Meet the Hyperpolyglots, the People Who Can Mysteriously Speak Up to 32 Different Languages




Polyglot, as its Greek roots take no great pains to conceal, means the speaking of multiple languages. Somewhat less obvious is the meaning of the associated term hyperpolylot. “Coined two decades ago, by a British linguist, Richard Hudson, who was launching an Internet search for the world’s greatest language learner,” the New Yorker’s Judith Thurman writes, it refers not just to the speaking of multiple languages but the speaking of many languages. How many is “many”? “The accepted threshold is eleven,” which disqualifies even most of us avid language connoisseurs. But Vaughn Smith easily makes the cut.

You can meet this formidable hyperpolyglot in the Washington Post video above, which complements Jessica Contrera’s story in the paper. Smith grew up in D.C. speaking not just English but Spanish, his mother’s native language. On his father’s side of the family, distant cousins from Belgium expanded Smith’s linguistic worldview further still.


At 46 years of age, he now speaks just about as many languages, “with at least 24 he speaks well enough to carry on lengthy conversations. He can read and write in eight alphabets and scripts. He can tell stories in Italian and Finnish and American Sign Language. He’s teaching himself Indigenous languages, from Mexico’s Nahuatl. to Montana’s Salish. The quality of his accents in Dutch and Catalan dazzle people from the Netherlands and Spain.”

Unlike his fellow hyperpolyglot Ioannis Ikonomou, profiled in the Great Big Story video above, Smith is not a translator. Nor does he work as a linguist, a diplomat, or anything else you’d expect. “Vaughn has been a painter, a bouncer, a punk rock roadie and a Kombucha delivery man,” writes Contrera. “He was once a dog walker for the Czech art collector Meda Mládková, the widow of an International Monetary Fund governor,” which was “the closest he ever came to having a career that utilized his languages.” Having brought him most recently to the profession of carpet cleaning, Smith’s life resembles a beloved genre of American story: that of the undiscovered working-class genius, most popularly told by movies like Good Will Hunting. Contrera’s investigation adds a chapter in line with a major 21st-century trend in reportage: the brain activity-revealing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan.

Under the fMRI scanner, “Vaughn works through a series of tests, reading English words, watching blue squares move around and listening to languages, some he knows and some he doesn’t.” The results were surprising: “the parts of Vaughn’s brain used to comprehend language are far smaller and quieter than mine,” writes the monoglot Contrera. “Even when we are reading the same words in English, I am using more of my brain and working harder than he ever has to.” Perhaps “Vaughn was born with his language areas being smaller and more efficient”; perhaps “his brain started out like mine, but because he learned so many languages while it was still developing, his dedication transformed his anatomy.” Smith himself seems to have enjoyed the experience — not that it took his mind off a matter of great importance even to the less intensive language-learners: keeping his Duolingo streak intact.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Predator — A Discussion of the Film Franchise on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #133




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Thanks to the new film Prey by Dan Trachtenberg and Patrick Aison, we now have six films (starting with 1987’s Predator) featuring the dreadlocked, camouflaged, infrared-seeing race of alien hunters who have apparently been flying around collecting our skulls for 300 years.

Thankfully, the new film is good, and adds to the recent spate of Indigenous-centered media, with its young, female Comanche protagonist taking on evil French bison-killers, her sexist peers, and a mountain lion, in addition to a relatively low-tech version of what many comic books have called a Yautja.

We talk about what makes for a good Predator film, the appeal of the monster (and when in the films it gets revealed), the pacing of the films, the music, direction, effects, humor, social commentary, and more.

A few of the articles we consulted included:

This marks the first episode of Pretty Much Pop season three, where Mark Linsenmayer’s recurring co-hosts will by default tentatively be those you will hear today: Philosophy prof/entertainment writer Lawrence Ware, novelist/writing prof Sarahlyn Bruck, and ex-musician, ex-philosophy grad student, and now ex-research manager Al Baker. The various convocations of musicians, comedians, et al, will still happen too, but will at least alternate with some permutation of that core group.

