Monday, February 28, 2022

How to use the internet to research a song in a foreign language

I teach songs from many different cultures, most of which aren’t in English.

Before I teach a song, I need to find out as much as I can about it: who wrote it, what language it’s in, its cultural context, translation into English and so on. Here’s how I go about it.

just because it’s published doesn’t mean the information is correct

I came across an enquiry on Facebook today from somebody who was looking for the origins of a German text that has been set to music many times.

It was supposedly from an inscription on a wall in the Warsaw Ghetto. The person posing the question said: “If it’s a poetic interpretation of what a Warsaw prayer would have been, I’d rather know that and tell it to my choristers, rather than tell it as truth inscribed on an actual wall.”

It turns out that the inscription was made by one of nine Jewish refugees who were hiding from the Gestapo for four months in complete darkness in an underground shelter in Cologne. Knowing this, the (correct) words make much more sense.

Many published settings of these German words have incorrect attributions and inaccurate versions of the original text. It’s important to get the story straight, and it’s irresponsible and disrespectful to pass on versions of a quotation and its attribution carelessly.

Many arrangers and publishers don’t do thorough enough research before publishing. There are still arrangements being published today of generic “African” songs (without mention of which country they’re from, or which language they’re in). Also meanings of songs which owe more to Chinese whispers than identifying the language and finding a good translation.

Just because something is in print, doesn’t mean that the “facts” are right.

how do you research a song from another culture which has foreign lyrics?

Also today, I found myself wanting to share a video from Georgia which has a beautiful song as its soundtrack. But I don’t like sharing things unless I can give proper attribution.

I noticed that there were several long comments on the video, all in Georgian script. I used Google translate to give me a rough idea of what they meant (I didn’t need a perfect translation at this stage).

I discovered that somebody had asked what the song was. The reply from the person who’d posted the video gave the singer and name of the song.

I Googled the singer’s name and found out that she had been an important figure in the Georgian folk choir world in the 20th Century. I had assumed the singer was male as it was quite low,so that was my first surprise!

I then Googled the name of the song together with the singer’s name (the song name on its own brought up too many results). This brought me to several videos using the same recording. At this point many people would give up and assume the song was “traditional” (it sure sounded like it).

Again, some of the videos had long comments (a short comment is more likely to be something like “Great song!”). Using Google translate, I found that several people were asking about the origins of the song. Many thought it was a folk song, but one commenter said it was from an unfinished opera and cited the opera’s composer and the name of the poet who had written the original lyrics.

I spent quite a while searching for information and reading about the opera, the composer and the poet. I read enough to get an overview and to realise that most sources had similar (but not identical) stories to tell. This (and the reputation of some of the websites I found) gave me some assurance that the sources were probably fairly accurate.

I now had enough information (and accompanying links) to share the video. If people wanted to know more, they could read up for themselves.

If I wanted to teach the song myself, I would spend more time tracking down the original poem and trying to get accurate lyrics and an English translation.

You need to be careful when coming across supposed translations of songs (see the example of the German text above). Some might simply be singable versions of the original lyrics. Some will be complete guesses at what the song might be about!

tools I use for song research

Google is usually my first point of call. I often start with the song title or first line of lyrics in the Latin alphabet. If that doesn’t turn up much, I will search using the original language and alphabet. In that case, Google offers the option of translating the pages it finds.

I use Google translate a lot, but just to get the gist of something as it’s not very accurate. I would never use it directly to come up with the English translation of a song. You can ask it to detect the language automatically (useful if you’re not sure what language it’s in) or choose one yourself.

Some songs I teach are in languages not covered by Google translate. In those cases I will search for an online translation source for the language (quite rare and usually costs money), or, failing that, an online dictionary. I will then go through the lyrics word by word to get a very rough overview of what it might mean.

Occasionally I come across forums where people chat about a particular language. If I’m stumped, I might put the lyrics on there to see if someone can translate it for me. Often members of these forums are originally from the culture in question.

Sometimes I need to adapt the song title or lyrics to suit the search. To search for an exact phrase in Google, put the words in quotation marks. “Stomi e milo” will give different results to Stomi e milo. You may also need to try different spellings or the way the words break up, e.g. “što mi e milo”. If you use accented characters like š, you are more likely to get results in foreign languages.

If you put a really long phrase in quotation marks, you’re less likely to get results. Try gradually knocking words off until something useful pops up.

Whatever results you get, try to find at least three independent sources. If every search result you find has exactly the same translation or meaning of a set of lyrics, it might be that they’re all copied from the same single source.

further reading

You might find these other posts useful.

Finding out about songs: don’t believe everything you read!

Song meanings lost in translation

Before you use songs from other cultures check your sources!

Finding song information – Chinese whispers, wishful thinking and the oral tradition

Honouring the song 1: where does the song come from?


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Chris Rowbury




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