I have never been the type to try and grab the spotlight;
We were at a revel with some rebels on a hot night.
This amazing couplet from Hamilton’s song “Helpless” would be impossible to pull off in another language. To capture all the poetic delight of these two quick lines, the other language would need 1) nearly identical words for “rebel” and “revel,” 2) short, uninteresting sounds for background words like “have, the, to, and, at, a, with, on,” and 3) rhyming words for “spotlight” and “hot night.” Even then, we’re taking for granted that the word “spotlight” exists in the other language at all.
Poetry is notoriously untranslatable. What works in one language rarely works in another. If you have never studied the classics, you might wonder whether it’s worth the effort of studying a dead language so that you can read its poetry in the original Greek or Latin. You might ask what exactly that reward looks like.
The musical masterpiece Hamilton has given our culture not just an understanding of poetry in general, but also, a fortiori, a glimpse into how poetry works in other languages. If you love the word play in Hamilton, you will find countless parallels of effective poetic techniques in the poetry of antiquity.
1. The Irreplaceable Word
At Hamilton’s first meeting with Aaron Burr, they have an exchange that could only take place in English because of one word: “bursar.”
I heard your name at Princeton. I was seeking / an accelerated course of study when I got sort of out of sorts / with a buddy of yours. I may have punched him. / It’s a blur, sir. He handles the financials?
BURR: . . . You punched the bursar.
Because we call a financial officer a “bursar,” artist Lin-Manuel Miranda can weld one more powerful link to the chain of consonance in the dialogue, while also registering an early connection between Hamilton and money. It isn’t a “deep” line, it’s not pivotal to the plot, but it makes the song manifestly better. It is a word play wholly unique to English.
A comparable exchange happens in Homer’s Odyssey, when the eponymous wanderer is trapped in the cave of the Cyclops. He famously introduces himself as “Nobody” to the Cyclops, who later calls in desperation to his neighbors that, “Nobody is killing me.” As the monster’s neighbors dismiss his pleas in disgust, Odysseus recounts, “my heart laughed within me that my name and flawless scheme had so beguiled” (IX.413-14, trans. Murray). This unexceptional line is pretty great in the original: The word translated here as “scheme” is identical to the Greek word for “nobody.” (Identical to the point of accent, anyway; a Greek would have grasped both the literal and implicit sense as easily, if not more easily, than we understand “bursar.”)
It’s a great moment that perhaps no monolinguist English speaker has ever experienced. The inimitable Robert Fagles at least tried, rendering the lines: “laughter filled my heart / to think how nobody’s name – my great cunning stroke – / had duped them one and all.” He communicates both senses, but his material, English, denies him the means to communicate the double sense. He confesses as much in his notes, saying, “[The original language] enables Homes to make brilliant use of wordplay that cannot be adequately reproduced in English.”
2. The Intrinsic Sound
Occasionally, skilled poets can pull off close proximity between the phonics of the language and the content discussed. In Hamilton, for example, John Laurens brags, “Those redcoats don’t want it with me / Cuz I will pop chick-a pop these cops till I’m free!” The consonants and vowels suggest the kind of gunfire that Laurens threatens.
Sometimes the phonics/content connection is even more subtle. In Act II, Jefferson, Madison, and Burr rally, “Let’s show these Federalists what they’re up against!” The hard mashing of s’s and t’s in the line suggests teeth-gritting resistance.
This marriage of sense and sound is a hallmark of top-notch poetry. For a classic example, check out the Roman poet Horace’s fourth Ode:
Solvitur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni
trahuntque siccas machinae carinas . . .
“The touch of Zephyr and of Spring has loosen’d Winter’s thrall;
The well-dried keels are wheel’d again to sea . . .”
In Latin, the second line is heavy on the hard “c” sound, suggesting the noisy locomotion. Another instance of this shows up in the witty and salacious Roman poet Catullus, whose poem 58 reads:
Caeli, Lesbia nostra, Lesbia illa,
illa Lesbia, quam Catullus unam
plus quam se atque suos amavit omnes,
nunc in quadriviis et angiportis
glubit magnanimi Remi nepotes.
“Caelius, our Lesbia, that Lesbia,
that Lesbia, alone whom Catullus loved
more than himself and all his own,
now, in the crossroads and in the alleyways,
she peels the grandsons of great Remus.”
The sound of the key word in that last line – “glubit” – subtly suggests the sexual acts implied.
Through sound play, poets uncover beautiful connections in their language, connections that rarely exist in any other language. Reading in the original allows us to experience these moments.
3. The Invisible Tone
Tone is a complex but critical dimension of language. Tone reflects emotion, formality, and context in ways that defy translation. Many languages, for example, employ a plural “you” to respect formality. English is so unequipped to represent this linguistic device that translations of works like Machiavelli’s The Prince must resort to footnotes.
Hamilton showcases consciously developed tone in English diction. Consider, for example, the opening sentence of the show:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
impoverished, in squalor
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
Poet Lin-Manuel Miranda has attributed the length and construction of this sentence to his source material: “Hamilton spoke in fluid paragraphs and he had density to his writing, and because of that the first line of the show is this huge run-on sentence.”
