Monday, March 21, 2022

Why sing English versions of foreign language songs?

Since the Russian invasion began a few weeks ago, many choirs have been showing their support for Ukraine by singing Ukrainian songs.

However, many have been sung in English translation, rather than the Ukrainian original. Why might that be?

songs in English translation

It's quite common for English speaking singers to be put off by songs in foreign languages. Singers believe that foreign lyrics are hard; that if you don't speak the language, you can't sing in it; that it's important to understand every single word you sing; that audiences will switch off if they can’t understand the lyrics.

None of these are real obstacles (see Don’t be too quick to dismiss songs that aren’t in English and Why learning songs with foreign lyrics need not be scary) and many choirs regularly sing in Latin, Italian and German. Maybe it's just the unfamiliarity of some languages.

I believe that it is far more respectful and powerful — especially if singing to show solidarity with a country — to sing in the original language.

Here’s why …

why it's important to sing the original foreign lyrics

  • the meaning of a song is often encoded in the sounds of the words – even if we don’t understand a language, we can often pick up the feeling and overall intention of a song simply by the sounds that the words make.

  • some songs from other cultures have very few words – and when these are translated into English, they can appear banal. In these cultures it can be the rhythm or harmonies or vibe that is more important than the lyrics.

  • English translations are often singable versions – rather than precise translations of the original. Many times lyrics are altered to fit the music and rhyme scheme, thereby losing nuances of meaning. Sometimes a completely different set of English words are put to the foreign tune because it “feels” right!

  • translating into English can be disrespectful – it can have the effect of rendering the other culture invisible or less important. It can amount to a form of cultural imperialism, forcing a culture’s song into the language of the privileged colonists. I.e. colonisation. A mother tongue is a very emotional connection for each individual. When that is denied or taken away, it can be painful.

  • making an effort is an important signal – an English-speaking choir taking the time and effort to learn a song in another language is an immediate sign that the song (and culture it’s from) is being respected and valued. What better way to show solidarity?

  • an English version can mean nothing to people from the other culture – if people from that culture don’t understand English, then only the tune remains. The effect must be like a British person listening to the Norwegian national anthem Kongesangen which shares a tune with God save the Queen. Or a French person hearing the Marsellaise sung in English.


I’d love to hear what you think about singing foreign songs in English translation. Do drop by and leave a comment. 


Chris Rowbury


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