Monday, October 26, 2009

Lyrical Translation

I was working on what I might write up today, and looking through the songs that have gotten a lot of hits on my iTunes this year, and noticed something: I had a number of songs in there twice. This isn't because I have an untidy library (though I do), it's because the songs in question had been translated from another language, and the experience in English and the original language are two very, very different experiences.

An excellent example of this is, I believe, the most popular song ever in the French Language: La Vie en Rose, sung most famously by the divine Edith Piaf:

This is a song that has been much sung in English. As, for instance, by Louis Armstrong (also known as 'the love song from WALL-E ;P ):

It's really interesting looking at the two songs side by side, because they have a very, very different meaning to it. The first is the perfect Edith Piaf songs - slightly forlorn, gently moaning, a sort of paean to what cannot be. Louis Armstrong, ironically, sings the same song, and it's quintessentially Louis: cheerful, hopeful, sort of overboiling with the slight echo of a chuckle. Part of this of course is the glory of interpretation. But not all. Look at the original French lyrics:

Quand il me prend dans ses bras

Il me parle tout bas,

Je vois la vie en rose.

Il me dit des mots d'amour,

Des mots de tous les jours,

Et ca me fait quelque chose.

(Roughly translated:

When he takes me in his arms

He speaks softly,

I see life in pink.

He told me words of love,

Words of every day,

And it makes me something.)

Then, the English lyrics:

Hold me close and hold me fast

The magic spell you cast

This is la vie en rose

When you kiss me, heaven sighs

And though I close my eyes

I see la vie en rose

It's not that the English lyrics are bad (I don't know enough French to even tell you if the French ones are good poetry), but they are BARELY the same song. Both talk about feeling enraptured by love, but the first has a private, confessional feel to it, the second I pleasant, intoxicated one. In the second there is a vision of 'a world apart, a world where roses bloom', in the first, there is a sort of undercurrent, a quiet little part of the brain that knows that this cannot last, that the something will again be nothing.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing - or even necessarily a contravention of the artist's intention. A good example of this is in one of my favorite songs: Waters of March by the Bossa Nova master Antonio Carlos Jobim. In the original Brazilian Portuguese, with subtitles:

And (I don't like this video, but the absolutely gorgeous original recording of this in English by Jobim himself isn't online anywhere!) in English:

In case you missed it? The lyrics are very, very different - in fact, Jobim intended them to be so. He wrote both the English and Portuguese versions. In Brazil, the Waters in March are the floods that come down in the autumn and wash away the last of usmmer, before winter comes (Southern Hemisphere, you know...). In New York, where he wrote the English version, the Waters of March are the spring rains that stir up all the detritus of winter to carry in the life of spring time. While, admittedly, this sadly makes for an English version that is far too easy to sing in a horrible, campy lounge style (grr....), it makes two very different songs. And that's just it - translation, in music, is meant to speak to the audience it is being translated for. Jobim is famous for this. Many of the lyrics of his songs in Portuguese were written by a friend of his who was a well known poet in his own right. But the English versions usually have a very different meaning (look up the lyrics to Insensatez, or the Girl From Ipanema sometime - eye opening experience). If you want to know what is like to Brazilian, the translation seems to say, that's fine - listen to the song in Portuguese then, because the language is part of who we are. If you want to know how I feel in New York, listen in English, where I feel and speak in English.

This isn't a rare thing, classically, of course - after all, we don't routinely translate operas into English. And, in the end it offers a beautiful, fascinating vision of the differences and similarities between cultures. The complaint, fo course, is that we English speakers don't necessarily get to understand all the beuatiful things Jobim intended in the original. But then, I think that's a little short-sighted, listening to the Portuguese version (and I speak not a lick of Portuguese), you know the feeling inteded in it - it's familiar and human, even if you have no idea what's being said. And in the end, the Portuguese says it better, even without understanding, than the English does. So, you have, English singers (this version is by the beautifully voiced Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan), covering the Portuguese:


  1. What a great idea for a topic, Jason! I am really enjoying the diversity when all I tell people is to talk about music. Thanks so much for guest posting!

  2. Anonymous12:08 PM

    Really interesting!! It's a topic that's near and dear to my heart as a Spanish graduate student. Translation is an art, and a fascinating one at that :) I loved hearing these songs and their translations. Thanks!

  3. Ms Kailana - Thanks for having me, I'm glad I could contribute :)

    Ms regularrumination - My pleasure. I had a bad experience, actually, last year, with Spanish, when I tried to read some translations of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz - the translation sounded HORRIBLE! :D

  4. I love Piaf and Armstrong, so I've heard both versions before and was surprised by the difference in lyrics as well. :)

    You know, I think it's easier to sink into opera when it's a language I don't understand. I went to a Russian-language opera in Russia, and while it was AWESOME, I found myself focusing on the words rather than just the music. The only English-language 'opera' I've been to is The Mikado, which I didn't like that much. I don't know if that's the language, though, or just that Gilbert & Sullivan isn't my thing. ;)

  5. What a beautiful sense of music appreciation. This was a wonderful post that enlightened me a lot.

  6. Zomg, how did I not know that Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan cover!! And I really like them both! Thank you for that, Jason - and thank you for this whole post, which was wonderful and made me think. One of my favourite bands, Sigur Rós, sing in Icelandic, and I definitely don't need to understand the words to get the emotional content.

  7. Ms Eva - I have only been to two operas, ever, so I'm actually a terrible judge, but I do know what you mean - lyrics can be distracting... I feel that way frequently about, for instance, Requiems.

    Ms booklogged - Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it :).

    Ms Nymeth - I know! I totally only found out about the cover by accident today1 Love their music, only found out about them earlier this year, both of 'em, when someone put a link to a live recording of 'I remember' that I listened to about 7362 times. Need to get some albums, sometime... I hope the Portuguese subtitles were at least mostly right! I really have no way of verifying them :D. Have not heard Sigur Ros, but I heard someone reciting one of the Epics in Icelandic once, and it's a fascinating language - thoguh I've only heard it from men, and cannot imagine it easily in a woman's timbre.


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