Music translation: “A song has to possess lyrics” – A hard nut to crack

Lou Rawls said: Music is the greatest communication in the world. Even if people don’t understand the language that you’re singing in, they still know good music when they hear it. Nevertheless, the melody sometimes rather repulses than attracts us or it is limited to the background beat. Just as if the composer hadn’t got on well with Polyhymnia or she has played a trick on him. Therefore, you simply turn the radio off in order to protect your ears and no to get crazy with endless text manifestly lacking in melody. But don’t forget that the song is not only the music! To record an evergreen you need something more than a catchy tune and a good singer that has chemistry with the audience. It is also the lyrics that make the song what it is.

It is especially important in the case of poetic songs when the vocal is from time to time more similar to whisper or talk. Of course, nothing can replace a good original version in which all the allusions, metaphors and word plays are preserved and compiled with the performer’s personal appeal. But on the other hand, most of the greatest hits that are fundamental for the culture we know would not have achieved such a big success unless they had been translated. The translation of musicals, like the blockbuster La La Land, doesn’t need any additional justification.




But the question of how to translate a song well remains…


Some researchers call the process constrained translation, as the translator has to keep in mind not only the text, but also various not purely linguistic elements, like the rhymes, the syllabic composition, the rhythm, the rhythm and he should adjust all of them without the loss of meaning. It would be strongly advisable that the translator has received his training in the music area to better understand the importance of note- values, harmonies, stresses… which simply would help him to create a ‘singable’ translation.




Eng. Fre. Spa. Pol.

City of stars
Are you shining
just for me?
City of stars
There’s so much that I can’t see.
Who knows?
I felt it from the first embrace
I shared with you
That now our dreams
They’ve finally come true.
City of stars
Just one thing everybody wants
There in the bars and through the smokescreen of the crowded restaurants.
It’s love.
Yes, all we’re looking for
is love
from someone else.
A rush.
A glance .
A touch.
A dance .
A look in somebody’s eyes
To light up the skies,
To open the world
and send it reeling.
A voice that says
‘I’ll be here’ and ‘you’ll be alright’
I don’t care if I know
Just where I will go
‘Cause all that I need is this crazy feeling
A “rat-tat-tat” of my heart.
Think I want it to stay.
City of stars
Are you shining just for me?
City of stars
You never shined
so brightly.

Ville étoilée,
brilles-tu juste
pour moi?
Ville étoilée,
il y en a tellement que
je ne vois pas
Qui sait?
Je l’ai senti dès notre premier baiser.
Désormais, nos rêves
sont enfin devenus réalité.
Ville étoilée
Juste une chose que tout le monde désire…
Là, dans les bars
et à travers
la fumée dans les
restaurants bondés.
C’est l’amour.
Oui, tout ce qu’on recherche,
c’est d’être aimé par quelqu’un d’autre.
Un regard.
Une caresse.
Une danse.  Regarder quelqu’un dans les yeux
pour éclairer les cieux,
pour ouvrir le monde et le faire vaciller
Une voix qui dit:
“Je serai là”  et “Tout ira bien pour toi”.
Peu importe si je sais
où j’irai
parce que j’ai juste besoin d’un sentiment fou-
un “taratata” dans mon coeur.
Je crois que je veux que ça reste ainsi.  Ville étoilée,
brilles-tu juste pour moi?
Ville étoilée ,
tu n’as jamais
autant brillé.

Ciudad de las estrellas,
¿Estás brillando sólo para mí?Ciudad de las estrellas,
no hay mucho que
no pueda ver.
¿Quién sabe?
Lo sentí desde el primer abrazo que compartí contigo
que ahora nuestros sueños
finalmente se han hecho realidad.
Ciudad de las estrellas,
sólo una cosa que todo el mundo quiere.
Allí en los bares
ya través de la cortina de humo de los abarrotados restaurantes.
Es amor.
Sí, todo lo que buscamos
es amor de otra persona.
Un subidón.
Una mirada.
Una caricia.
Un baile.
Una mirada en los ojos de alguien,
iluminar los cielos,
abrir el mundo
y enviarlo temblando.
Una voz que dice: “Estaré aquí
y tú estarás bien”.
No me importa si lo sé
sólo dónde iré porque todo lo que necesito es ese sentimiento loco-
un “rat-tat-tat” en mi corazón.
Creo que quiero que se quede.
Ciudad de las estrellas
¿Estás brillando sólo para mí?Ciudad de las estrellas,
nunca has brillado
con tanta fuerza.

Noc pełna gwiazd, czy to dla mnie świecisz tak? Księżyca blask… którą drogę
wybrać mam?
Kto wie?
Gdy pierwszy raz objąłem cię
poczułem, że
najskrytsze sny
spełniają dziś się.
Noc pełna gwiazd, wszyscy jednego pragną dziś. Szukają jej, aż w jakimś barze nagle sama znajdzie ich,
o tak.
Chcemy miłości
i by ktoś
pokochał nas.
Ten dreszcz,
brak tchu,
gdy wiesz,
bez słów;
gdy oczy spotkają się i dla dwojga serc zakręci się świat
i czas zatrzyma; gdy w smutku słyszysz czyjś szept: „Nie będzie tak źle”. Którą drogą mam iść nie martwię się dziś, gdy serce tak bije jak szalone „ratata z całych” sił.
Jak nie zgodzić się z nim?
Świat zapadł w sen; najpiękniejszy śni się mi.
Ktoś sprawił, że
to miasto gwiazd tak dziś lśni.

In the table above, we have a short sample, of how The city of stars, the emblematic song of the blockbuster La La Land gains (or loses) a new life in translation. You don’t need to be Einstein to see that something is not quite right here, even though you don’t catch the sense of single words or expressions. Whoever ventured to sing the Spanish or French version should have got a Grammy award!

So, the recipe for failure is as follows:

  1. word-for- word translation:

Eng. ‘The city of stars’→ Spa. ‘La ciudad de las estrellas’

  1. not counting syllables:

Eng. 3→ Spa. 6

  1. loss of rhymes:

Eng. ‘rush’⁓ ‘touch’, ‘glance’⁓ ’dance’ vs Fre. ‘l’adrénaline’‖ ‘un regard’‖ ‘une caresse’‖ ‘une danse’

or Spa. ‘un subidón’‖ ‘una mirada’‖‘una caricia’‖ ‘un baile’

  1. loss of meaning (as a result of word-for-word translation):

Eng. ‘send it reeling’ (= to make something move so fast through/ across something) vs Spa. ‘enviarlo temblando’(what doesn’t make sense, as this expression doesn’t exist in Spanish and looks like a cut sentence which can evoke negative associations due to the verb ‘temblar’ polysemy).

As you see, sometimes it is better to rearrange a phrase in order not to harm the vocalist, the listener and one’s own reputation.

Have we stimulated you to complete the list of potential mistakes or, just the contrary, to translate a song? Let’s show it in your comments!


By Karolina Dabek


If you like our articles, read also Global business? Speak the language and content of your client


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