'Frozen' Composer Robert Lopez on the Perils of Translating 'Let It Go'

Robert Lopez
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Robert Lopez, who co-wrote Best Musical winner Avenue Q, was nominated again this year for co-creating The Book of Mormon alongside Trey Parker and Matt Stone. He took home a number of awards last night, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score Written for the Theatre.

The Oscar hopeful explains how 41 foreign-language versions of the nominated song were orchestrated by Disney.

"Comedy is different all over the world," says Robert Lopez, who shares an Oscar song nomination with wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez for "Let It Go" from Frozen. So he is grateful that the animated hit's 41 foreign-language versions are not his problem, but that of Disney Character Voices International senior vp creative Rick Dempsey, responsible for translating Disney's films. "We were floored when we heard the compilation of 'Let It Go' in all those different languages," says Lopez. "It sounded practically like Idina Menzel singing the whole thing," says Lopez, who notes that it's actually dozens of foreign voices dubbed for each language. "That's why you want to work with Disney, because no one else has that touch all over the world."

Says Dempsey, "We have 76 people around the world in 19 offices that oversee films in 55 languages. Our goal is to make every audience feel like Frozen was made in their country for their people."

"When you're writing in your own language, it's like you're hyped up on caffeine, hyperattentive to everything," says Lopez. "You put so much care and attention into every syllable, word choice, stress and nonstress. There's so much fine-tooth-comb detail work you pride yourself on. But when your work is translated, you just have to take a Xanax and relax, and hope it's good. It's like, whatever, there's absolutely nothing you can do about it."

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Translation can cause problems, Lopez notes. "With The Emperor's New Groove, they had to change a character's name, because it turned out to be a Japanese word for female genitalia," says Lopez, who wasn't involved with the film. "When Kristen and I heard our Winnie the Pooh song 'The Backson Song' in Arabic, the line, 'I'm thinking, I'm thinking, I'm thinking' sounded like 'motherf----r, motherf----r, motherf----r.' When we did the show Avenue Q in Sweden, we asked what was the Swedish word for 'purpose' — a word in almost every scene. The translator said a Swedish word 16 syllables long. I just said, 'OK, forget this, just do what you want to do.'"

Lopez likes the "whatever" attitude of South Park's creators towards translation. "I worked with Trey Parker and Matt Stone on The Book of Mormon, and they said a long time ago, they gave South Park translators carte blanche to make each episode about whatever they wanted — it didn't matter if it had anything to do with the episode they wrote, just make it funny to you and your people."

The Lopezes took a far more scrupulous approach to making Frozen's appeal global. "We were trying to make the story work wherever audiences were," says Lopez. "Disney basically said, don't write a song where the whole song depends on one pun. A song about 'being in someone else's shoes' was cut — will people get that idea in other cultures? Whenever we drifted too far into punland, we would steer into clearer waters. We had a song called 'Lose Control,' with a pun on 'troll.' But the pun was running away from the song. It makes sense in English, but who knows in other languages?"

STORY: 'Frozen' Cast Reunites for Cabaret, Idina Menzel Belts Out Oscar Favorite 'Let It Go'

Lopez wanted to avoid jarring translations like the one in Pulp Fiction where Bruce Willis asks, "We cool?" and Ving Rhames replies, "We cool." Says Lopez, "In German, it went, 'Alles in ordnung [Is all in order]? Alles in ordnung.'"

"With Frozen, we tried to tap into very universal emotions," says Lopez. "Love and fear is a worldwide contest, and no one doesn't have to deal with shame, or holding back your power for fear of being misunderstood."

Thanks to Dempsey's awesome cultural musical comedy translators, Frozen isn't likely to be misunderstood despite its 41 versions. With Disney, alles in ordnung.

Twitter: @timappelo