The Art of Translating Hamilton into German: “So Kribbeln Schmetterlinge, Wenn Sie Starten”

The city of Hamburg’s nick­name is Tor zur Welt- the gate­way to the world.

If the Ger­man lan­guage pro­duc­tion of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s record break­ing hiphop musi­cal now in pre­views in that city’s St. Pauli The­ater is as warm­ly received as the Eng­lish orig­i­nal has been in Lon­don, Mel­bourne, and, of course, the US, it may earn itself with an addi­tion­al one — Hamil­ton­burg.

Excite­ment has been build­ing since ear­ly sum­mer, when a dual lan­guage video mashup of the open­ing num­ber placed the orig­i­nal Broad­way cast along­side their Ger­man lan­guage coun­ter­parts.

One need not speak Ger­man to appre­ci­ate the sim­i­lar­i­ties in atti­tude — in both per­for­mance, and inter­nal asso­nances, a lyri­cal aspect of hip hop that Miran­da was intent on pre­serv­ing.

Trans­la­tor Kevin Schroed­er quipped that he and co-trans­la­tor rap­per Sera Finale embraced the mot­to “as free as nec­es­sary, as close as pos­si­ble” in approach­ing the score, which at 46 num­bers and over 20,000 words, more than dou­bles the word count of any oth­er musi­cal:

At least we had all these syl­la­bles. It gave us room to play around.

Good thing, as the Ger­man lan­guage abounds with mul­ti­syl­lab­ic com­pound nouns, many of which have no direct Eng­lish equiv­a­lent.

Take schaden­freude which the cre­ators of the musi­cal Avenue Q summed up as “hap­pi­ness at the mis­for­tune of oth­ers.”

Or torschlusspanik — the sense of urgency to achieve or do some­thing before it’s too late.

Might that one speak to a trans­lat­ing team who’ve devot­ed close to four years of their lives to get­ting every­thing — words, syl­la­bles, meter, sound, flow, posi­tion, musi­cal­i­ty, mean­ing, and dou­ble mean­ings — right?

Before Schroed­er and Finale were entrust­ed with this her­culean task, they had to pass muster with Miranda’s wife’s Aus­tri­an cousin, who lis­tened to their sam­ples and pro­nounced them in keep­ing with the spir­it of the orig­i­nal.

As trans­la­tors have always done, Schroed­er and Finale had to take their audi­ence into account, swap­ping out ref­er­ences, metaphors and turns of phrase that could stump Ger­man the­ater­go­ers for ones with proven region­al res­o­nance.

In a round up demon­strat­ing the Ger­man team’s dex­ter­i­ty, the New York Times Michael Paul­son points to “Sat­is­fied,” a song where­in Hamilton’s prospec­tive sis­ter-in-law recalls their first encounter:


So this is what it feels like to match wits

With some­one at your lev­el! What the hell is the catch?

It’s the feel­ing of free­dom, of see­ing the light

It’s Ben Franklin with a key and a kite

You see it right?



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’ ran

Mein lieber Schwan!



So that’s how but­ter­flies tin­gle when they take off

We’re on the same lev­el, all cards on the table!

My heart in the clouds, I’m thrown off track

My feet don’t touch the floor

My dear swan!

Miran­da, who par­tic­i­pat­ed in shap­ing the Ger­man trans­la­tion using a 3 col­umn sys­tem remark­ably sim­i­lar to the com­pare and con­trast con­tent above, gives this change a glow­ing review:

That sec­tion sounds fan­tas­tic, and gives the same feel­ing of falling in love for the first time. The metaphor may be dif­fer­ent, but it keeps its propul­sive­ness.

And while few Ger­man the­ater­go­ers can be expect­ed to be con­ver­sant in Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War era Amer­i­can his­to­ry, Ger­many’s size­able immi­grant pop­u­la­tion ensures that cer­tain of the musical’s themes will retain their cul­tur­al rel­e­vance.

The Ham­burg pro­duc­tion fea­tures play­ers from Liberia and Brazil. Oth­er cast mem­bers were born in Ger­many to par­ents hail­ing from Ghana, the Philip­pines, Aru­ba, Benin, Suriname…and the Unit­ed States.

For more of Michael Paulson’s insights into the chal­lenges of trans­lat­ing Hamil­ton, click here.

Hamil­ton is in pre­views at Hamburg’s St. Pauli The­ater, with open­ing night sched­uled for Octo­ber 6.

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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