Musical lyrics are notoriously difficult to translate. Tastes in music are profoundly affected by culture and language, and those tastes don’t cross linguistic borders easily. We’ll consider options for composers, producers, and labels seeking to globalize their lyrics or adapt foreign songs to local ears. We will consider several approaches to translation: language service providers, freelance translators, and AI-driven machine translation, considering the pros and cons of each. We’ll also explore another option: using subtitles in music videos to maintain the integrity of an original version while making the meaning of the song accessible to foreign audiences.
Translation Agencies: The Shortcut to Translating Lyrics Yourself
If you have the budget and don’t have the time, there’s an obvious preference for those seeking to translate lyrics: hire professionals. Translation services are well equipped to take on complex linguistic challenges. Larger translation agencies command a global network of expert linguists, including those who specialize in lyrical translation. You can do a quick global searching including “translation”, “lyrics” and the specific language pair(s) relevant for the song(s) you need to adapt. Typically, translation agencies will respond within 24 hours or less. You don’t need to include the songs in your request for proposal, but do mention the quantities of songs and the languages pairs in question.
The advantage of working with agencies is time and quality. You can quickly find capable song translators because the agencies have a talent pool ready to work. The disadvantage this option is cost: you’ll pay a premium for the agency’s overhead and value added services. In addition, you’ll need to accept mediation of the agency in the creative process. Typically, you will not be given direct access to the translator: you will need to work through your account manager, who will communicate your requirements to a linguist and then relay the results back to you. This can create a “broken telephone” problem if the resources are not highly trained in creative communication. And who will check the agency’s work for you?
Working with Freelance Translators of Song Lyrics
If your budget is constrained, or you’re a control freak, then an alternative to translation agencies is a freelancer. There are freelance marketplaces like Upwork or Freelancer.com where you can, without charge, post a request for proposal, detailing your needs, and choose from among the translators responding to your post. Alternatively, you can use keywords to seek out song translators on your own.
In either case, realize in advance that working with freelancers is more time-intensive. You will need to interact directly with temperamental creatives. You need to accept that they have time constraints and the quirks of individuals. In our experience, it may well be wise to hire two translators for each language pair. This way, one can check and improve the work of the other, and serve as a backup in case one freelancer “flakes.” Sometimes you will get lucky and find a pair that has creative chemistry and can brainstorm together for the best result. Use freelancers to check agency’s as well.
The Do It Yourself Option: AI-Driven Machine Translation
In recent years, the quality of machine translation has improved. The application of the Artificial Intelligence approach known as neural networks has revolutionized the ability of software to produce translations. Algorithms do well translating structured texts like weather and sports reports, financial reports and legal documents. They fail miserably, however, in automatically translating creative works like fiction and songs. This creative challenge is, strictly speaking, not straight translation: it is known as transcreation.
You can try a creative translation experiment yourself. Try running familiar song lyrics through Google Translate and see what comes out. Soot House, a popular YouTube channel, did this for the Beatle’s classic “Hey Jude”. Here’s what came out after they ran it through two languages and then back to English:
Hey, Judas, do not make it bad
Make a sad song better
Do not forget to leave your heart
Later you can start to improve.
While the original may be vaguely recognizable, the translations won’t win a Grammy.
However, there are experiments in song creation by AI. Scientists at SONY CSL Research Lab developed Flow Machines, which learns music styles from a song database and applies that knowledge to compose new tunes. “Daddy’s Car”, composed in the style of The Beatles, is on the first AI-composed album, released in 2017.
Another AI composition experiment was made in the Eurovision song contest of 2019. The project team fed hundreds of Eurovision songs – melodies and lyrics – into a neuron network. Then, algorithms selected words and verses and “welded” into a song, “Blue Jeans & Bloody Tears,” a duet on disillusioned love between Izhar Cohen, Israel’s first Eurovision winner two decades prior, and a computer, written and composed by the later. Perhaps needless to say, it wasn’t the winner, but it was a good try.
Could a similar process be applied with song lyric translation added? Perhaps, though it seems this experiment has yet to be tried. If you have perfunctory knowledge of the target language, however, machine translation can aid in the creative process, giving you synonyms for each lyric you wish to translate.
Settling for Subtitles: Let Translated Text Do the Job
There is something to be said for leaving well-enough alone and allowing the power of the original to remain unchanged. In that case, there’s a low-cost solution that can be provided either by translation agencies or by freelancers, even by machines. Subtitling refers to translations that accompany speech.
While there is a craft to adapting spoken speech to translated titles, it is a skill at shortening dialogue or narration to its essentials and timing their display to be in synch with the speech. The same is done with songs, with little effort to make the translated speech artistic, but simply to convey the plain meaning of the lyrics. This may be translation, but it does not capture the magic of a song to be sung in a foreign tongue.
When the magic is performed, as in Charles Aznavour’s “She” – from the French original “Elle” – the words describing a woman can also apply to a translation:
She may be the mirror of my dream / A smile reflected in a stream / She may not be what she may seem / Inside her shell.
Ofer Tirosh is founder and CEO of Tomedes, a professional language service provider specializing in translation, including song lyrics.
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