By: Sep. 28, 2019


in a new German Translation by Robin Kulisch.
A Sondheim show is always a good idea, maybe as good as a Sunday in the park. The Landesbühnen Sachsen wrapped a special gift for one of the greatest composers/lyricists of musical history. His Sunday in the Park with George is ready to open with a brand new German translation.
Robin Kulisch, a well-known writer/ translator is the so-called chosen one, to paint Sondheim's masterpiece in german. We talked with him about his work and how it is, to work with Sondheim's lyrics.

BWW:Sunday in the Park with George at the Landesbühnen Sachsen with a new german Translation is close to Opening Night. Who came up with the idea for a new Translation?

Robin Kulisch: „Musik und Bühne", the publishing company representing the performance rights for SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE for the German territories, wanted to update the German translation. Which initially I did not know...
We had been in touch for quite a while about working together on some shows - and one day they sent me an email, asking me to do a test translation of a song, lyrics attached.
The song turned out to be „Finishing The Hat" from SUNDAY.
And frankly, my initial reaction was a bit... well, WTF?
A Sondheim song? As a „test"? And not just any Sondheim song - „Finishing The Hat"? From SUNDAY? The song that Sondheim himself chose as the title for his two-volume work retrospective? Well, sure...
So I was pretty reluctant at first. I mean, it's Sondheim after all, come on! But after a few days, ambition kicked in. Is it possible to translate that song? And even remotely do it justice? And - would I be able to do that?
So I started. And a few days (and numerous cups of coffee) later, I ended up with a German version that I felt might work. And wouldn't be an embarrassment when sent back to them. So I did. (Not without mentioning, though, that sending out that particular song as a „test" was quite... well, bold).
Their answer came a few days later: the song choice was (of course) very deliberate since they were looking for a new translation for the entire show. And my reaction to their email was proof to them that I was very much aware of what a task that would be.
So - they offered me to translate the entire show, contract attached.

BWW: Sondheim is well known for his copious lyrics. Some say it is impossible to translate a Sondheim Show. You took the task and you have done it. Tell us about your work process and how you got started?

RK: It certainly involves a lot of coffee! And a lot of trial and error, lots of notes, different versions and extensive re-writes.
After „Finishing The Hat" was done (which stayed in the show in the initial first version, by the way, except for two adjustments in the opening lines that are references to other songs in the show) there was still the rest of the book and score... 163 pages of James Lapine's brilliant dialogue - and Sondheim's lyrics.
So - no pressure, but...
Of course, no translation will ever be as good as the original. All you can do is try and get it right and do the show justice. Which always means finding the right balance between staying as true as possible to the original lyrics and tone of the show while sometimes finding the right compromise if something simply does not translate into German. At the same time, you have to keep the rhyme scheme intact (and there's a LOT of rhymes!) without making it sound forced - and keep everything „singable".
So you try a lot of different versions, play around with them, throw most of them away and start from scratch until you come up with a solution that works. It's a big (sometimes huge) puzzle really, that you slowly - bit by bit - start putting together.


BWW: Is it possible to work on something else, or do you need all the attention for the translation process?

RK: Well, the thing is that most of the time when you get hired to do a translation by a publishing company you don't get paid for the actual translation work.
You will receive a percentage in royalties when the show gets performed somewhere. But until then you work for free.
So as much as I would love to focus only on the translation I am working on, it's simply not possible.
Writing a show takes a long time. Years. And then translating that show into a whole different language always means respecting the time, work and effort the authors put into the piece in the first place.
Translating a show is difficult. And it takes a lot of time if you want to get it right. You have to dive into the show, into the characters, the music, the dialogue - every aspect of it - to get it right. And that takes time and focus. After all, your job is to stay true to the original work and at the same time to tell that story and to give those characters a new voice in a different language.

BWW: Some actors said that nothing compares to a Sondheim Show. After working with his material, what is your opinion on that?

RK: Sondheim is God.
There simply is no better lyricist than him. Nobody uses language as he does.
Every word is well-considered, the nuances in the language are beyond compare, the rhymes are clever and intricate and surprising (and did I mention there are a LOT of rhymes?) and nobody manages to characterize each and every role in the show not only through music but also through the choice of words and language like he does, all while constantly challenging and surprising the audience.
So, no. Nothing really compares to a Sondheim show.

BWW: You are in the theatre business for quite some time. You have worked with well-known directors/Artists, how do you see the german Musical market with all it's existing and upcoming productions? Apart from the Juke Box Musical Area, are there still, let us call them, good old, handmade Shows?

RK: I think the German musical theatre scene is thriving. There's a lot of new shows being produced, both from local and international talent. And there are a lot of talented people working here.
The perception is slowly changing that good musicals can only come from Broadway or the West End. Of course, there's still a long way to go but theatres here are getting a little more brave in selecting the shows they put on.
Of course, you still have a lot of the „usual suspects" (WEST SIDE STORY, MY FAIR LADY, CABARET, etc.) - but those are great shows after all. Yet theatres are getting a little more daring, slowly but steadily. SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE is a case in point there.
And also internationally there is an interesting development currently. If you look at Broadway, you have a lot of bio/jukebox shows and movie adaptations. But you also have a lot of rather surprising original shows suddenly finding well-deserved success. DEAR EVAN HANSEN, HAMILTON, but also THE BAND'S VISIT (although that is a movie adaptation as well, but from quite unusual source material) or this year's big Tony winner HADESTOWN... there are a lot of great, new shows that would have been the „underdogs" a few years ago that suddenly find major success.

And that will slowly also change the market here in Germany in the long run. People start realizing that this fantastic and exciting genre has more to offer than „just" a bunch of classics and the typical 90's mega-musicals.
There are a lot of great shows out there, a lot of great stories to tell and songs to sing - let's hope they will also find their way on a lot of stages in Germany soon!

BWW:Thank you for your time and let's have some coffee soon.

Sunday in the Park with George, in the new German translation by Robin Kulisch can be seen at the Landesbühnen Sachsen.