The History of the English – German Translation
of the Musical “Cabaret”: Breaking the
Stereotypes of Foreignisation and Domestication in Translation.
par Tatyana Shestakov
U. Concordia

In this article, I will concentrate on the translation of the musical “Cabaret” into German, an important and prominent example of the translation for the stage. Theatre and translation are two cultural phenomena which have much in common. They represent two sides of the same creative process of interpretation, except that the theatre director interprets for his (or her) potential spectators, while the translator interprets for his (or her) potential readers. Some opponents of this idea might argue that the translator’s target audience is often significantly larger than that of the theatre director. But the history of modern theatre has often proved them wrong, for in many cases (such as that of “Cabaret,” which has been interpreted for the stage more than 8,600 times around the world over the last 37 years) a play has such an enormous success that it is safe to say that its audience can outnumber the readership of a popular bestseller.

The musical “Cabaret” and its German translation are an interesting subject for translation research because it is unique in so many respects. First of all, “Cabaret” is a reflection of a whole period, one of the most tragic and yet most important in human history, that of Weimar Germany at the dawn of the Hitler era. It is a reflection of the early 1930s in a decadent German society struggling against economic difficulties and the fallout of defeat in World War I that will gradually allow Nazism to take control.

Secondly, it paints the portrait of a city – Berlin – one of the major cities of the world, and a city which became popular among those interested in experimentation in different forms of art. The city attracted young artists, writers and actors from England, Russia and other countries that didn’t allow young people such artistic, sexual and personal freedom as they felt in the German capital.

Thirdly, heavily politically charged, “Cabaret” explores some ugly social phenomena typical of economically and psychologically troubled societies. Unusual for a Broadway musical, it deals with prostitution, sexual permissiveness, ménage à trois, illegal drug trafficking and violence. The range of issues discussed in “Cabaret” is broad and surprisingly daring for as “light” a genre as the musical. “It is really a metatheatrical musical […] and although is does ultimately have a split personality as narrative, it has a power and unpleasantness that are not commonly found on Broadway” (Garebian 1999: xix).

The expression “split personality” is particularly appropriate, in my opinion, because it reminds us of Cabaret’s linguistic duality, a duality that makes it as interesting to researchers in translation on the one hand as to researchers in language and the history of culture and cultural trends on the other.

The musical “Cabaret” is based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and its first dramatization, I am a Camera, by John Van Druten. It was first performed on Broadway in 1966 and has since been staged over 8,600 times. “Cabaret” tells the story of a young American writer, Clifford Bradshaw, living in Berlin at the dawn of the Nazi era. Visiting the seedy Kit Kat Club, he finds himself involved with its star, Sally Bowles. Cliff rents a room in Fräulein Schneider’s apartment, and Sally moves in with him. Fräulein Schneider is having an affair with Herr Schulz, one of her tenants, who is Jewish. Herr Schulz announces that they are to be married. One of the guests at their engagement party starts singing a Nazi song, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, and other guests join him. Fräulein Schneider breaks off her engagement to Herr Schulz. She is afraid the Nazis will come to power. Sally announces her pregnancy and Cliff decides to go back to America and to take Sally with him to escape the Nazi menace. But Sally refuses because she loves Berlin and her Cabaret life. Sally has an abortion. Cliff leaves Berlin alone and on the train begins to write about Sally and the people of Berlin.

Linguistic duality of the source text and the reversal of the notions of foreignisation and domestication in the translation of “Cabaret”
The history of the translation of “Cabaret” into German is reminiscent of the life of one of the world’s most famous composers, Frédéric Chopin, who was born in Poland to a French father and a Polish mother, became famous in France, but asked in his will that his heart be buried in Poland.

“Cabaret” was written and became famous in the United States. It is one of the most prominent symbols of Broadway and Hollywood, but it found its way home, i.e. to Germany, because its spiritual homeland is indeed Germany and more precisely – Berlin. From a linguistic point of view, “Cabaret” is quite unique because, written in English by Christopher Isherwood, a British-born writer who spent the greater part of his life in the USA, it is about Germany. Thus, “Cabaret” can be called a cultural hybrid which mirrors two completely different cultures: American and German. The linguistic and cultural duality integrated in “Cabaret” is not unique. The history of playwriting lists several examples, the most prominent of which are: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” as well as “A Glass of Water’ by French dramatist Eugène Scribe. Such cultural hybrids are however not numerous and certainly not modern, whereas “Cabaret” describes events that eventually shook the modern world and still influence culture today.

