Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Song meanings lost in translation

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Sing it like you mean it in September 2007.

I have to admit that I’m not really a lyric person. I might have been listening to a particular pop song in English for years when I suddenly realise what it’s actually about! Or someone might point out the really obvious meaning to me, which until that point has totally gone over my head.

foreign language books

Foreign language books by tvol

Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to foreign language songs. I love the sound and feel of the words and aren’t really that interested in what they might mean. But many singers and teachers believe that you can’t sing a song properly unless you know the meaning of it.

singing what you mean

I’ve read quite a few books on working with choirs and singing in general, and without exception they all talk about how to convey the meaning of the song and how the meaning affects the vocal delivery. You will also find many professional singers and singing teachers banging on about the same thing. But what if a song is in a foreign language and you don’t have a translation or the meaning is not clear – does that mean you can’t sing the song?

Many of the songs in my repertoire come from traditions where expression and communication is mainly through the music rather than the words.

Often, cultures with rich harmony traditions have songs with very simple – even banal – words. In contrast, in traditions where the lyrics are important – such as ballads and storytelling songs – the song text is not complicated by harmonies or complex musical accompaniment.

lost in translation

Some of the songs we sing don’t make much sense, even if we do have a translation! So how do we go about singing such songs?

For example, the following are rough translations of a few love songs that we have in our repertoire:

“Oh, Dobric, your cool waters flow to three towns. There, gather the young boys and girls of Sibenik.” Oj Dobriću (Croatia)

“As my own I graze you, and you are dragging yourself behind me, little doll.” (to a sheep!) Ja Helo (Helokane) (Czechoslovakia)

“There’s a handkerchief on the road where my dear one passes. He made a new cart with two horses and no driver.” Maramica na stazi (Croatia)

Maybe something of the poetic nature of the lyrics has been lost in the translation (or there’s some culturally-specific sub-text that I’m unaware of), but I personally don’t find that these English translations help me to sing the song.

Also, there are often other cultural differences. What to our ears might sound rather like a military march, or a dirge, or an upbeat dance song might just as easily be a love song or a song of loss and grief.

the ‘meaning’ of a song is encoded in its music

Some people say that as long as you stay true to the spirit of the meaning of a song, then it’s OK. But I believe that every song has its own unique feel which cuts across cultures. I believe that as long as you stay true to the music of the song, then you can’t go far wrong.

The sound of the lyrics (even if you don’t understand them), the melody and the harmonies all go to make up a whole which suggests a mood or feeling, regardless of what the song means (if it’s a well-written song!).

Sometimes it’s even useful to do this with a song that you can understand. Why not try singing a song with English lyrics using nonsense syllables and try to find the underlying musicality of the song? Sometimes the music can get lost beneath the words and the desire to communicate the meaning of the lyrics.

Even though I’m not a lyric person, I try not to teach a song unless I do have a rough translation and some sense of the background and cultural context. We may not use the meaning to help us sing, but it’s important that we respect the tradition that the song has come from and try not to sing anything which is offensive or exploitative.

For more discussion on lyrics and meaning: Singing what you mean and meaning what you sing

there are two types of people in the world ...

There are lyric people and there are people like me, and we’ll never agree with each other!

Neither group is right or wrong, we just respond differently to words and music. Some people can’t even begin to join in with a song in one of my workshops without knowing the meaning of each individual word. Whereas I simply enjoy the sounds that the words make.

Which type are you? Does the meaning of a song matter to you? Does it affect the way you might sing it? What if you don’t know the meaning of a foreign song – does that mean you can’t sing it? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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