in Language & Culture, Localization Tips, Translation

For more than a millennium, Chinese people have enjoyed one of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world: Chinese Opera. But Western influence has steadily crept in over the last three decades and Chinese people are slowly embracing a new performing art: Broadway musicals.

Broadway Musicals

Elizabeth Barkas, a native of Massillon, Ohio, is one of a few musical enthusiasts who has helped introduce Broadway Musicals for Chinese Students. She has been teaching English at Beijing National Day School for more than 4 years, and a year ago, she had the opportunity to share her passion for theatre with her students.

“Last year, our musical director came up with a plan to stage Fiddler on the Roof and pitched the idea to our school,” she recalled. “The local teachers were really excited and eager to be involved in such a ground breaking project.”

But because Broadway musicals are such a completely new concept for the students, getting the project off the ground was not easy.  One of the biggest challenges was that the story and the setting of Fiddler on the Roof were so foreign to Chinese audiences.

“We wanted to introduce this show to China without compromising the musical,” Barkas said. “To make it easier to understand, we included a guide in the program that explained some of the vocabulary from the script as well as some of the themes that were connected to that culture.”

Staging a musical for a foreign audience requires cultural sensitivity. On an industrial scale, the business of exporting musicals often involves translating the dialogue and lyrics into the local language, therefore directors must face tricky decisions when it comes to conveying humor or using pop-culture references.

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In Disney’s “The Lion King,” for example, Zazu the bird is supposed to sing a cheerful but trite tune. But on Broadway, that song is “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”; in Australia, it’s the country’s familiar “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”; in Shanghai, it’s a famous Chinese ad jingle and in Germany, the bird sings the “Heidi” theme song.

Although considering the cultural background of your audience is important, Barkas and her crew won’t go as far as to change the lyrics of the songs in their next musical Beauty and the Beast, which is scheduled for April. Show director Stephanie Anderson said,” We’re not changing the script at all. We want to stay true to it and avoid potential cheese, but we may use chopsticks in certain scenes. And, of course, we’ll have translations on either side of the stage so everyone can enjoy it.”

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