More than 87 years after the curtain opened on The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper), the musical continues to entertain audiences across the globe with its biting dialogue, unconventional storytelling style, dark humor and an edgy, yet melodious, score that merges jazz with operetta. The musical was originally adapted from the famous The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in 1728, and the libretto translated from English to German.
Undoubtedly, translation is a considerable task, as a single word can completely change the tone and meaning of a scene. Jonathan Pohl (B.F.A. '16, musical theater) crafted a distinct English translation of the piece, thus allowing Boston Conservatory to stage a one-of-a-kind production in fall 2015. Pohl, who was raised in a multilingual household in Frankfurt, Germany, attended an international school before moving to the states to study at the Conservatory. In this Q&A, Pohl discusses his experience attempting to translate the renowned German musical—including the challenges he has faced and what he has learned along the way.
Why do you feel having a unique translation of this production is important?
I think it’s important to have a unique translation because this will be a unique production of this work, no matter which translation is used. The students performing the piece are young, fresh, and current, as is the concept, and I think that the translation should reflect the contemporary edge that the director is striving for in the production. The most recent, well-regarded translation was done in 1976, and I think it’s about time for a new take on it. The translation I have done is also very true to the original Brecht text—as close to a word-for-word translation as I could make to do the author justice—while still giving the current production the freedom to grow as a new work and thrive in front of an audience.
What was your biggest challenge throughout the process?
The primary challenge I faced was the idiomatic differences between early 20th-century German and contemporary English. There are certain ways of speaking that just don’t translate. I tried to find the closest contemporary alternatives without adding in too many of my own colloquialisms. Making sure to stay as close to the original Brecht text—even though it didn’t always seem to make complete sense—was also not easy. I was hoping that it would all fall into place eventually.
What kind of research did you have to pursue before delving into this project?
I definitely wanted to read the original German piece a few times through. I didn’t want to read other translations in their entirety so as not to be influenced by them. However, I did read all English translations of the first song and some of the first scene to get a general idea. Other than that, I tried not to do too much research so I could just translate the material without bias.
How do you go about the translation process?
The actual translation process was relatively easy for me. While the syntax of German and English are very different, both languages come very naturally to me. I first translated the German text quite literally word-for-word and then tried to make sense of it by altering the phrases to comply with English grammar. Then I would make sure the English lines had the same meaning as the German and that the new English lines made as much sense as they could.
Have you learned anything from this experience?
I learned a lot from this process! I learned how I can use my bilingual abilities in the theatrical field, which is definitely something I can take with me into the “real world” after graduation. I’ve also learned what it’s like to be on the creative team of a show, which has been eye opening. I definitely think I’ll be a better actor to work with after this experience.
How has your musical theater education at Boston Conservatory enhanced your ability to maintain fidelity to the original book while translating?
I’ve covered Brecht in several classes while at the Conservatory—especially in Alyssa Schmidt’s Theater History class. Learning the more “academic” side to Brecht’s text definitely helped me know what to look out for in the German text and what to preserve in the translation.
What's been the most rewarding or enjoyable aspect of doing this particular translation?
Definitely the actors and their enthusiasm to apply themselves to my words, and the entire team’s excitement to work with this translation, which we’ve shaped and explored every day in our rehearsals. Even though the story/plot is not mine, it’s been pretty great to hear words I “wrote” being recited by actors that I respect and love.