Last week, I watched Les Misérables on stage for the first time ever. I know – I worked in a theatre for 9 years, but this particular show had passed me by. Partly because I live over 200 miles away from the West End so I mostly rely on shows touring to my part of the world, but also because my existing knowledge of the show painted it as a depressing tragedy, so I wasn’t exactly in a rush to see it.
But there’s a reason why it’s one of the longest-running musicals in the world: despite the sad events throughout, I found the performances incredible and it was hard not to get swept up with those iconic songs. Ever the linguaphile, the next day I looked up the original French soundtrack on YouTube to see how it compared with the English.
What I found confused me: some of the songs in French had two sets of lyrics and sometimes two different titles, depending on which version I listened to. For example, here’s the first verse of the two versions of “I Dreamed a Dream” (plus the English version in case you want to sing along):
J’avais rêvé d’une autre vie
J’avais rêvé d’une autre vie
I dreamed a dream in times gone by
Before we jump into their differences, here’s a little background history into why there are two versions.
A little background history
The original Les Mis musical first premiered in Paris in 1980, and in 1985 the English-language version opened in London, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and with lyrics created by Herbert Kretzmer.
It’s clear to see from the examples here that the lyrics are by no means translated. Kretzmer has always been adamant that he did not “translate” the French lyrics; he read the Victor Hugo novel, worked with a literal translation of the French libretto, and then adapted the lyrics while also creating lots of new material for the show. He even asked the show’s composer, Claude-Michel Schönberg, to rework some of the music to add more depth. As a result, the English version became an hour longer than the Paris show, but was also turned from 3 acts into 2.
This English iteration really made the show take off. Despite negative critical reviews, the public loved it and it later opened on Broadway. In 1991, Cameron Mackintosh launched a “revival” of the show simultaneously in Paris and Montreal, where the French lyrics were reworked – taking inspiration from Kretzmer’s English lyrics.
I Dreamed a Dream
Although each song from each soundtrack is unique, this French-English-French influence is clear to see. In “I Dreamed a Dream”, the differences between each version are subtle. They all encompass the same general theme: poor Fantine dreaming of her previous life, where she was young and carefree, until a bad choice in men pretty much ruined everything. Here’s a rough literal translation of the two French versions that I posted above:
|Version 1 (1980):
I had dreamed of another life
|Version 2 (1991):
I had dreamed of another life
The second line of the 1980 version (version 1) makes its way into the very last line of the English version (“but life has killed the dream I dreamed”). In the second French version, this line was also moved to the very end of the song.
When Kretzmer created the English version he extended it to six verses (it was originally five), but the second French version also added a sixth verse, and even added an animal metaphor (Mais les loups rôdent dans la nuit/But the wolves prowl in the night) to match the famous English line “But the tigers come at night.”
Castle on a Cloud
The adaptations are freer in “Castle on a Cloud”. The 1980 version was called “Mon prince est en chemin déjà” – think “Someday my prince will come” sentiments, along with a verse about how she has no dolls, parents or childhood. The English version removes the prince-wishing for a more child-like view, creating a utopia for Cosette to dream about along with a verse about the mother figure that she is missing. The 1991 version follows suit: “C’est une poupée dans la vitrine” describes all the toys and dolls that Cosette wishes she had, so the prince is now firmly out of the picture.
|French Version 1 (1980):
Mon prince est en chemin déjà
There is a castle on a cloud
|French Version 2 (1991):
C’est une poupée dans la vitrine
|[My prince is on his way right now
I don’t know what he’ll be like
But I know he will come tomorrow
My prince is already on his way]
|[There is a doll in the window
Who watches me and is lonely
I think she’s looking for a mama
And I want her to be my daughter]
One Day More
The influence of the English on the French is most evident in “One Day More”, as the style of the 1991 French version (entitled “Un grand jour”) is very different to the 1980 version (“Demain”).
Have a listen to “Demain” – those of you familiar with the English song may be able to hear that not only are the different parts switched around for some of the characters, with Cosette being awarded some solo lines, but the tempo is slower, the song is longer, and it doesn’t end with the crescendo of everyone singing together – instead, Jean Valjean sings a quieter solo about what he should do about Cosette (Comment faire?) and what tomorrow (demain) will bring.
Here are the last few lines from each version:
|One Day More (1985):
(Marius & Cosette):
|Le Grand Jour (1991):
|[What to do?
Cosette has grown well lately
I feel that the spring awakens in her
I must protect her life
Tomorrow we go far away from here
Tomorrow will be a new day for all
That cannot lie
It’s tomorrow that each will know his destiny
|[Tomorrow, we leave with no regret
Tomorrow is the final judgement
Tomorrow we will know if God is coming
Finally announcing his return
It’s finally here
The big day!]
In terms of the lyrics, a close translation of the French would certainly not pack a punch in the same way when sung in English; for a start, translating “demain” as “tomorrow” requires too many syllables, and secondly, repeating “tomorrow, tomorrow” as they do in the French sort of strays into Annie territory.
But the uncertain feelings in Jean Valjean’s original line “Comment faire?” become a message of endurance and resignation when changed to “one day more”, making the English version more of a rousing preparing-for-battle song for all of the characters, while losing Valjean’s softer introspection that the original French had.
What’s also interesting is that the 1991 revival brought the French lyrics much closer to the English; making it equally as climactic, keeping a few of their original “demains” but completely losing any quiet reflection time that Valjean might have wanted at the end.
I’m not here to argue whether one version is “better” than the others, but rather to showcase a unique example of a foreign language adaptation affecting the original work; in this case, because the “translation” was so popular. Both theatre and translation are creative processes that work best when there’s collaboration, and sometimes there’s no knowing how well the pieces will turn out, or what the future holds for them. As a wise man once said: “Another day, another destiny…!”
Arwen Spicer’s review of the 1991 Paris Revival Cast Recording helped me clear up my Demain/Un grand jour confusion.