“Cabaret” affords researchers a chance to see translation from one point of view, as well as its exact reverse where translation from English into German is concerned. Piotr Kwiecinski defines foreignisation as “the introduction into the target text of concepts and language forms that are alien to and/or obscure in the target language culture” (Kwiecinski 2001: 14). Echoing this concept, Roger Pulvers, himself a playwright, producer and drama translator, states that “one country’s naturalism is another country’s surrealism” (Pulvers 1984: 23). This usually means that the source-culture’s naturalism becomes surreal for the target audience. “Cabaret” however refutes this rule: in fact, the seedy, raucous, sexually permissive atmosphere of the Kit Kat Klub can shock American audiences, whereas it seems historically normal to German spectators who grew up watching “Der Blaue Engel” / “Blue Angel”, listening to Kurt Weil’s songs and viewing Otto Dix paintings.

When American spectators hear one of the key songs of this musical, the hot and sultry “Bye-bye, mein lieber Herr” one third of which is written in German, they can probably find it strange and even alien unless they speak, or at least understand, German. To them, this song, with its hedonistic meaning, represents the foreignness of the given performance, especially since it is performed by a woman:

The continent of Europe is so wide, mein Herr.

Not only up and down, but side to side, mein Herr.

I couldn’t ever cross it if I tried mein Herr.

But I do – what I can – inch by inch – step by step –

Mile by mile – man by man. […]

Bye-bye, mein lieber Herr.

Auf wiedersehen, mein Herr.

Es war sehr gut, mein Herr, und vorbei.

Du kennst mich wohl, mein Herr.

Ach, lebe wohl, mein Herr.

Du sollst mich nicht mehr sehen, mein Herr.

For German viewers this number is nothing more than a paraphrase of a popular 30s and 40s (and still well-known) song “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt” written by Friedrich Holländer and performed by Marlene Dietrich’s character in “Blue Angel”.
Männer umschwirr’n mich,
Wie Moten um das Licht.
Und wenn sie verbrennen,
Ja dafür kann ich nichts.

Men flock around me
Like moths around a flame
And if their wings burn
I know I’m not to blame.
(Translated into English by S. Lerner)

Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß
Auf Liebe eingestellt,
Ich kann halt lieben nur
Und sonst gar nichts.

Love’s always been my game
Play it as I may
I was born that way
Can’t help it.
(Translated into English by S. Lerner)

These two songs, written in two different countries and at different times but both dedicated to the same period and place, sound like a celebration of the devotion to pleasure and to pleasure only which was one of the main characteristics of the Berlin of the Weimar Republic.

The original “Cabaret” text, written mostly in English but generously sprinkled with German words, couplets and expressions, reads like a translation. And not even a typical English translation at that, for, as Lawrence Venuti argues, Anglo-American tradition is based on domestication (Venuti 1995: 23). Domestication is defined by Piotr Kwiecinski as “the accommodation of the target text to the established TL/TC [Target Language/Target Culture] concepts, norms and conventions” (Kwiecinski 2001: 13). While watching the performance in New York, viewers could easily be “spiritually relocated” from Broadway to Berlin just by listening to the text, which, right from its famous beginning,

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome,
Fremde, étranger, stranger!
Glüklich zu sehen, je suis enchanté,
Happy to see you.
Bleibe, reste, stay…

Meine Damen und Herren, Mesdames and Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen! Guten Abend, bon soir, good evening! Wie geht’s… Comment ça va? Do you feel good? […] Ich bin euer conférencier, je suis votre compère… I am your host!

denies any notion of the fluency which, according to Lawrence Venuti, is characteristic of the Anglo-American translation canon. This ‘original’ could need to be domesticated for the majority of the viewers who are unfamiliar with the German language. It is constantly « interrupted » by the presence of German words, but given the history of the genre, these ‘foreign’ words are not intruders, they are  chez eux  and their exoticism is justified.

