It is often said that music is a universal language and that may be true. However, a translator tasked with translating English songs into any target language will tell you what an agony it is to translate a song’s lyrics into another language, because it involves a lot of trade-offs. The translator has to decide if accuracy is needed or to make the song “singable” by sacrificing its original structure, rhythm and references.
Lyrics translation per se is also a creative process and translating song lyrics, aside from taking a deep look at creative license, is indeed very challenging. Translated songs are great for learning languages and song translation could be a very rewarding work for the translator.
Translating song lyrics is as difficult, if not more, than translating other written documents. It is not possible to translate the English lyrics word for word into another language and believe that it will remain singable as originally intended. A translator has to analyze and improvise a lot when doing song lyrics translation. There will always be the question of what the line really means and which of the words are needed to retain the meaning of the song or a passage from the song. The translator may also find it difficult to decide which words to change without altering the lyrics. One can compare the task of song lyrics translation to getting through a forest – the person has to decide on the safest, nicest and shortest route.
So much work goes into lyrics translation. The translator has to consider how to adapt the song to the target’s culture, what words are to be accentuated by the singer, the alliteration, rhymes and words’ connotations. There is also the general theme and the underlying notes – sad, mellow, fun, poetic, etc.
Another thing that makes song translation difficult is the differences in language. English, for example is very different from Japanese. If the translation is for videoke or karaoke, the translation or subtitles should be short enough to enable the singer to follow the video and still follow the lyrical traditions of the Japanese. The Japanese style is to have phrases that have five to seven syllables. Grammar rules may have to be sacrificed as well. The translator must also deal with the connotative and denotative meanings of the words in the source language. What should be given more importance – the feelings delivered by the original or the literal meaning of the song?
Likewise, it is also difficult to stay faithful to the original without sacrificing a lot. In other languages, it is very difficult to maintain the rhyme, as the lyric lines will vary. The translator must always keep in mind that there should be balance between culture and language. In the attempt to keep close to the source language, the translator must also keep the lyrics relevant to the target language. It is easier to do this in other forms of written documents because some liberties are allowed, such as omitting some words, making the text longer or adding footnotes. In song translation, it must fit the melody and rhythm of the original. At times, this means sacrificing the authentic meaning of the source language in order for the song to be singable in the target language.
While it is certainly difficult, translating song lyrics differ in the range of difficulty. Pop songs for example are easier to translate and give the translator more flexibility than songs that are full of deeper meanings, such as songs by Public Enemy for example. It is a hip hop group but highly recognized for their poetic and skilled rhymes, most of the themes touching on cultural and political consciousness. Songs like those from Joni Mitchell need careful attention. Hailed as one of the greatest songwriters, her lyrics depict her environmental and social ideals and myriad feelings.
Translating songs enables singers and listeners to break free of the language barrier. Setting genre or language pair aside, the constant constraint in translating songs that must be surmounted is how to fit the translated lyrics to the music’s structure, which might necessitate foregoing style, sense and meaning.