Translating music: just jokes and gibberish?

After a busy few weeks, it’s finally time for another blog. I was trying to think of a topic covering a large area that I have completely overlooked so far and the one that came to mind was music.

In some ways it’s an obvious choice, it’s a passion of mine and a topic that fits in well with the other hugely general areas I’ve covered so far. (TV, film, books…) Yet, as I’ve chosen to look at music in popular culture in this post, problems arise in even finding a link to translation.

Unlike poetry, which is considered by many academics as the pinnacle of translation, the elite task of the translator, with the need to convey meaning alongside replicating rhyme, meter, assonance, alliteration, etc. (a topic for another day) or opera, where translation also plays a key role, there is obviously no real demand for the translation of lyrics in pop music aside from a curiosity on the part of the listener to discover what the lyrics mean. But there must be more to it than just being a good way to learn foreign languages?

Music clearly has a huge impact on cultures, indeed there are few better examples of the ideological power of music than the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. It tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a 70s folk singer from Detroit who, at least partially due to the prejudices against Latin American culture at the time, failed to sell any records in his homeland while unknowingly becoming the hero of the entire South African nation, selling over half a million copies of his album as his lyrics gave hope of change to a nation under Apartheid. An impressive link between music and culture, no doubt, but there is still a common language here and therefore no suggestion of music’s role across linguistic borders.

Here in England there is relatively little demand for non-anglophone music. With the amount of music available, the global domination of the English language and the lack of enthusiasm for learning foreign languages, the expected norm is that the English listener will have no knowledge or desire to work out the meaning of lyrics. This is demonstrated by the advertising technique used by Specsavers a few years ago where they took one of the few foreign tracks recognisable to an English audience – Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ – and by playing upon the viewer’s lack of linguistic knowledge, probably understanding the meaning of the title and no more, changed the meaning of the lyrics to advertise their brand and add a little humour.

(The song’s status as one of the only recognisable non-English tracks in England is further exemplified by its usage in this 90s advert for Heineken with a very young-looking Stephen Fry)

And it is these games that seem to be the extent of language’s influence when it comes to popular music. In Italy, where there is more of a desire to listen to English music but still a relatively low understanding of the language, the potential for play is high and one well-known example in particular is well worth sharing. (Skip to about 1:40 if you just want the song and not a little test of your Italian)

In 1972 Adriano Celetano released the single ‘Prisencolinensinainciusol’, a track made up of pure gibberish (except the words ‘all right’) but which, by copying phonetic patterns of American English, is made to sound to an Italian audience like meaningful English sung with an accent. It’s fascinating to listen to for an English speaker and shows the full extent to which language can be manipulated.

Furthermore, it once again shows that it is a kind of non-translation or false translation – rather than the genuine transference of meaning – that is commonplace when popular music tackles the issue of language, with comprehension not important or even preferred.

All in all, these examples serve to demonstrate that when music crosses linguistic borders, language can often become little more than a tool to be manipulated.

One thought on “Translating music: just jokes and gibberish?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s