Difficulties in translating lyrics

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Joined: 12.04.2014
Pending moderation

Dear Guys,
Please share your experiences for the following question:

What is more difficult in translating lyrics? and how did you solve these difficulties and challenges?

Many thanks

Editor of J-pop & Co.
Joined: 28.12.2015

Hi, and welcome to LT! The most difficult part of translating? For me it's probably references. And parodies and metaphors. I always search for hidden meanings in songs, to the point where I start making them up myself. (Would Neurotech sing about being level 20 in AION? I think not.) So I go by the advice 'possible reality might serve you better than impossible dreams'. In other words, when in doubt, I opt for literal translation rather than an unconfirmed theory that just randomly popped up in my head. And if the reference seems way too obvious to be coincidental, I leave a footnote or two. That's how I cope. Teeth smile

Editor whimsical chatterbox
Joined: 14.09.2013

1) understanding the original, including idioms, puns, register and (sub)cultural references
2) writing something that sounds like an equivalent native speech rather than a dictionary entries salad.

Coping with that includes asking native advices a lot, as far as I'm concerned.
The majority of my translations are to or from French, that solves half the problem.
I only venture into Russian -> English territory knowing that several natives are willing to correct me in both languages.

Leader of the Balkan Squad
Joined: 14.10.2016

Personally, the only time I have difficulties is with slang or colloquialisms. On transliteration, however (putting non-Latin script into Latin script), it's a different story, as pronunciation really does vary by ear.

Hope this helps! Teeth smile

Joined: 06.06.2016

Hi! For me it is idioms, slang phrases, dialects. For example It was a bit difficult to work with folk Scottish and Irish songs, especially if there were no written lyrics. And with old country songs either - had to learn some things about american history Regular smile

Joined: 03.12.2013

Translating double entendres . . . (and those the others before me have mentioned)

Super Member
Joined: 13.11.2014

I second that; idioms, slang, and cultural references. For this very reason I stay away from translating songs that include a lot of these things unless I have a native speaker to discuss how best to translate something.

Moderator of Romance Languages
Joined: 31.03.2012

Basically what everyone has already mentioned, my other difficult is the usage of phrases from another era or words in general that are no longer in use (but that were very popular at the time). If a song is obviously full of political references, I'm going to do my research first before even attempting to touch it, let alone translate it.

Junior Member
Joined: 17.07.2013

Apart from the points mentioned by others, I sometimes struggle to understand the lyrics. I translate from Hindi to English and Spanish. Most translation requests are for songs from Hindi movies and if I haven't seen the movie where a requested song appears I won't know the context, and that could be a hindrance in understanding the lyrics.

Editor whimsical chatterbox
Joined: 14.09.2013

Good point, Black Eagle. Context is everything. You won't translate a song from the 30's like you would the last Beyoncé hit.

I actually hate it when some bands write lyrics about some insignificant details of their lives, like an obscure book they read or whatever happened in their neighbourhood. Bands like 21 pilots come to mind. Having to scour the Internet to learn eventually that the song was about the drummer's girlfriend mourning her pet goldfish is such a chore!

Moderator of Romance Languages
Joined: 31.03.2012

Very true @petit élève, and sometimes it's too much of a hassle to do it anyway so why bother translating it? (also what song are you talking about? I have no idea about music by 21 pilots, I've probably heard them on the radio for sure but wouldn't be able to identify what).

If the research is fun, then do it. If the research is boring as hell, then don't right?

I forgot to point out that besides what I had mentioned, you wouldn't use terms like "babe" or "wifey" for terms of endearment in a song written before any of those terms existed. It's like hearing your grandmother sing a Nicky Minaj song with some obscure and old melody playing in the background (no offense to Nicky). Songs like that require time and a delicate touch, for me it's about doing the song justice but still keeping it simple enough that it would be understood by people today.

I'm all about references, you learn something new everyday that way and I don't really mind (unless it's references that hit 50+ then I'm probably going to think on it for a couple of weeks).

Editor whimsical chatterbox
Joined: 14.09.2013

Oh well, I don't mind a bit of finger pointing here. After all, these guys are supposed to know what they're doing, and they certainly get better paid than me.

For instance this one (from the infamous 21 pilots, actually) is about some little girl with some wasting disease attending the same church as the band. That apparently lead the singer to an interesting chat with God.

This one is about some friend of whatever band member suffering from leukemia. Apparently "white blood cells" was not snappy enough so she goes on about "white blood". Go figure...

This one is a Valentine gift for the singer's g/f, complete with obscure bits of Gaelic and a collection of private jokes that basically make no sense to anyone but the singer, his g/f and maybe a few buddies of theirs.

As you said, Helen, I don't mind cryptic lyrics when digging out their meaning proves a rewarding experience. What really p*sses me off is these guys apparently assuming the audience should be grateful for juicy bits of their not so terribly interesting personal lives. That's the surest way to degree zero of art, in my book.

Joined: 09.04.2017

What I struggle with the most are really old, obscure or poetic words that sometimes even natives don't know. The thing is, they don't seem to exist in any dictionary so I don't know how people find these words to use in songs. I even ask some of my Swedish friends and they have no clue.

Idioms can also be a problem, since I have yet to find a resource for some Swedish idioms and their English meanings or equivalents.

Also, puns, but I actually don't see many of those in the songs that I translate.

Sometimes I struggle with slang, too, but Sweden has an equivalent to urban dictionary, so that's not a problem most of the time

Kids songs are weird too, they're either utter nonsense or use a lot of really old words.

Moderator of the Balkans :)
Joined: 07.12.2012

For me, on top of all the idioms and slang already mentioned - dialects. English is pretty straightforward, but there are even some Bulgarian dialects I don't understand fully, and I am a native. I avoid translating traditional music for that very reason. Let alone any other language you've studied...

I also avoid the Rap genre - I have very hard time trying to make sense out of an extremely meaningless ranting. As someone who is bilingual on a daily basis, I always try to look from the point of the reader whether that is something they will understand.

Editor whimsical chatterbox
Joined: 14.09.2013

Don't get me started on rap. I actually worked in child protection in some pretty shabby suburbs of Paris a few years ago, so I became proficient enough in French yoofspeak and listened to quite a few of these songs in an attempt to understand what kind of references these kids had. My conclusion is that the intellectual level of your average French rap song could almost make Lady Gaga sound witty and literate. There are some notable exceptions though. Even in a genre plagued by mediocrity, vulgarity and greed a few gems can be found.

Joined: 09.04.2017

@petit élève I feel the same about some English rap. I don't listen to French rap for a reason, but I do like a couple MC Solaar songs.

Editor whimsical chatterbox
Joined: 14.09.2013

MC Solaar is of course one of these exceptions, but then again he sang in the 90's. Not much left to be said after guys like him, IAM and a few others. Today's rap is more like trash TV, whoring for audience, competing in displays of mindless violence, crass profanity, juvenile provocation and pitiful squabbling.

Joined: 12.04.2014

Many thanks everybody.
These are really great comments and opinions.