Hear more Pretty Much Pop. Support the show and hear bonus talking for this and nearly every other episode at patreon.com/prettymuchpop or by choosing a paid subscription through Apple Podcasts. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

When Marlon Brando Refused the Oscar for His Role in The Godfather to Support the Rights of Native Americans (1973)




At the 45th Academy Awards, Marlon Brando won the Best Actor award for his performance in The Godfather — but sent a Native American civil rights activist named Sacheen Littlefeather to decline it on his behalf. “The twenty-six-year-old activist took the stage in a fringed buckskin dress and moccasins,” writes the New Yorker‘s Michael Schulman. “When she explained that Brando’s reasons for refusing the award were Hollywood’s mistreatment of Native Americans and the standoff in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, there were loud boos and scattered cheers.”

More seventies things have happened, but surely not many. With time, Schulman writes, “the whole thing cemented into a pop-culture punch line: preening actor, fake Indian” — the “crying Indian” environmental PSA had aired just a few years before — “kitschy Hollywood freak show. But what if it wasn’t that at all?”


Almost half a century later, this notable chapter in Oscars history has come back into the news in the wake of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ official apology to Littlefeather. It’s now more widely understood who Littlefeather is, and what Brando was going for when he made her his emissary that night in 1973.

Brando wasn’t especially hesitant to explain his actions even at the time: less than three months after the event, he laid out all his reasons on The Dick Cavett Show. “I don’t think that people generally realize what the motion picture industry has done to the American Indian,” he tells Cavett. “As a matter of fact, all ethnic groups.” He then runs down the “silly renditions of human behavior” delivered nightly on television, highlighting the phenomenon of “Indian children seeing Indians represented as savage, as ugly, as nasty, vicious, treacherous, drunken.”

Such clichéd portrayals were what Brando meant to address by speaking through Littlefeather. But the public’s immediate reaction, as Cavett puts it, went along the lines of, “There’s Brando jumping on a social-cause bandwagon now, getting in on the Indians.” They’d forgotten that the actor’s connection with Native American causes went back at least to 1964, when he was arrested at a Pacific Northwest “fish-in” by the Puyallup tribe protesting the denial of their treaty rights. And as Littlefeather’s fêting by the Academy shows, that connection has long survived even Brando himself.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Most Distant Places Visited by the Romans: Africa, Scandinavia, China, India, Arabia & Other Far-Flung Lands

As we still say today, all roads lead to Rome. Or at least they did at the height of its power, which historians tend to place in the second century. It was in that century that the Greco-Egyptian polymath Ptolemy wrote his book Geography, whose description of all known lands inspired an unprecedentedly detailed world map. As Ptolemy’s map illustrates, “the Romans, for all their rhetoric about universal empire, were aware that the world was much larger than their domains.” So says ancient-history Youtuber Garrett Ryan in “The Most Distant Places Visited by the Romans,” a video essay from his channel Told in Stone.

Ryan explains what history has recorded of “the vast range and reach of Roman merchants and adventurers,” who made it to Africa, Scandinavia, India, and even China. Some may have been motivated by pure wanderlust (the ancient Roman equivalent of Eurail-hopping college graduates, perhaps) but surely most of them would have set out on such long, arduous, and even dangerous journeys with glory and wealth in mind.


It was the promise of spices, frankincense, and myrrh, for instance, that drew Roman traders to Arabia Felix (or modern-day Yemen), despite the region’s reputation for being “overrun by flying snakes.”

However impressive ancient Rome’s geographical knowledge, they clearly had yet to get the details straight. But they knew enough to bring back from a variety of far-flung lands not just tall tales but treasures unavailable elsewhere, turning the metropole into a reflection of the world. Few such items would have been as visible in Rome as silk, “an indispensable luxury used in everything from legionary standards to the robes of the emperors.” That material came from China, most often purchased through dealers in Central Asia and India. But some particularly adventurous Romans made it not just to the Middle Kingdom but into the very palace of the Chinese emperor. All those roads to Rome were, after all, two-way streets.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Enter an Archive of 7,000 Historical Children’s Books, All Digitized & Free to Read Online

5 Little PIgs

We can learn much about how a historical period viewed the abilities of its children by studying its children’s literature. Occupying a space somewhere between the purely didactic and the nonsensical, most children’s books published in the past few hundred years have attempted to find a line between the two poles, seeking a balance between entertainment and instruction. However, that line seems to move closer to one pole or another depending on the prevailing cultural sentiments of the time. And the very fact that children’s books were hardly published at all before the early 18th century tells us a lot about when and how modern ideas of childhood as a separate category of existence began.

