Gen Parton-Shin sent me the two videos below of songs from “Hamilton” — “My Shot” and “Helpless” — that he translated into Japanese. I had questions. He answered them.
Shin-Parton, who also goes by Gen Shin and Jamie Parton, is an actor and singer who has performed in both Japan and the United States. Although he has lived in New York City since 2011, during the pandemic he is “currently stuck in Japan,” where he grew up from the age of 10. Before that, he lived in England, the son of a Korean-Japanese mother who was studying linguistics at University College London. (As you’ll see below, that clearly rubbed off on him.). His resume is full of Broadway shows that he performed in Japan – “Next to Normal,” “Rent,” “The Last Five Years,” “The Rocky Horror Show” — but not “Hamilton,” because there hasn’t been a Japanese production of it. “The word in Japan is that Hamilton is impossible to translate.”
Are you going to translate more of “Hamilton”?
I spent the last year and a half translating all of Act 1, and half of Act 2, mostly because I wanted to hear what it would sound like. It’s been an eye-opening experience in pushing the possibilities of translating while maintaining the rhyme scheme, which requires broader interpretations for certain lines, so it breaks traditional translating convention.
What will you do with your translation?
No plans yet. Obviously the hope is that it will be used for the official production, but there is no word whether that will happen any time soon, especially with the pandemic ravaging.
When did you first come into contact with the musical and how did you initially react?
My first exposure was the Broadway show with the original cast. I resisted listening to the sound track beforehand because I wanted to experience it for the first time live, then I got deeply hooked onto the sound track, and was lucky enough to watch it for a second time on Broadway, this time with full knowledge of the show. I liked it so much that I even wrote an article describing to the Japanese audience the cultural significance behind the show’s colorblind* casting, and the impact the show has had as a piece of modern American theater.
Why do you think a Japanese audience in general would respond to Hamilton? How well-versed are they in American history? Are there parallels with Japanese history?
That gets asked a lot, and truthfully, I think the heart of the show is a story about human relations and drama, just like Les Mis, with a backdrop of history, so I think there’s a high chance of success.
Japanese history is abundant with its share of political drama, so I’m sure a parallel could be drawn, although I’m not well versed enough in Japanese history to give you specific examples…
What about the appeal of the music? I had read that hip hop was big in Japan. Is that still the case?
Yes! The Japanese hip hop scene is huge! I think Japanese rappers are getting better too. If you listen to rap from the 90s or early 2000s they typically rhymed one or two syllables at the end of a sentence, but nowadays you have multiple parallel rhymes happening in the lyrics. It’s definitely an upgrade.There’s also a pretty big freestyle rap battle scene.
Why did you set out to translate Hamilton into Japanese?
It was sort of an experiment. I started out my career as a musical theatre actor in Japan, and was exposed to various Japanese translations of English shows that I had worked on, and I always thought that a lot of the nuances and intentions were lost in translation, because the focus appeared to be on making the translations as direct as possible.
This seemed to be enforced from the English creative side also, where they would check the Japanese translation by having it be retranslated back into English, line-by-line, and correct anything that they thought was inaccurate.
But in doing so, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for creativity in the process of translating. Japanese people are very good at following rules, and are very respectful people, so with “borrowed material” such as a foreign show, I doubt many spoke up or made a case about broadening interpretations for the sake of making lyrics more lyrical to Japanese listeners’ ears, or reinterpreting words to local phrases and colloquialisms that are much easier to digest, and thus have a bigger emotional impact.
At the end of the day, the goal should be to recreate the emotional impact of a show, and hyper-focusing on meaning can often sacrifice the intention of a line or lyric, which in my mind is more important (and probably what the writers would have wanted to be conveyed in the first place). Words should be a means to an end, but I assume often creative teams on both sides aren’t aware of that pitfall because they don’t speak both languages and cannot compare the end products.
With regards to Hamilton, the word is that the show is impossible to translate. There was even a top theatrical producer on Twitter publicly tweeting that. With conventional methods, given the lyrical, rhythmical and rhyming limitations, I would agree. So I figured I could take more of a macro approach and get creative with it, especially since nobody in Japan was touching it.
Can you illustrate the point you just made going step by step with a lyric from “Hamilton” — the lyric in English, then how you translated into Japanese and why?
I’ve never explained this in writing before, so here goes.
In My Shot, there is the following line by Burr.
ORIGINAL: “Geniuses, lower your voices. You keep out of trouble and you double your choices. I’m with you. But the situation is fraught. You’ve got to be carefully taught: if you talk you’re gonna get shot!”
