To Thread - Forum Home

The Mudcat Café TM
45 messages

Translations mutilating songs

27 Jul 01 - 09:22 AM (#515840)
Subject: Translations mutilating songs
From: Wolfgang

A better title would have been: Translations taking the heart out of songs, but since that was exactly two letters too long some of you might have been irritated.

The gigolo thread gave me the idea to this discussion. I've always liked the German original song 'Schöner Gigolo' and I've always hated its English 'translation' 'Just a gigolo' for it tears the heart out of the song. When you listen to the English version (I assume you know it) can you imagine that it once was a biting sarcastic antimilitary song?

A similar example for me is how Jacques Brel's beautifully sad and sarcastic song 'Le moribond' became an unpalatable sweetie as "Seasons in the sun".

What have they done to these songs! Do you have similar experiences?


27 Jul 01 - 09:33 AM (#515849)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: MMario

I am hopelessly uni-lingual; so it isn't much of a problem for me, as (mostly) I have no idea what the original lyrics mean.

But occassionally I do run across prose translations of songs originally in other languages and mourn what has been lost in the translation. Many times the "translation" as sung has little or nothing to do with the original "story" of the song - or so little it should be classed as a different song.

This does indeed seem to be a pity - blessed are they with more then one language - who can enjoy song in more then their birth tongue.

27 Jul 01 - 09:47 AM (#515856)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: RangerSteve

It's not just the translations. The songs apparently get toned down. The popular version of Seasons in the Sun has a verse sung to the singers girlfriend. The version done by the Kingston Trio has that verse addressed to an adulterous wife. I have a feeling that the KT's version is closer to the original, but God forbid we should be exposed to that on the radio.

27 Jul 01 - 10:08 AM (#515875)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Wolfgang


the original has even a verse to the lover of his wife, "....for you'll surely be glad about me dying..."


27 Jul 01 - 10:30 AM (#515891)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: McGrath of Harlow

We've recently had a thread about My Way, which was rewritten by the aptly named Paul Anka from quite a good French Song.

That wasn't a translation, it was a completely new (and as it happened vastly inferior) new song, using the tune.

My impression is that most so called translations of songs are in fact more like that. There's nothing wrong in my view with doing that either. But a true translation is in some ways much more interesting - and it is a lot harder.

One problem is that songs tend to be full of references to other songs, and you get place names and so forth which have meaning that just can't be translated. So any translation that is going to have then same kind of overtones is likely to have to be a bit of a rewrite as well.

I tried doing a translation/rewrite of a French chanson which I really liked, and wanted to be able to sing, with special contemporary relevance. Just for interest here is the original, Les loups sont entrés dans Paris , and here is my version, The Wolves are on the street.

27 Jul 01 - 10:45 AM (#515907)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Wolfgang

Kevin McGrath,

I fully agree that any singable translation is very hard to do. You can't translate all the allusions and plays with the language or the cultural background. But you can try to do justice to the original song and to recreate it in another language. There have been several examples in Mudcat of really good translations (of e.g. Brassens songs) and your translation is another perfect example for a really good translation.

Thanks for the link to 'My way' as another bad example. I hadn't opened that thread I only had wondered why a simple request for simple lyrics was getting so many posts and thought it must be the BS crowd kidnapping a thread. I was wrong.



27 Jul 01 - 11:04 AM (#515921)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: catspaw49

Ah Wolfgang, even inveterate BS'ers have some other thoughts at times.

I question whether in many cases the translation is as much at fault as the translator. At times I think they well know the "liberties" they are taking and feel they are creating a "new and better: song, or one that appeals to them more. I mean that happens without translations, so I'd see no reason that it wouldn't be equally a factor in translations.


27 Jul 01 - 11:29 AM (#515948)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: McGrath of Harlow

Most of the best songs in folk traditions have changed a fair bit since they were made up - just have a look at some broadsheet versions of songs that passed into the oral tradition.

More often than not, the changes have improved the songs. So whether its a translation or not, rewriting has a useful place. The fact that a translation isn't true to the original isn't in itself a reason to put it down, if it works as a song.

But there is a point beyond which it isn't a translation any more, but a new song entirely, with an old tune maybe. (And sometimes tunes need rewriting to fit in with a different culture.)