ABCs

“By the end of the 18th century,” writes Newcastle University professor M.O. Grenby, “children’s literature was a flourishing, separate and secure part of the publishing industry in Britain.” The trend accelerated rapidly and has never ceased—children’s and young adult books now drive sales in publishing (with 80% of YA books bought by grown-ups for themselves).


Grenby notes that “the reasons for this sudden rise of children’s literature” and its rapid expansion into a booming market by the early 1800s “have never been fully explained.” We are free to speculate about the social and pedagogical winds that pushed this historical change.

Afloat with Nelson

Or we might do so, at least, by examining the children’s literature of the Victorian era, perhaps the most innovative and diverse period for children’s literature thus far by the standards of the time. And we can do so most thoroughly by surveying the thousands of mid- to late 19th century titles at the University of Florida’s Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature. Their digitized collection currently holds over 7,000 books free to read online from cover to cover, allowing you to get a sense of what adults in Britain and the U.S. wanted children to know and believe.

Zig Zag

Several genres flourished at the time: religious instruction, naturally, but also language and spelling books, fairy tales, codes of conduct, and, especially, adventure stories—pre-Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew examples of what we would call young adult fiction, these published principally for boys. Adventure stories offered a (very colonialist) view of the wide world; in series like the Boston-published Zig Zag and English books like Afloat with Nelson, both from the 1890s, fact mingled with fiction, natural history and science with battle and travel accounts. But there is another distinctive strain in the children’s literature of the time, one which to us—but not necessarily to the Victorians—would seem contrary to the imperialist young adult novel.

Bible Picture Book

For most Victorian students and readers, poetry was a daily part of life, and it was a central instructional and storytelling form in children’s lit. The A.L.O.E.’s Bible Picture Book from 1871, above, presents “Stories from the Life of Our Lord in Verse,” written “simply for the Lord’s lambs, rhymes more readily than prose attracting the attention of children, and fastening themselves on their memories.” Children and adults regularly memorized poetry, after all. Yet after the explosion in children’s publishing the former readers were often given inferior examples of it. The author of the Bible Picture Book admits as much, begging the indulgence of older readers in the preface for “defects in my work,” given that “the verses were made for the pictures, not the pictures for the verses.”

Elfin Rhymes

This is not an author, or perhaps a type of literature, one might suspect, that thinks highly of children’s aesthetic sensibilities.  We find precisely the opposite to be the case in the wonderful Elfin Rhymes from 1900, written by the mysterious “Norman” with “40 drawings by Carton Moorepark.” Whoever “Norman” may be (or why his one-word name appears in quotation marks), he gives his readers poems that might be mistaken at first glance for unpublished Christina Rossetti verses; and Mr. Moorepark’s illustrations rival those of the finest book illustrators of the time, presaging the high quality of Caldecott Medal-winning books of later decades. Elfin Rhymes seems like a rare oddity, likely published in a small print run; the care and attention of its layout and design shows a very high opinion of its readers’ imaginative capabilities.

Elfin Rhymes 2

This title is representative of an emerging genre of late Victorian children’s literature, which still tended on the whole, as it does now, to fall into the trite and formulaic. Elfin Rhymes sits astride the fantasy boom at the turn of the century, heralded by hugely popular books like Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz series and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. These, the Harry Potters of their day, made millions of young people passionate readers of modern fairy tales, representing a slide even further away from the once quite narrow, “remorselessly instructional… or deeply pious” categories available in early writing for children, as Grenby points out.

All Around the Moon

Where the boundaries for kids’ literature had once been narrowly fixed by Latin grammar books and Pilgrim’s Progress, by the end of the 19th century, the influence of science fiction like Jules Verne’s, and of popular supernatural tales and poems, prepared the ground for comic books, YA dystopias, magician fiction, and dozens of other children’s literature genres we now take for granted, or—in increasingly large numbers—we buy to read for ourselves. Enter the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature here, where you can browse several categories, search for subjects, authors, titles, etc, see full-screen, zoomable images of book covers, download XML versions, and read all of the over 7,000 books in the collection with comfortable reader views. Find more classics in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Coursera Offers $100 Off of Coursera Plus (Until September 29), Giving You Unlimited Access to Courses & Certificates

A heads up on a deal: Between now and September 29 2022, Coursera is offering a $100 discount on its annual subscription plan called “Coursera Plus.” Normally priced at $399, Coursera Plus (now available for $299) gives you access to 7,000+ world-class courses for one all-inclusive subscription price. This includes Coursera’s Specializations and Professional Certificates, all of which are taught by top instructors from leading universities and companies (e.g. Yale, Duke, Google, Facebook, and more).