At the close of Act I, the musical plays with tone again, when some delegates at the Constitutional Convention comment on Alexander Hamilton:
Bright young man…
[ANOTHER ENSEMBLE MAN]
Yo, who the f is this?
Instead of carefully mapping the tone to the occasion and the characters, Miranda has fun with the very concept of a hip-hop musical about America’s Founding by juxtaposing tones. The first line – staid, proper, and true to the era – clashes with the line that follows: more redolent of adolescence and so inappropriate in this context as to be hilarious. Imagine trying to handle this subtle but decisive swing in translation.
We could also return to Catullus above, where the first four lines of his poem orient the reader or listener in a generically romantic context – “that same Lesbia whom Catullus loved more than himself and all his family” – until the brutal first word of the final line brings the elevated language crashing down around it.
4. The Indivisible Languages
One of the trickiest issues when translating a text arises when the original author brings in a second language, also not yours, into the fray. There are times when the text demands another language. In Hamilton, for instance, the Frenchman Lafayette naturally fills his dialogue with his native tongue:
Oui oui, mon ami, je m’appelle Lafayette!
The Lancelot of the revolutionary set!
I came from afar just to say ‘Bonsoir!’
Tell the King ‘Casse toi!’ Who’s the best?
Another, even more artful use of foreign language, graces “The Room Where it Happens.” Right before the chorus joins in, Burr tells the audience, “And here’s the pièce de résistance: . . .”. Genius.com has a phenomenal exposition of this stroke, commentary co-signed by Miranda:
Dinner table wordplay between the two meanings of pièce de résistance as ‘the main dish of a meal’ and ‘an outstanding item or event, a showpiece.’
. . . [also], ‘pièce de résistance’ is French (another influence from Francophile Jefferson?), literally meaning ‘piece of resistance/opposition,’ and this is Burr’s big moment when he decides to break away from Hamilton and the Federalists and strike out on his own. AND ALSO ALSO ‘la pièce’ in French means ‘the room’.
A translator could only hope to gesture at the overlapping meanings captured here in a single phrase.
Although English in particular likes to borrow phrases from other languages, poets from antiquity occasionally introduced foreign phrases as well. Glance at two poems from the Roman poet Martial (VII.46, 57):
Ettuadenostro, Prisce, Thaliatacet.
Mittere: pauperibusmunera πεζὰdato.
“While you are wishing to enhance your present to me by verses, Priscus, and endeavouring to speak more eloquently than the month of Homer ever spoke, you torture both me and yourself for many days, and still your muse says nothing about what concerns me. You may send poetry and sounding verse to the rich; to poor men give substantial presents.”
and the second:
Castora de Polluce Gabinia fecit Achillan:
Πὺξ ἀγαθὸς fuerat, nunc erit ἱππόδαμος.
“Gabinia has made Achilles a Castor out of a Pollux; he was Pyxagathos, now he will be Hippodamus.”2
2 A pun in Greek in allusion to Homer (Il. iii. 237). Achilles was a noted boxer; Gabinia, by endowing him with the fortune of a knight, may be facetiously said to have made him a horse-tamer.
Because Martial mentions Homer in each of these poems, he adds Greek language to flavor his lines. This is on top of an elaborate cross-lingual pun in the second poem (which would take about two paragraphs to explain in full). The only way to appreciate the depth of the tone and wordplay in multi-lingual poetry is to read what the author actually wrote.
5. The Incremental Significance
If you have listened to Hamilton in full, it has probably not escaped you that repeating words at key moments causes their meanings to snowball over time. Each successive use of the word brings with it the associations of all past occasions.
Fully developed associations tax translators when the original language uses a word in multiple unrelated contexts. In Hamilton, Angelica and Hamilton go back and forth about being “satisfied.” Their conversations focus on romantic and familial relationships, but the word also surfaces in the context of duels and cabinet meetings. The association relies on English, because talk of “demanding satisfaction” and curses of “I hope you’re satisfied” are not likely to be semantic neighbors in other tongues.
Ancient poets charge words with meaning like this all the time. Remember the rage of Achilles discussed above? It is described as “οὐλομένην,” an uncommon adjective meaning “accursed, murderous, doomed” that resurfaces much later in the Odyssey’s Eleventh Book (line 410). It’s the word that the ghost of Agamemnon, Achilles’ old rival, uses to describe his own wife – after she and her lover slaughtered him at his homecoming.
Catullus uses the word “lepidum” (“witty, elegant, sophisticated”) in his book’s first poem to describe his own work. He repeats the word, as well as its opposite, in poems 6, 10, 36, and 78. Having made such an unusual word his calling card, he effortlessly imports for his readers extra associations of his own to bear each time it appears.
Now It’s Your Turn
For the first time in a while, our culture has new poetry of the highest caliber that treats the general public as fair game for an audience. Suddenly the entire canon of poetry from the ages, from Homer’s Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to the French Song of Roland and The Canterbury Tales – has useful analogues in an epic that countless Americans know by heart.
This kind of rational analysis shouldn’t rob poetry of its fun. People love obsessing over Hamilton because it is such a masterpiece. The rapture of how cool everything is, both American and Classical, melts away the strain of close study. Analyzing these poems isn’t a chore — it’s like searching for treasure. Happy hunting!