that it is no longer thought of as French/fancy.

    So I am wondering whether to (urban?) Ghanaians Ivy is like Michelle to an American, not so much like Colette.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Michelle rather than Colette, I think.

  8. Now I remembered why the name rang a bell – Ivy Quainoo charted in Germany with this neo-soul number about 10 years ago after winning a talent show. After that, she didn’t have any hits, as far as I can remember.

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