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Translating Music: How Song Translations are Done

We may suggest that translation is a tool for communicating ideas, and translators are the ones who construct bridges between two languages, cultures, and, in certain cases, individuals. When we go beyond these traditional definitions of translation, it becomes clear that translation involves much more than simply making content available in the target language. If you want to read more about this distinction, you can read our blog on Human vs. Machine Translation.

The finest example of a type of translation that requires a lot of creativity would be song translation. This is because song translation gives translators ‘a confusing freedom of practice’ more than any other field does.

It is incredible to witness how the translation of music that is distinctive to a culture or language can bring people from all over the world together, whether it is lullabies, your favorite song from an animated film, or a carol. But have you ever thought about how much time and expertise goes into translating these well-known songs? Let’s check together.

How Can Songs Be Translated?

Just as with other types of translation, when translating a song, translators must decide on their strategy before starting. There are various strategies proven to be successful when translating music, such as:

Providing a Poetic Translation

With this method, the translator loosely translates the lyrics, not staying too close to the original text's wording. Most of the time, the biggest issue with song translations is phonetic differences—languages sound different, which makes expressing the idea difficult.

Composing Fresh Lyrics to Go with the Original Music

With this approach, the translator concentrates on the original's melody and creates words that flow with it. In this case, the meaning of the lyrics is compromised.

Translating the Lyrics Word-For-Word

Another strategy is attempting to maintain the original meaning. This approach seeks to translate every single syllable of a song in order to make it sound as similar to the original as possible. These translations typically ignore phonetics and grammar entirely.

Each of these techniques has a distinct function and should only be used in certain situations. However, it is extremely typical for the translators to begin with a literal translation in an effort to preserve the spirit and meaning of the song even in the target language. Sadly, this doesn't always work out, and if the music is difficult for native speakers to understand, it can actually take away a lot of its meaning.

It's probably best to begin with a literal translation of the song and then add musical components to every section that doesn't appear to make much sense in order to get a beautiful translation. The song's essential meaning can always be preserved, but you'll discover that some passages simply cannot be translated correctly into another language since they will change in order to fit in.

Three Things to Consider While Translating a Song

The following elements should be taken into account while translating song lyrics:

Beat

One cannot just translate a song. Despite the fact that many languages use more words to communicate the same idea as English does, lyrics must nonetheless match the song's beat. Therefore, it would be hard to match some words to the beat if the song was intended to be sung and was translated word for word. The literal translation, like a traditional text translation, may also provide pretty odd music lyrics.

References

Many songs are composed of events, but the audience to whom they are translated is not necessarily aware of these references. You must strive to interpret these references so that they are clear. However, due to the rhythm, there is always a word restriction.

Style

Some song lyrics have a distinct style, such as puns or alliterations. Because of the volume of words forced by the pace, this style is difficult to translate. However, if this approach is not followed, the song loses all of its appeal, the author's presence fades, and all that contributed to the song's attractiveness is lost.

The Most Popular Song Translations

1. Birthday Song

You probably saw this one coming, but the Birthday Song, written by Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893, is one of the best examples of a good song translation. In 1998, the Guinness Book of World Records said that the song, "Happy Birthday to You," is the most recognized song in English. It has been translated into more than 30 languages around the world.

2. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht

With translations available in more than 100 languages worldwide, "Silent Night" is without a doubt one of the most translated songs ever. Even in 2011, UNESCO designated it as a piece of "intangible cultural heritage." "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht," one of the most well-known Christmas songs in the world, was written as a carol in 1818 by Austrian priest Joseph Mohr and organist Franz Xaver Gruber.

3. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

The French ballad "Ah Vous dirai-je Maman" from the early 18th century provided the inspiration for "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star's" melody. On the basis of the melody, Mozart created 12 variations for the piano in 1778.

The lyrics of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" are taken from a poem titled "The Star" by British poet Jane Taylor (published in 1806). When the text and the song's lovely melody were combined, it is unknown. They first appeared together in literature in 1838. The infamous lullaby has been translated into more than 70 languages.

Disney Songs

When we think of song translation, there is no way of being blind to Disney songs and their impact on the song translation industry. Their animated movies are usually available in more than 45 different languages. Since children are the intended audience for the movies, which adults also find quite entertaining, and because each Disney song contributes to the plot, it is essential to translate the songs as accurately as possible. So, let’s check out four songs from Disney animated movies that were successfully translated into many languages:

1. "Let It Go" (Frozen) in 25 Languages

Written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, The breakout song from Disney's 2013 production Frozen, "Let It Go," performed in the full sequence, is translated into 25 different languages.

2. A Whole New World (Aladdin) in 40 Languages

This ballad was written by Tim Rice and is both the movie's love song and its theme song, initially sung by vocalists Brad Kane and Lea Salonga. When the movie was first released in 1992, it was adapted into 22 versions worldwide, in a total of 20 different languages. Over the years, this number has increased to 40 official versions.

3. We Don’t Talk About Bruno (Encanto) in 46 Languages

The group song, performed by Carolina Gaitán, Mauro Castillo, Adassa, Rhenzy Feliz, Diane Guerrero, and Stephanie Beatriz in Disney’s 2021 production Encanto, moved up from the Hot 100's runner-up position to become just the second Disney animated feature song to reach No. 1. The song has been translated into 46 different languages.

4. Circle of Life (The Lion King) in 45 Languages

The Walt Disney Company's 1994 animated picture The Lion King features the song "Circle of Life." Composed by English musician Elton John, with lyrics by Tim Rice, the song was translated into 22 languages on its release and into 45 languages by 2022.

Bonus: Shrek

We saved the best for last! The renowned Shrek series by Dreamworks, which debuted in 2001, became an international sensation. We cannot ignore the influence of the excellent localization of both the dialogues and puns and all the humor and songs of the animation, even though the fantastic characters and circumstances were a major part of it. Here are our top 2 songs from the Shrek series that are engraved on our minds

1. Holding Out for a Hero (Shrek 2) in 30+ languages

"Holding Out for a Hero" is a song recorded by Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler. The song was performed by the Fairy Godmother in the 2004 movie Shrek 2. Later, the song was localized into 30+ languages.

2. Hallelujah (Shrek 1) in 24 languages

Originally performed by Rufus Wainwright, this emotional piece was translated into 24 languages after the first movie of the series came out in 2001.

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