27 Jul 01 - 01:19 PM (#516064)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: mg

Oleana. Which I believe is an old Norwegian fishing song, with the most beautiful tune. I would like information about this if anyone has it. Somehow I think there were new Norwegian words put to it regarding the community of Oleana. Then I think someone..I won't mention any names, translated those words into horrible English. My soul cringes when I hear those awful words (except the one verse that says I don't know but I've been told, streets of heaven are paved with gold..which might have come in as a Jody call) sung to that marvelous tune. mg

27 Jul 01 - 01:20 PM (#516067)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Mrrzy

I think that the problem is, do you translate the lyrics, or do you translate the song. Les Compagnons de la Chanson do a GREAT translation of Ghost Riders In The Sky (Les Cavaliers Du Ciel) - where the tone, and the mood, and the feel --the heart of the song, quoi-- are all perfectly preserved, and the verses are about the same KIND of thing, but much less effort was put into translating each individual word. On the other hand (ear?), I've heard songs in both English and French (my two native languages) in which the lyrics were well-preserved and the song had an entirely different "flavor" in the translation than in the original. I always like it better if they translated the song more closely than the lyrics.

27 Jul 01 - 02:01 PM (#516103)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: RangerSteve

Just in case anyone thinks we're the only guilty one, we're not. Plenty of English language tunes are translated into other languages, with some hilarious results.

27 Jul 01 - 02:38 PM (#516151)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Wolfgang

I see your points that 'translators' have a right also to transform songs into something else which seems to be better to them. But it seems such a shame that too often this is done the 'toning down' way (the way of the money). I know of many examples where I like the translation as much as the original but I know of too many cases where I cringe when I hear the translation (e.g. Seasons in the sun) to a song I love in the original. Maybe just the disappointment that they leave out the part that endears the original song to you.


27 Jul 01 - 03:43 PM (#516216)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Mrrzy

Well, the best mistranslation I ever encountered (this was before I heard of parody) was the French version of Those Were The Days, My Friend - voila sans html: C'etait le temps des fleurs / que j'enculais ma soeur / sur le divan de la salle a manger / Elle me disait Vas-y / en tirant mon zizi / (for we were young, and sure to have our way - can't remember the last line! Yikes! LYRICS REQUEST!)

27 Jul 01 - 03:46 PM (#516220)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: McGrath of Harlow

One example of toning it down - though I don't know, maybe the toning down occurred in the original as well.

Lili Marlene - "written by a German private in World War One, Hans Loep, in honour, not as is commonly assumed, of one girl but two - Lili and Marlene, who used to wait for him in the evenings underneath the lamplight across the barrack square." (Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major, ed Martin Page, 1973.)

27 Jul 01 - 03:59 PM (#516229)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: sian, west wales

Another part of it is the times in which they're translated. There are a lot of English lyrics to Welsh songs which are terrible, cloying, Victorian words to sometimes quite interesting Welsh lyrics.

Another aspect of this is ethnomusicologists who study songs in translation and come up with some rather off-base theories. This came up recently with my friend who's research Wren songs (another thread). She says there are some strange theories floating around and you can see where they come from - bad translations.


27 Jul 01 - 04:15 PM (#516246)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Maryrrf

I couldn't agree more ! But I think theres no help for it. Jaques Brel comes immediately to mind - "Le Moribund" is lovely and moving - "Seasons in the Sun" is trite. Other Brel songs have not translated very well - "Quand on n'a que l'Amour" is beautiful, but "If we only have love" sounds treacly. I think "If you go Away" translates pretty well from "Ne me Quittes Pas". Last night I was singing a well known tango called "Cuesta Abajo" and thinking how beautiful, how moving it was, and it evoked all kinds of images in my mind. Then I considered how it would sound in English and it would translate awfully - let's see:

"I dragged through the world the shame of having been something, and of no longer being anything. Beneath the shadow of my hat - how many times I concealed a tear that welled up that I just couldn't contain...If I walked the streets like a pariah that destiny delighted in crushing, if I was lazy, if I was blind.. I only want them to understand the courage that it took to love!"

It sounds very melodramatic in English. It's melodramatic in Spanish too, but it's beautiful.

27 Jul 01 - 04:36 PM (#516266)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: McGrath of Harlow

It is extraordinarily difficult. But it can be done. For example, Alasdair Clayre has done it - here is The Dove, his translation of Brel's La Colombe.