The $299 annual fee–which translates to 81 cents per day–could be a good investment for anyone interested in learning new subjects and skills in 2022, or earning certificates that can be added to your resume. Just as Netflix’s streaming service gives you access to unlimited movies, Coursera Plus gives you access to unlimited courses and certificates. It’s basically an all-you-can-eat deal.

You can try out Coursera Plus for 14 days, and if it doesn’t work for you, you can get your money back. Explore the offer (before September 29, 2022) here.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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The Biggest Mistakes in Mapmaking History

As we all know by now, every world map is wrong. But some world maps are more wrong than others, and the earliest world maps together constitute an entertaining festival of geographical mistakes and misperceptions. Like so many pursuits, mapmaking has utilitarian roots. For millennia, as Kayla Wolf explains in the Ted-Ed lesson above, our ancestors all over the world made “functional maps, showing trade routes, settlements, topography, water sources, the shapes of coastlines, or written directions.” But some also made “what are known as cosmographies, illustrating the Earth and its position in the cosmos, often including constellations, gods, and mythic locations.”

Creators of early world maps tended to mix their functionality with their cosmography. Commissioned in Eurasia and North Africa from the Middle Ages into the seventeenth century, their mappae mundi were “meant to depict the world’s geography, but not necessarily to be useful for navigation. And given their maker’s incomplete knowledge of the world they were really hypotheses — some of which have been glaringly disproven.”


Take, for example, the Spanish maps that for more than a century “depicted the ‘Island of California’ detached from the rest of the continent” (one example of which still hangs today in the New York Public Library).

Even Gerardus Mercator, the cartographer responsible for the “Mercator projection” still used in world maps today, “speculated that the North Pole prominently featured the ‘Rupes Nigra,’ a giant magnetic rock surrounded by a whirlpool that explained why all compasses point north.” But all knowledge begins as speculation, in geography and cartography as anywhere else. We must also maintain an awareness of what we don’t know, which medieval mapmakers famously did with fantastical beasts: “a tiny copper globe created in the early 1500s,” for example, labels southeast Asia with the famous warning “Here be dragons.” And “as late as 1657, English scholar Peter Heylin lumped Australia together with Utopia.” The land down under is perhaps the “lucky country,” but Utopia is surely pushing it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Doctors in Brussels Can Now Prescribe Museum Visits as Treatments for Stress, Anxiety & Depression

Image by Tomás Fano, via Wikimedia Commons

When COVID-19 was fast spreading across the world, we featured ways to visit a variety of cultural institutions without leaving home here on Open Culture. Lo those two and a half years ago, online museum-going seemed like the healthiest option. Now, with pandemic-related restrictions being loosened and even scrapped all over the world, the time has come to get back out there, or rather in there, spending time at one’s favorite cultural institutions. Indeed, a trip to the museum is just what the doctor ordered — in Brussels, literally.

“Starting this month, doctors at the Brugmann Hospital, one of Brussels’ largest health centers, are able to prescribe their patients visits to a number of cultural institutions managed by the city” as part of treatments for “stress, anxiety and depression.” So reports Smithsonian.com’s Molly Enking, adding that “those with a prescription for free entrance can tour ancient underground pathways in the Sewer Museum, check out textiles from the 1500s at the Fashion and Lace Museum, or stroll through the galleries at the CENTRALE contemporary art center, among other activities.”


They can also enjoy the Manneken Pis Wardrobe, a museum showcasing the thousand different outfits of the eponymous urinating statue, a symbol of Brussels for centuries now. Seeing as Manneken Pis “has brought a smile to the face of countless tourists from around the world,” writes Politico’s Ana Fota, it makes sense to see if he can do the same for those most in need of it. As Fota quotes Brugmann University Hospital psychiatrist Vincent Lustygier as saying when asked how a place like the Sewer Museum can help the depressed, “Why not try? We are going to test it and see.”

