It’s just a number, right?
Some time ago, I was browsing the subreddit /r/musicals during my off-time when I came across a thread asking how best to suprise his wife with tickets to Les Misérables. The top comment suggested to have his wife guess his favourite number, and to reply that “nope, it’s 24601. We’re going to see Les Mis!”
Through the years I’ve seen this musical five times: two amateur performances by local theatre organzations and twice on the big stage. I’ve also watched two performances for its 10th and 25th annivarsaries broadcast from London. For some reason, I never tire of this musical, even though Act II is probably the most bloody act to take place on a stage since Hamlet.
The origin of this number is unclear, but according to this book cited on Wikipedia, it was chosen by Victor Hugo when he believed that he was conceived on 24 June 1801 (24-6-01). It was kept through Schönberg and Boublil’s concept album and stuck when it was translated into English.
As I was going to work this morning, I noticed something weird: In the number “Who am I”, where Valjean struggles with the decision whether to confess or keep silent, the number usually ends with the emphatic declaration of his prisoner number, at least it is this way in the English, French and Dutch albums.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this number in the Swedish cast album is not 24601 but 25601. In retrospect, it’s obvious why it was purposly translated this way: the number “4” in Swedish is fyra, which has one syllable too many, so something similar, say, “5” fem was chosen instead.
This lead me to wonder in how many other translations is this number not kept in its original form. According to Reddit, 23623 (or 23632) is used in Spanish, probably because cuatro adds one too many syllables in a phrase that already has too many. The West Germanic language family tends to keep 24601, which fits nicely with the five syllables the song was written with, as the original French lyrics of this section was “Regarde bien!/24-601! (vingt-quatre six o un).”
|English||24601||two four six oh one|
|Dutch||24601||twee vier zes nul een|
|French||24-601||vignt-quatre six o un|
|Swedish||25601||två fem sex noll ett|
|Portuguese (Brazil)||23612||dois três seis um dois|
Listening to my favourite musical numbers in a new language is the closest thing you can get to hearing them for the first time. Honestly, this is one of the biggest reasons why I’m so keen on learning new languages. Read more about it on the languages page!