And Jake Thackray has done it with some Georges Brassens songs.

But it can't be done by some hack who is just trying to write a song for some show-biz celebrity who heard the tune in a bar somewhere. And there's got to be sensitivity to the underlying meaning, and the nuances of language.

For example - and I may be wrong here "Quand on n'a que l'Amour" doesn't mean "If we only have love" but if "If we have only love" (ir strictly "When someone has only love") which to me means something subtly and significantly different.

31 Jul 01 - 10:56 AM (#518364)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Wolfgang

Thanks for many fine examples of the good kind and of the bad kind. A good translation of a song is an art and it takes an artist to do it.
I think I'll post within the next weeks the German version of 'Just a gigolo' (and its verbatim translation) as one bad example.


31 Jul 01 - 12:55 PM (#518436)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Bill D

a fine thread.....I know that with my small command of German, I am aware of the difference between using 'Du' or 'Sie', but even knowing this, I might miss it in a song. And if, in a German song, a change were made from 'Sie' to 'Du' a few verses later, how would I translate that into English adequately?....not easy...and that is a simple one!

(I am reminded of a joke about 3 Frenchmen debating among themselves the meaning of "savoire-faire".....even within a language many colloquialisms and slang words are used variably)

31 Jul 01 - 02:36 PM (#518502)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: M.Ted

A song translator is just looking for a hit--they try to say something that will mean something to their potential audience, whether it says what the original song did, is unimportant--

One of my favorite songs is the Charles Trenet song, Que Reste Til, which is a meditation on what still remains of the loves of younger days, the English "I Wish You Love", is a completely different song, of the "let's break up on a positive note" genre--The English song is good, but the French version is great(for film buffs, particularly you, Fielding, this is the song at the beginning of Truffaut's "Baisers Volés"(Stolen Kisses), which is a line from the song)--

31 Jul 01 - 10:10 PM (#518771)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: GUEST,Reineke

Bill D, "Du" translates directly as "thee", so "du hast" translates as "thou hast", "du spielst" as "thou playest". See the similarity?


31 Jul 01 - 10:44 PM (#518791)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Mark Cohen

Wolfgang, I was glad to see you mention Le Moribond/Seasons in the Sun in your first post, because that was what instantly jumped to mind when I saw your thread title. I think that in "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris", Mort Shuman did some excellent Brel translations and some so-so ones. For example, "Crazy Carousels" has the flavor of "La Valse a Mille Temps", but lacks the cleverness of the idea and all the little internal puns. While I think "Brussels" captured the original very well. But others may differ. Of course, seeing Elly Stone perform in the show helped make up for any deficiencies in the translation, but not everyone had that privilege.

You (and perhaps one or two others!) may appreciate this rendition I did of a line from another Brel song: In "Le Prochain Amour", there is the line "Un homme averti en vaut deux," which I suspect is a proverb. It means, roughly, "a man who is alert ("warned") is worth two [men]." My translation of that would be, "Forewarned is four-armed."


01 Aug 01 - 05:51 AM (#518900)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Wolfgang

A good example, Mark. And in addition you also have to think of rhymes and meter. I admire good translators.

As an aside, one of our Nobel prize winning writers, Heinrich Böll, had a second job besides writing, he did translations from English, both prose and verse, but only (as far as I know) if the writer came from Ireland. Only then he felt he had the necessary background (he lived for long periods in his house on Achill Island, Co. Mayo) to do a good job as translator.


01 Aug 01 - 06:41 AM (#518914)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Brían

We had the pleasure of having a group of Brazilian students invade our home several summers ago who were here to improve thier English and we had a great deal of time to talk about music and language.

The wer mostly still in thier teens and enjoyed popular music, but also enjoyed Brazilian Festival music.and wer able to sing some examples. Unfortunately, none of them could play the guitar.

One of the nicest mementos they gave us was a translation from Portuguese, of THE GIRL FROM IPANIMA and I could just kill myself after all this build up but I'm tearing the house apart to find it.

I recall that one of the lines translated to: "She is like a poem."

I'm sure I have it, but it may take months for it to turn up. Darn.