History of the genre of Cabaret
“Cabaret is a theatrical form featuring a mixture of minor forms. The term is derived from a divided serving plate or hors d’oeuvres tray, offering a little bit of something for everybody. Accordingly, a cabaret program is a series of individual numbers, including dances, poems, songs, comic monologues, impersonations, sketches, and one-acts” (Laureau 1995: 2). The history of cabaret is impossible to imagine without Germany. Born in Paris in 1881, cabaret soon travelled East to Berlin, Prague and Moscow. German society was strongly affected by the First World War. It was a time of instability but also a time of liberation from the behavioral norms forced onto people in the 19th century. Having survived the horrors of war, audiences in these countries were not ready for serious performances in the theatre and were therefore delighted with this relatively new form of entertainment which did not demand constant attention from viewers and allowed them a certain freedom. « Cabaret’s application of literature and music to a wide public was supposed to infuse a new spirit of vitality into its audience » (Jelavich 1993 : 28). The German public enjoyed the variety provided by cabaret  with its diversity of genres and topics, including sex, fashion, culture and politics.

Looking back now, we can only regret that the German public and cabaret authors of the Weimar era didn’t pay more attention to politics and the growing threat of Hitlerism. “Some cabaret artists addressed the growing strength of the Nazi party, but they continued to misjudge the magnitude of the threat. Despite the brutality of the street violence in 1931, some responded by continuing to dismiss Hitler as a buffoon who had little chance of success” (Jelavich 1993: 237).

German “interwar cabaret” (Senelick 1993: xiii) became a mirror for the national catastrophe of the country. When Hitler took power in 1933, cabaret was one of the first victims. Several writers, performers and conférenciers were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Others left Germany for America or other parts of Europe. Cabaret was destined to be destroyed (or almost destroyed) by the Nazis, “for most of the entertainers had been liberal, leftist, or Jewish” (Jelavich 1993: 228) or gay. And these people were the first to be persecuted by the Nazis. In 1937, Goebbels banned all political themes from German stages. In 1941, he went even further, signing an “Order Prohibiting Masters of Ceremonies and Commentary from the Stage” in which he stated that “Any and every so-called conférencier performance or commentary is immediately and fundamentally forbidden for the entire public. It makes no difference whether it means to deal with matters of politics, economy, culture, or any other concerns of public or private life” (Senelick 1993 : 282).

Christopher Isherwood
The story told in “Cabaret” was based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” and the play “I am a Camera” which they inspired. The score of “Cabaret” evokes the Berlin of the 1930s. The duality of “Cabaret” is a reflection of the duality of Christopher Isherwood’s own life.

Christopher Isherwood was born in Britain on August 26, 1904. He went to Berlin in 1929. In his words: “I’m looking for my homeland and I’ve come to find out if this is it” (Page 1998: 121). He could not abide his parents’ traditionalism and was trying to reject his past by going to Berlin. “…one of his great advantages was knowing very little German. For turning his back on England had set him free not only from family and background but from language and culture. In using a language in which he was still inexpert and in which words were stripped of nuances, implications, connotations and indications of class he felt “a marvelous freedom” (ibid: 41).

Christopher Isherwood came to Berlin in 1929 and left when Hitler came to power in 1933. In 1930 Isherwood moved to Nollendorfstrasse, where he met an English girl named Jean Ross, who became the model for Sally Bowles.
“In the Weimar Berlin of the 1920s and early 1930s, Nollendorfplatz was the centre of the city’s large gay and lesbian community. Even by today’s standards, Berlin’s gay scene of those days was prodigious: there were around forty gay bars on and near this square alone, and gay life in the city was open, fashionable and well organized, with its own newspapers, community associations and art" (Holland 2001: 147).

The territory and timing of Isherwood’s and Jean Ross’ life were exactly the same as that of his famous characters’, Cliff Bradshaw and Sally Bowles. The strong connection between him and the main male character of “Cabaret” can be easily demonstrated by the fact that Isherwood gave him the last name “Bradshaw”, which was in fact his own second Christian name. Like Cliff, Isherwood came to the Weimar’s Berlin, lived in Nollendorfplatz, frequented seedy Berlin night clubs and cabarets, was acquainted with a cabaret singer, was a homosexual and eventually went to the USA.

