Transcreation in Music

Translation, localization, globalization… we throw around a lot of words here at Lionbridge onDemand (and quite a few acronyms too).  Transcreation is yet another one of those words that we like to use here in the language services industry.  Transcreation is a combination of the words translation and creation, and it is an important concept when it comes to your business content.

Transcreation is more than just translating the words on the page - it’s about translating the feeling and form of your content. It’s also about making sure your message comes across not only in another language, but also another country with different customs.  This is not only important for your marketing content, business meetings, and training materials, but also in areas of culture like literature and songs.

Have you ever wondered how songs get translated into other languages? Of course, you can listen to a song in a foreign language and usually understand the emotions behind the singer’s voice and the rhythms of the band, but how do those words and feelings get translated into another language? After all, languages have different expressions and idioms.  They also vary in their length of certain words. If songs were translated word for word, they probably wouldn’t make very much sense, and they definitely wouldn’t fit with in the song exactly right.

This is where transcreation comes in. When a song becomes a big hit—so big that it just has to go global—a translator comes in to make it happen.  But this translator can’t be just anybody. This person has to be an expert in songwriting too, to be able to take a song that is already a hit, and make sure it’s a hit in every language there is—even if that means changing some things around. That is what transcreation is all about.

For example, do you remember this song?

“Dragostea din tei” is a song by Moldovan boy-band, Ozone.  The song, more popularly known as “Numa Numa” or “Mai Ya Hee” was originally written and sung in Romanian, but after it became a hit (number one on the Eurochart Hot 100 for twelve weeks), international translations were in demand. The original Romanian lyrics are about someone leaving, but not taking the singer with them.  The literal English translation of the song would not make much sense, this is the first verse:

“Hallo, Hey/ It's me, an outlaw /And please, my love, accept the happiness /Hallo, Hallo, it's me, Picasso /I’ve beeped you and I am tough /but know I don't ask you anything.”

I’ve beeped you and I am tough? What does that even mean? The name of the song, “Dragostea din tei” translates to “Love from the Linden tree,” and the chorus roughly translates to:

“You want to leave but don't take me, don't take me with you /don't (take) me, don't (take) me with you /don't (take) me, don't (take) me, don't (take) me with you/ Your face and the love from the Linden tree /remind me of your eyes.”

The chorus makes a little more sense, but it probably doesn’t fit very well with the syllables and structure of the song. The English version of the song was created using the line “Hello, it’s me, Picasso.”  The transcreator based the whole song off of that line, writing lines about painting words of love on every wall. The chorus transformed into “when you leave my colors fade to gray” and the whole song became about an artist losing his love and his muse.

Another famous song transcreated into English is the anti-war protest song “99 Luftballons” by the German band Nena. Released in West Germany in 1983, it didn’t take long for the song to be wanted in other countries.  And English version was released in 1984 in the UK and became popular in numerous English speaking countries.

Although the world loved this upbeat song, the band felt the translation was off. Some of the band members felt that the song lost its meaning and sounded silly, while some felt the English version was too blatant of a protest. Here is a side-by-side comparison of the two versions.

A more recent example is the song “Jai Ho,” made famous by the Academy Award Best Picture of 2008, Slumdog Millionaire. The original song includes sections in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Spanish. The song was written for the movie, and the lyrics correspond: “Jai Ho” literally translates to “Victory to thee,” which makes total sense because as you are watching the film you are rooting for the main character, Jamal, to win the game show. But when the song was transcreated into an American pop song, performed by the Pussy Cat Dolls, the meaning was transformed as well.  The English lyrics are about a dance, and the chorus is more of a love song: “(Jai Ho) You are the reason that I breathe/ (Jai Ho) You are the reason that I still believe/ (Jai Ho) You are my destiny.”

For all of these songs, the content had to be more than just translated. Not only because the words sounded funny or the syllables didn’t fit into the rhythms, but also because cultural differences demanded a different story. In America, love songs sell, so when these songs were transcreated, the translators knew that if the songs were going to be a hit, the words had to be accessible to American audiences. For Nena’s song, they added the narrative of a couple in a toy shop, and after the world is destroyed by war, the singer remembers the other, and lets a balloon go in remembrance. “Jai Ho” was completely reimagined to become a dance anthem. Although the translators changed the meaning of the songs, each of them still became chart-topping hits in the English Version, proving that transcreation can reach audiences of different languages and cultures, and help make a profit.

Whether you need transcreation services or word for word translations, Lionbridge onDemand is here to help. Check out our website to see all of the services we have to offer.