01 Aug 01 - 06:55 AM (#518922)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Fiolar

I think some of the problem in translation is the fact that words in one language have no direct translation in another. Sometimes a single word cannot be translated without at least three or four other words to give it the same meaning. That works Ok in prose but fails in relation to song. For example the beautiful Irish song "Dhroimeann Donn Dilis" first line is "A Dhroimeann Donn Dilis, a shioda na mbo." I have seen an English translation which goes "My Dear Droimeann Donn, Oh Choicest of Cows." Taken like that it sounds as if a dairy farmer is getting ready to take one of his cattle to market.The Irish word "Droimeann" needs at least three English words to give its meaning.

01 Aug 01 - 10:03 AM (#519027)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Bill D

as to Du translating as 'thee'...perhaps that is so, but in the US, 'thee' & 'thou' are primarily associated with the older Quaker form of address, and don't quite convey the German sense of close acquaintance as opposed to casual acquaintance, if I understand it correctly, so it would still be slightly 'curious' in a song if the form changed from 'you' to 'thee' for an American.

01 Aug 01 - 10:26 AM (#519041)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: LR Mole

I remember in high school choir some Bartok thing (that we axed because the basses were too irreverent, or something) that had a "translated" line: "To the bagpipe player, I have paid four dimes, foolishly..." What a ridiculous lyric to have to try to sing.

01 Aug 01 - 01:14 PM (#519149)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Auxiris

Some time ago, I had posted a request here for the text of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", as I wanted to have a crack at translating it into French. Now, I am a French-to-English translator, but normally what I translate are technical texts and then mostly those that deal with water treatment. Gil Scott-Heron's classic piece posed a multiple problem because I had not only to translate it, but to adapt it to the French culture and update it to boot! I can now well understand why it is so difficult to do a decent translation of a song. . . I'll be happy to post the text (La révolution ne sera pas retransmise) I came up with if anyone is interested.



01 Aug 01 - 02:29 PM (#519225)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Ferrara

NOT on the same level of sophistication -- but I sing things like "Lili Marlene," "Santa Lucia," "Bella Ciao," etc., and often work up my own translations because I prefer to stick as close to the original meaning as possible. I'm often amazed at how unnecessary the translator's changes are.

My Dad was fond of an Italian saying -- I'll either get this right, or get it backwards -- "Tradittore, Traduttore," Which means more or less "A Translator is a Traducer [Betrayer, Deceiver]."

He insisted my sister and I learn things, not just in Italian, but in the local dialect whenever possible, on the grounds that no translation would ever give the flavor of the originals.

02 Aug 01 - 05:10 AM (#519545)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Mark Cohen

Wolfgang, your English is so good I forgot you're not a native speaker. My "translation" of the Brel line is actually a pun. The proverb in English is "Forewarned is forearmed"; my emendation to "four-armed" refers to "en vaut deux." Sorry, I guess everybody has a favorite joke that nobody else laughs at....

02 Aug 01 - 05:36 AM (#519555)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Wolfgang

Thanks for telling me, Mark,

I actually had seen the 'forewarned - four-warned' difference but wrongly thought it could be done seriously in a translation as a creative act. A creative writer or translator can take liberties to make a point clear but exactly which liberties can be takes and which cannot that is in fact beyond my abilities as you have seen.


02 Aug 01 - 07:50 AM (#519579)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: The_one_and_only_Dai

I misread this thread title as 'Transylvanians mutilating swans". What does that tell you about the inside of my head?

02 Aug 01 - 08:09 AM (#519586)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Wolfgang

As I have promised (threatened) here's a prime example:

Schoener Gigolo (Just a gigolo)


04 Jun 02 - 09:07 AM (#722734)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: GUEST,Bill Kennedy

another badly translated song not yet mentioned, but also by Charles Trenet, La Mer - what a sweet song, but 'Beyond the Sea' is again just silly trite, obviously the 'translator' wrote a different song, trying to rhyme English and French so 'La Mer' became 'Somewhere,..'

04 Jun 02 - 10:31 AM (#722780)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: mack/misophist

Translations are women
The beautiful are not faithful
The faithful are not beautiful

Anatole France

04 Jun 02 - 10:45 AM (#722791)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: GUEST,Bill Kennedy

Anatole France was clever, but, certainly a statement like this cannot be supported by the facts, there are faithful women, and beauty is a relative thing

translations are a different matter, though, and he is correct there, faithful translations are often clumsy and awkward and lack style and grace, lovely translations are often crudely approximate to the original

women deserve more respect, they are nothing like translations, they are incomparable one to another, each beautiful in a unique way

04 Jun 02 - 11:02 AM (#722803)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: George Seto -

I never noticed this thread the first time.