The evaluation should come in six months, the declared period of this “pilot program” that has granted museum visits the status of psychological treatments. Inspired by a similar policy implemented in Montreal back in 2018, it does have a fair bit of research behind it. As the Guardian‘s Jennifer Rankin reports, “a review by the World Health Organization in 2019 concluded that arts could help people experiencing mental illnesses and urged greater collaboration between culture and public health professionals.” The definition of culture here could expand well beyond museums: surely there’s also research to do on, say, the undeniable therapeutic value of a good plate of moules-frites.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

How the World Trade Center Was Rebuilt: A Visual Exploration of a 20-Year Project

The World Trade Center was not at first a beloved work of architecture, but over time it settled into its place on the New York skyline, gaining wide acceptance as an icon of the city. Its destruction on September 11, 2001 greatly intensified that symbolic power, especially as expressed by the image of Minoru Yamasaki’s Twin Towers. But as longtime New Yorkers (or at least longtime Lower Manhattanites) remember, the WTC consisted of more than a pair of skyscrapers. Dating from America’s era of “urban renewal,” with its ambitions of building cities within cities, it also incorporated several shorter office buildings, a hotel, and an underground shopping mall.

In other words, the WTC was a complex — which also happens to be just the adjective to describe the property-rights situation in the wake of its devastation. Talk of the imperative to rebuild began very soon indeed after September 11, but organizing a rise from the ashes was, predictably, easier said than done. As explained in “How the World Trade Center Was Rebuilt,” the video essay above from Youtube channel Neo, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey first had to re-acquire the leases from all the different major tenants involved. And then there was the task of negotiating with Larry Silverstein.


Having developed the original 7 World Trade Center building in 1980, Silverstein long had his eye on the whole shebang. He finally managed to sign a 99-year lease-purchase agreement on the complex on July 24, 2001 — surely one of this century’s signal cases of bad timing. But he did jump into the task of rebuilding as soon as possible, completing the new 7 World Trade Center just five years later. According to the story told in the video, it would hardly be an exaggeration to characterize the project of redeveloping the WTC site as a grudge match between Silverstein and the Port Authority, with their dueling visions of the proper way to fill that highly-charged space.

That project continues still today, just over two decades after the terrorist attacks that brought the Twin Towers down. David Childs’ 1776-foot-tall “twisting glass monolith” One World Trade Center opened in 2014, but the much-delayed Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center is still under construction, as is the new 2 World Trade Center. With its recent completion, Santiago Calatrava’s St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church joins his existing World Trade Center Transportation Hub. Topped by a structure called the Oculus, designed (if not flawlessly) to open to the sky once a year on September 11, that striking transit complex also includes an expansive Westfield shopping mall: a juxtaposition of memory and commerce with power of its own as a symbol of twenty-first century America.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Why Mapmakers Once Thought California Was an Island

In the opening of John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A., an earthquake separates Los Angeles from the mainland, and the city is repurposed into “the deportation point for all people found undesirable or unfit to live in a new, moral America.” The film’s premise (like that of Escape from New York, which it follows) taps into a deeply held sentiment about its setting. Los Angeles has long been seen as an absurd concentration of all the qualities that make California unlike the rest of the United States. California remains a state apart in a metaphorical sense, but there was a time when it was also thought to be a state apart, literally: that is to say, an island.

The word California originates in a novel, published in 1510, called Sergas de Esplandián. In that book it refers to “an island populated by black women without any men existing there. On the entire island, there was no metal other than gold.” Author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s tantalizing description of California — as well as of the “beautiful and robust bodies” of its women — got Spanish seafarers curious about the extent to which it could have been based in reality.


(At that time, the mass-printed novel was still an enrapturing new development.) This account comes from Youtuber Johnny Harris‘ video above, “The Biggest Mapping Mistake of All Time,” which connects this fantastical literary invention to centuries of geographical misconception.

The conquistador Hernán Cortés seems to have been the first prominent figure to feel the pull of California. And he certainly wasn’t the last, despite never quite having managed to pin the place down. Spain’s most ardent California enthusiasts held so fast to the notion of its being an island that it spread elsewhere in Europe, and eventually to London. With the perception thus legitimized, California appeared disconnected from the North American coast on maps printed as far away as Japan. Harris credits California’s “mythical pull,” then as now, with making it “a place where people go to dream big” — and often “to chase dreams that aren’t grounded in any sense of reality.” Fortunately, he himself lives in Washington D.C., where delusions are wholly unknown.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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:

ORIGINAL

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?

 

GERMAN

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!

 

ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF GERMAN

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 immigration 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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