TRANSLATION: “Dummies, lower your voices. What I am after has always been the same as you guys. I want to live without regrets. If you’re not careful, if it’s long, the nail will get hit (=shot)!.”
PHONETICALLY: “obakatachi koe-o-sagete. Mezashiteru mono wa oremo kanete onaji, kui naku ikitai. Ki o tsukenaito nagaito deru kui utareruzo”
Let’s break this down.
ORIGINAL: Geniuses, lower you voices
TRANSLATION: Dummies, lower you voices
JAPANESE: おバカたち 声を下げて
PHONETICALLY: obakatachi, koe-o-sagete
“Geniuses” is translated to “dummies (obakatachi= a cute way of saying idiots) because sarcasm is not a strong part of Japanese culture, so saying it directly avoids the audience thinking Burr is literally referring to them as geniuses.
Sagete, means “to lower” but it comes after koe (voices) because Japanese has a different word order from English. So the word being set up for the rhyme in Japanese is the request form of the verb “lower”(ie please lower), and not “voices” as in the English version.
ORIGINAL: You keep out of trouble and you double your choices, I’m with you
TRANSLATION: What I am after has always been the same (as you guys)
PHONETICALLY: mezashiteru mono wa ore mo kanete onaji
So in order to rhyme “Sagete (please lower)”, I used “Kanete (always have been).”
I interpreted Burr’s line as saying to the other four that he has always aspired to the same things as they have, but just believes in a different approach.
Given the limitations, and the fact that Burr is saying lines that essentially mean YOU NEED TO BE CAREFUL three times in the following lyrics (“You keep out of trouble/ situation is fraught /you’ve got to be carefully taught), I decided I would do without that meaning in this particular section. It was more important to emphasize “I’m with you.”
The “mo”, is like “too,” which implies “as you guys,” which is why it’s in brackets above, since it’s implied but not said.
ORIGINAL: But the situation is fraught
TRANSLATION: I want to live without regrets
PHONETICALLY: Kui naku ikitai
I thought the most important thing to convey here was the fact that Burr is a person who makes safe choices.
I don’t want to mess this up BECAUSE the situation is fraught; if I do, I will regret it. Therefore, “I want to live without regrets.” Also, take note he is saying “I want to live without regrets”, not “I don’t want to live with regrets.” I liked this nuance because it implies he steps out of the way of potential failure at the mere sight of it.
Then, this allows me to set up the rhyme scheme for “Kui” which means “regret”, but also “nail” which connects to the next phrase…
ORIGINAL: You’ve got to be carefully taught if you talk you’re gonna get shot!
TRANSLATION: If you’re not careful, if it’s long, the nail will get hit (=shot)!
PHONETICALLY: ki o tsukenaito nagaito derukui utareruzo
For musical theatre lovers, you’d probably notice the South Pacific reference “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” I gave up on translating that fairly quickly because the common knowledge of those lyrics simply does not exist in Japanese.
However, in place of that I pulled from a Japanese idiom that is ingrained in the Japanese psyche, “出る杭は打たれる (Deru kui wa utareru)”, which means “The nail that sticks out gets hit (on the head by the hammer)”. This idiom encapsulates the conformist side of Japanese culture, and the listener would immediately “get” what Burr is about. He doesn’t want to stick out. He wants to play it safe.
On a lyrical/rhyming level, there’s an added bonus where the word Utareru can mean two things: to get hit and to get shot, depending on which kanji (Chinese character) is used. So we have a pun here where the idiom is tied in, but the original “gonna get shot” is also reflected. On top of that, Kui can mean both “regret” and “nail”, so there’s that pun happening too. The “zo” at the end that lands where “shot” is in English, is a primarily masculine sentence-ending particle connected to the above two verbs “hit” and “shot”, that is used when you are expressing strong intent or a warning. So it’s like he’s saying you’ll get “hit” if you were a nail, and “shot” if you were a person, in the same sentence, depending on where you read it from.
Lastly, “naito (if you’re not)” and “nagaito (if it’s long)” rhyme.
I hope that made sense!!
With all of that said, please keep in mind, because Japanese does not have as many diphthongs and compound consonants as English, the amount of information that can be packed in the same amount of space is less. I’d say we’re dealing with three-fourths the bandwidth. This is why I find the meaning of words need to be compressed as tightly as possible, with freedom given to reinterpret phrases in a way that honors the overall intent, especially if the objective is also to have the rhyme scheme be maintained.
*Most refer to Hamilton’s casting as color-conscious, rather than colorblind