Very VERY few of the translations of English songs are singable. Those which you can sing to, are usually not very accurate renditions of the original Gaelic.

In Puirt-a-beul, where due to the nonsense syllables, are actually even harder to do anything with. This is because of trying to keep the rhythm of the song.

04 Jun 02 - 05:46 PM (#723072)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Joe Offer

Way back in 1997, we had some fun with the original and English versions of Pirate Jenny and Mack the Knife. Brecht's originals are some of the most powerful German I've read. The "standard" translations by Marc Blitzstein lose some of the evil power of Brecht's words, but I still think Blitzstein did a great job.

Blitzstein, by the way, is one of the main characters in the film The Cradle Will Rock, a story of the Federal Writers' Project of the 1930's.

-Joe Offer-

04 Jun 02 - 05:55 PM (#723081)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Clinton Hammond

I'm also a monoglot, so I need translations...

But I'm also aware that most poetry/songs ect do NOT translate well at all...

04 Jun 02 - 08:54 PM (#723209)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)

This thread brought to mind the Quebecois chansons sung in Quebec, about "Quebeckers," and about Canada, which reach only a tiny minority of English-speaking Canadians. Several of the singer-composers have played at the Olympia in Paris, but except for a few token performances in Toronto and at universities, they are unheard voices in English Canada. Even English-speaking Canadians who have learned some conversational French are lost with the street idioms (slang).

I went to the thread where Wolfgang posted "Schöner Gigolo" with approx. English in alternate lines. The meter and rhymes of the original are there, so the music may remain unchanged, but the sense of the song is translated. I wish Canadians had access to efforts like this, it might lead to greater mutual understanding. Of course it only works if the texts are readily available.
Mechanical translation may help in some cases, but it is a total loss with idioms/slang.

05 Jun 02 - 09:46 AM (#723496)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Joe_F


"Lili Marleen" may indeed have been named after two women, but within the song she is singular in German as well as in English: Mit dir, Lili Marleen, etc.

The song well deserves mention in this thread, however, in that, even with my small knowledge of German, I can see that the original is a far better poem than either of the English translations I have heard. Technically it is superior in that the first and third lines of each stanza rhyme, as well as the second and fourth. And it gives us images rather than gush: Our two shadows looked like one; anyone could see right away how much we liked each other.

06 Jun 02 - 03:11 AM (#724093)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Genie

Ferrara, Thanks for reminding me: "Lili Marlene" is, to me, the perfect example of Wolfgang's point. Though my grasp of German is rudimentary (one semester of study), I hear the earthy poetry in the German lyrics and am moved by the bittersweet love story. The popular English version sounds almost like a bad limerick to me. The rhymes seem sing-song and trite. [The German version does not have the internal rhymes and does not need them.] The story is pretty much the same, except in the US version, Lili and her lover are on opposite sides in the war. But I think the English lyrics are pretty poor poetry.

On the other hand, the English words to "La Vie En Rose" are nowhere near a literal translation of the French, but I think each song can stand on its own merit. In the case of "Bèsame Mucho," I actually prefer the meaning of the English words. I love to sing the song in Spanish, because it sounds good to the ear, but I can't really relate to the meaning of the Spanish words, because they're so melodramatic and anxiety-ridden, and.


06 Jun 02 - 03:56 AM (#724107)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: KingBrilliant

It seems that the best translations are those which operate at a broader level - ie translating the essence rather than the exact words.
I think that we all tend to pick up different nuances and flavours from a song, and so any such translation is neccessarily filtered. Maybe that's why some translations are irksome - because the beautiful thing that you see in the original has been filtered out. What remains may displease because it is not the same thing that you originally saw - but then it might be the very essence of what the translator saw.


02 Mar 11 - 08:19 AM (#3105551)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: GUEST,olivia

I am looking for a reallybad example of translating music/songs for a translation project, perferably in spanish, Has anyone come across one? I would really appreciate a link! thanks !!!

02 Mar 11 - 11:31 AM (#3105646)
Subject: RE: Translations mutilating songs
From: Dave MacKenzie

Here's an example from German to English:

Frank P.'s Moorsoldaten