There is a part of Christopher Isherwood in his other famous character, Sally Bowles as well. Sally is British, like her creator. “Like Isherwood himself, Sally has come to Berlin to escape the constraints of a conventional family, and to some extent she acts as a reflector of late Weimar social and sexual mores” (Page 1998: 195).

“ A novelist, unlike a poet, needs a lot of hard information: it is difficult to write good fiction without actually knowing a considerable amount about the external world, and this is especially true if the writer’s powers of invention are weak, as Isherwood’s certainly were” (Page 1998: 37) . This observation by Norman Page underscores the importance of understanding how closely Isherwood’s biography is related to his work.

Like Cliff, Christopher Isherwood saw Germany and its upcoming tragedy through the eyes of a foreigner, who, unlike his other characters: Emcee (Conférencier), Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schulz, could leave the country at any moment without feeling uprooted. However, unlike many others who left Germany in the 1930s to escape the fascism, Isherwood, although coming back to that country in his oeuvre, never actually went back to Germany after 1933.

I think that “Cabaret”, and especially its finale, is symbolic of the pain and compassion that Isherwood felt for Germany and the extraordinary culture it had known before the Third Reich and which it would come to know again in the process of its political, economical and cultural Renaissance after the end of the Second World War. Even though I cannot, obviously, compare myself to Christopher Isherwood, I can relate to his feeling of pain for a country which, in spite of its tremendous cultural and scientific potential, was to become the symbol of evil and tragedy.

On the point of fleeing the country, Cliff urges Sally to face up to reality and recognize the potential danger. Unfortunately for Christopher Isherwood and for all of us, Sally, and the whole country with her, were not ready to understand what suffering would attend their coming catharsis. A musical, or a play which leads its readers and spectators toward the state of catharsis (in this case political catharsis) needs interpreters who would share the author’s vision and who are capable of understanding and sharing the author’s pain.

The personality of the German translator
A Musical like “Cabaret,” with its linguistic and cultural duality, which seems logical considering the history of the play and the genre, requires a translator who would to some extent have the same “split personality”, or rather “split nationality” that the original play has. Robert Gilbert was that perfect interpreter who, as a German and a man of the theatre, operetta, cabaret and himself the author of cabaret texts as well as a soldier of the First World War, could become Christopher Isherwood’s and Joe Masteroff’s German-language voice.

Robert Gilbert was born in 1899 in Berlin as Robert David Winterfeld. Only 24 years old, he wrote his first “schlager” (hit) “Kathrin, du hast die schönste Beine von Berlin” (“Kathrin, you have the most beautiful legs in Berlin”). After the success of this song, he started writing politically engaged texts. Right in the middle of his prosperous career and fame, Robert Gilbert left Germany in 1933 and went to Vienna, then Paris and finally New York. In 1944, he became an American citizen, but in 1949, only four years after the end of the Second World War, he decided to go back to Germany.

In 1954, Robert Gilbert embarked on a new career as a translator. He has translated twenty American musicals, including "Cabaret”, “My Fair Lady”, “Annie, Get Your Gun”, “Hello, Dolly!”, “Oklahoma”, and “Man of la Mancha”. He died in Locarno in 1978.

Having himself been involved in German political art and in German cabaret as a songwriter, Robert Gilbert was particularly knowledgeable on the subject of his translation. Like Christopher Isherwood, he realized the extent of the threat the Nazis represented and emigrated to the USA. The quality of Robert Gilbert’s work as a translator is underlined by the fact that no recent re-translations of « Cabaret » have been needed. New texts have occasionally been added to his translation, but his basic German text remains unchanged.

The history of the German translation of “Cabaret” demonstrates how important the translator’s profound knowledge of the political, social and historical aspects of the source and target societies, as well as that of the world of theatre are to a successful translation. When the original text explores such controversial subjects as nazism, anti-semitism and homosexuality, the translator’s life experience, erudition and the degree to which he or she is implicated in these contentious issues is sometimes just as important as his or her linguistic skills.

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