Jamhouse Blog

Lyrics and miscommunication

When we say that music is universal, we have to remember just one thing; lyrics. Lyrics are more important than ever in the modern music scene, but is it possible that lyrics nullify the ability for music to be completely universal? After all, lyrics mean music is dedicated to a particular language and often to certain cultural beliefs. Society has attempted to counteract this with translations, but they don’t always work out the way we want to.

When you translate a song from English to Spanish, or to Chinese, or Polish, or German, the literal words can be directly or indirectly translated. For example, you can translate the words Let it Go, from Disney's Frozen, into any language, but when you translate the words literally, it often translates to words meaning "give up". In the context of the English language, let it go means to be free, let out your breath, let down your hair and be who you are, but when literally translated, in many languages, becomes "give up".

Furthermore, when translating a German song, you might find the lyrics : Tomaten auf den Augen haben. In English, this literally translates to "you have tomatoes in your eyes" which of course makes no sense to any of us. However, this is a German saying that means “You are not seeing what everyone else can see." It is similar to English phrases like "You can’t see what is right under your nose." And there are so many of these types of translations happening all around the world. Check out a list here of metaphors that have been lost in translation -

A recent difficult project for Jamhouse was being asked to write a song in English, and then translating and recording that song in both English and Bislama, the local language of Vanuatu.  The difficulty lay in firstly getting a translation that was NOT literally accurate but WAS accurate in meaning, and then working out what to do with the rhyming scheme that was all but destroyed in the process. We ended up having to create a new rhyming scheme in places but also occasionally use an English phrase if it worked better as English is commonly understood there as well.

The general population doesn’t seem worried about this issue, but something keeps them listening. Well, sometimes it seems that lyrics that are not as important, as the melodies, instruments and intentions behind them. Once you know what a song is about, the delivery is emotion, not the words describing them. Sticking with our Frozen examples, check out this video of frozen being sung in dozens of languages and tell me, are you really listening to the words? - 

Author:  D. Whelan for Jamhouse Creative
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