Case Study: The Challenge of Translating Songs

Translation is no easy work: translators are constantly confronted with a tricky balance between language and culture. On one hand, they must try to stay faithful to the language used in the original text. On the other hand, they must ensure that their translated text will enjoy the same status and relevance in the target culture as the original one did in its culture.

Striking this balance is particularly challenging when translating foreign-language songs. Indeed, with most written documents and literary texts, translators can take some liberties: they can make some sentences longer, omit others, and provide footnotes when necessary. Unfortunately, in songs, there is no room for footnotes: translations must fit perfectly within the predetermined rhythm and melody.

As such, songs must sacrifice authenticity in meaning in order to be singable in another language — and vice versa. Two popular songs and their foreign-language translations exemplify this trade-off, and highlight the difficulty of translating music.

Beyoncé – If I Were a Boy / Si Yo Fuera un Chico

Beyoncé’s hit “If I Were a Boy”discusses what her life would be like if she were born with a Y chromosome. Due to its immense popularity, and the relatable nature of its theme, it was translated into Spanish, which Beyoncé then recorded herself.

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As this side-by-side comparison shows, the song stays true to Beyoncé’s original language, despite a couple omitted lines:

The rest of the song follows the same pattern: it is rigorously faithful to Beyoncé’s original lyrics and rhythm. Therefore, the Spanish-language translation scores high points for authenticity. But how does it fare in terms of singability? That’s where we run into problems.

In Spanish, the stress on the word “chico” — arguably the most important word in the song — falls on the first syllable: CHEE-ko. However, in order to fit the song’s original rhythm, the Spanish translation stresses the second syllable: chee-KO. This sounds about as natural as pronouncing “woman” as “wo-MAN”, and makes it obvious that “Si Yo Fuera un Chico” is a translated version of a song that’s better suited to English.

Nena – 99 Luftballons / 99 Red Balloons

Beyoncé sacrifices singability in order to stay true to the original lyrics. Conversely, in German pop star Nena’s distinctly 1980s hit 99 Luftballons, we see the opposite pattern: the song flows beautifully in both its original German and English, but the words are vastly different in each language. This can be seen in even the opening few lines:

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As the songs progress, however, their disparate lyrics merge into the same meaning: they tell the story of of a child who releases some balloons into the air, which are then shot down by the military. This in turn inspires aggression in the nations that border the state, and a 99-year-long war begins, ultimately resulting in the destruction of all nations involved.

99 Luftballons and 99 Red Balloons transmit the same anti-war message, and both are natural and easily singable in their target languages. In order to do so, however, the translators involved in the English version had to rewrite the lyrics entirely. No effort was made to preserve the original form and language of the German version; rather, the emphasis was on replicating its mood and message.

Check out more German language hits!

Thus, If I Were a Boy and 99 Luftballons show us two ways of handling the daunting task of translating songs. If I Were a Boy stays faithful to the form and language of the original song, at the expense of sounding natural in the target language; 99 Luftballons deviates technically from the original German, but transmits the same message and sounds very natural in English. Ultimately though, hyped up by their singer’s stardom, their catchiness still holds true.

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