Even a brief survey of various online translation tools points to an interesting fact. One of the things potential users want the most from such tools is to translate lyrics. Lyrics to practically any song imaginable – from the most current pop hits to early church hymnals. It sounds like a quite simple task. You look at the already translated repository or you type in the lyrics in the original language and presto! After all, many songs, particularly modern pop ones don’t have that many words in them. How hard could that be?
Actually, very hard and complex. Even those people who are not really that initiated in the translation process could quickly realize that. They only need to take a look at the YouTube series by singer Malinda Kathleen Reese called Google Translate Sings. And that is not the only example.
Still, the demand persists, even though as these two authors note, music is the universal language. “Sometimes, bands adapt their lyrics into English to reach international audiences—which explains why so few of us can sing ABBA in the band members’ native Swedish. Other times, songs are adapted into local languages for international release, as exemplified by this 25-language compilation of “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen.” Very, often, the potential audience just wants to really know what the song they are listening to is about.
Professional translators though are aware that to translate lyrics is one of the most complex tasks they could face. So much so, that it has now become a specific field in linguistic research.1 In their translation process of song lyrics, they are faced with a number of dilemmas.
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This post was updated on March 2021
Approaches to translating song lyrics
As the two translators (above footnote) point out, J. Franzon2 examined the options in song translation and the concept of ‘singability’. Basically, singability is defined as “to utter words or sounds in succession with musical modulations of the voice; vocalize melodically.” Franzon assumed that a song has three properties (music, lyrics, and prospective performance) and music has three components (melody, harmony and musical sense), he suggests that a song translator may have five options:
- leave the song (lyrics) untranslated;
- translate the lyrics without taking the music into consideration;
- writing new lyrics to the original music;
- adapting the music to the translation; and
- adapting the translation to the music.
From the list of the above options, it immediately becomes obvious that a translator who has to translate lyrics has to have a musical background. This could be as a musician, a lyricist or even both.
Of course, in many cases, a potential client just wants to know what the lyrics say. Even then though, a translator cannot approach his translation based on a word for word principle. Translating song lyrics in many ways corresponds to the patterns of translating poetry. And translating poetry has its own translation process that differs from most other ‘regular’ texts or documents. There, a translator often has to concentrate on the meaning the author is trying to convey. In poetry a few words are supposed to contain meanings other authors try to express in multiple sentences or paragraphs.
Yet, there is another possible hurdle translator of song lyrics face. What if the lyrics to a song feature more than one language? There, the translators have not only to be multilingual but adept at song lyrics themselves.
Strategies to translate lyrics
Responding to one of the numerous questions concerning lyrics translation, Rosanne Menacho says that it all depends on the intended use of these lyrics. In the above-mentioned case when potential clients just want to know what the lyrics mean. a more literal approach to translation could work.
“If the translated lyrics are going to be sung, it really needs to be re-written in the target language as if the lyrics were originally written in that language. This means taking the original melody, rhythm, lyrics, theme, story, and atmosphere into account, and using these as a guide to writing new lyrics that will be catchy and easy to remember in the target language.”
That is where the possible musical experience of a potential translator comes into play. Menacho stresses the following strategies there:
- The song in translation must be easy to sing. The translator needs to arrange the words so that the vowels and consonants flow smoothly from one word to the next.
- The new lyrics need to have the same number of syllables per line as the original so they will fit the melody. This means that the translator will either need to add words or delete words depending on the average number of syllables in words in their language.
- If the original song rhymes, the translation should also rhyme. This also applies to other poetic devices like alliterations and wordplay.
- The climax in the line or verse needs to be on the same keyword as in the original, even if this means changing the order of words.
- In order to achieve this, the translator needs to keep the overall theme, emotion, and atmosphere of the song in mind and try to paint similar images through their lyrics rather than getting too caught up with individual words.
In one of their blog posts on the topic, The English Correction Service for Students points out the following. “To fully convert the lyric of a song from one language to another—in this case, modern English—while retaining the structure of the strophes, the sense (meaning), as well as the meter, without violating the rules of grammar or using archaisms… well, that’s nearly impossible!”
“It is, of course, possible to compress the translation and express it in fewer words.” If the translation of the song is edited in such a way that the sense is retained, then compromises may have to be made with regard to the structure. There, a translator may need to use a different meter.
TopCorrect suggests that there the translators should go for free verse translations. Still, those have to retain the lyricism and rhythm of the original poem or song. This would also mean staying as close to the original as possible.
Yet another approach translators use to translate lyrics is paraphrasing. This is the technique two translators applied when they were translating song lyrics from Mulan from English to Chinese. In their conclusions, they state that “paraphrasing was identified as the most common/useful strategy in translating song lyrics from English to Chinese.” They also concluded that “translation of literary genre, particularly translations of songs and lyrics, is a complex procedure depending greatly on the translator’s appropriate style which demands creativity in making complex decisions.”
It is quite possible that with the translation of song lyrics can hardly depend on modern software translation tools. There, the so-called prescriptive translations, where a translator has in-advance solutions may not be available.
To translate lyrics can be both rewarding and painful
In their blog post about how to translate song lyrics, Kate Torgovnick May and Krystian Aparta call it ‘The joy and agony of translating song lyrics”. The authors use the example of translators that were engaged in translating lyrics for TED, the Musical.
The stress the dilemma of lyrics translators. “ Do you go for the accuracy or strive to make the translation singable? “ But TED lyrics translators also had another complicating element to factor in, humor. And humor is usually one of the hardest things to transfer in a translation. It all depends on what any given society considers as humor in the first place.
The authors spoke to a number of translators working on the project.
Khalid Marbou, who translates TED Talks into Arabic, initially hesitated on whether to take on this translation at all. “I figured that no matter how good I made it, it still would feel weird to read something in a completely different rhyme than what you are listening to. It felt like an impossible task.”
On the other hand, for Japanese translator Kazunori Akashi, the main goal was making the subtitles short enough to enable viewers to easily follow the video, while also following Japanese lyrical traditions.
To the project’s Serbian translator. the number of syllables proved to be the biggest challenge. “It required me to compress everything so that I could imagine singing it in Serbian,” he said. “Initially, I attempted to make the entire song rhyme, but it proved virtually impossible with the line length.”
These direct experiences to translate lyrics just show how complex a task it can be to translate even the simplest songs in any language combination, or combinations.
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- Gritsenko Elena, Aleshinskaya Evgenya, Translation of song lyrics as a structure-related expressive device, Elsevier, 2016 ↩
- Franzon, J. (2008). Choices in song translation: Singability in print, subtitles and sung performance. The Translator, 14(2), 373–399. ↩