MEANING AND MUSIC
The Art of Lyrical Translation

By Gregory H. Bontrager
 

Translation is an art. To what degree it is thus depends upon the circumstances under which the translation is executed and the type of translation the situation requires. In any case, the translator who attempts do reduce his craft to an exact science is dooming himself to mediocrity at best. True, there is a certain class of relatively simple utterances for which translation, depending upon the nature of the source language and target language, is a relatively straightforward task. There is nothing complicated, for example, about rendering "I can’t see" into Spanish as No puedo ver. The only real ambiguity in such a case as this would be whether or not to include the subject pronoun yo, which verbal inflection renders optional. In regards to this question, it might be surmised that yo would do perfectly well here but would be more appropriate if the original sentence was written "I cannot see," in which case the inclusion of the pronoun would imitate the formality of the latter expression just as its exclusion imitates the concision of the former. Possible variations such as these, although minor and largely inconsequential, nonetheless reflect the broader issues that arise in translating the more complex language encountered in functional bilingual life.

There is a translation spectrum between literal (direct, absolute, word-for-word) and adaptive (involving loose rendering of meaning and outright alterations in detail and/or style). The ideal location of a translator’s work on this spectrum depends on the context, demands, and nature of the translation. However, the two extremes (super-literal and super-adaptive) should always be avoided. The translator’s craft is a balancing act. The fulcrum may shift according to circumstance and, to a lesser extent, the translator’s own aptitudes and preferences, but it never moves entirely or even very nearly to one end or the other.

There is quite possibly no other type of translation that demonstrates this more clearly than the translation of poetry and song lyrics, which shall be referred to collectively as lyrical translation. Lyrical translation adds a whole other dimension to the task, since besides grammatical, stylistic, and idiomatic considerations, there is also rhythm, beat, and, in the case of song translation, melody to accommodate. In translating lyrics meant to be sung, the challenge reaches its peak. In the words of Friedrich Schleiermacher, "How often […] does one find fidelity to rhythm and melody caught in irreconcilable conflict with fidelity to dialectic and grammar." In translating songs, the drive to render meaning faithfully and the drive to preserve rhythm, melody, and beat seem forever to mutually oppose each other. All too often, the translator faced with this daunting dilemma ultimately makes a choice to favor one at the expense of the other and slips into what Schleiermacher called "a pertinacious one-sidedness."

In essence, there are two types of lyrical translation. The first type, solum sensui (Latin: "only with respect to meaning"), is the least difficult. Little more than literal translation, it involves all considerations involved in, for instance, the translation of literary or academic prose (grammatical, stylistic, idiomatic) but has no pretense of being musically compatible. An example of this sort of lyrical translation follows, using a song from a recent American movie.

It’s hard to believe
That I couldn’t see
That you were always there beside me.
Thought I was alone
With no one to hold,
But you were always right beside me
.

Es difícil creer
Que no podía ver
Que estabas siempre allí, a mi lado.
Creía que estaba sólo
Sin nadie a tener,
Pero estabas siempre justo a mi lado.

Some transposition/modulation is evident in the translated verse, but the meaning is conveyed exactly as it is in the original. However, if you were to listen to the song itself and then try to sing it, it would expectedly sound awkward and discordant. The singer would find himself mincing syllables or omitting them altogether in the attempt to match the foreign lyrics to the original tune. Plus, some rhythm is also lost. Although creer and ver do rhyme, the extra syllable in the second line disrupts the effect of the rhyme. The syllables simply don’t match up with the musical notes as they did in the original song. The musical-lyrical accordance is destroyed in translation. The only way to restore it is to change the foreign words so that they rhyme and fit the beat and meter of each line, but in doing this the translator loses equivalence. This is the central problem in lyrical translation.

The second type of song translation, pro canendo (Latin: "for singing"), is based on at least an attempt to resolve this inherent conflict. It acknowledges that, between absolute fidelity to meaning and perfect musical compatibility, you simply cannot have it both ways. Pro canendo translation makes no pretense of magically making meaning and music a perfect fit. That is just as impossible as it is to fit a square peg into a circular hole. However, we can treat that square peg as if it were made of clay instead of rigid plastic. By kneading it and molding it, we can shape it into a sphere that will then fit into the aforementioned circular hole. The substance is maintained, but the form changes. That is the basic concept behind the pro canendo approach. The idea is to stay as faithful as possible to the original meaning while expressing that meaning in foreign words that fit the rhythm, beat, and melody of the song. Inevitably, some specific meaning is lost, but the goal is to minimize that loss and to maintain a strong overall resemblance in meaning between the original lyrics and the translation.

Let us return to the verse translated above and examine a pro canendo translation of the same lyrics.

It’s hard to believe
That I couldn’t see
That you were always there beside me.
Thought I was alone
With no one to hold,
But you were always right beside me.

 

No puedo creer
Que no logré ver
Que estabas a mi lado.
Pues mi soledad
No era verdad.
Siempre estabas a mi lado
.

We find here some strategic paraphrasing. The only true loss of meaning is that of anything resembling "no one to hold," which was sacrificed in order to facilitate a rhyme. However, most of the original meaning is preserved while rhythm beat, and melodic compatibility is completely restored. If you try to sing the above Spanish lyrics, you will find that they roll much more naturally with the tune to which they are intended to be sung. This is the goal of pro canendo translation. It is by no means easy and often takes two or three hours of trial-and-error and perhaps even a succession of distinct drafts, but the result is very rewarding.

THREE PILLARS OF PRO CANENDO TRANSLATION

When translating a song pro canendo, there are two or three (depending on the target language) aspects of the song one must analyze and consider when writing the foreign lyrics: rhythm, syllabication, and melodic stress. For purposes of example, let us take from the same recently debuted film as the aforementioned a different but no less worthy song. The first verse reads like this:

We’re soarin’,
Flyin’.
There’s not a star in heaven that we can’t reach
If we’re tryin’,
So we’re breaking free.

Rhythm

Simply put, rhythm is the repetition of vowel sounds, mostly at the ends of lines in poetry or song lyrics. A rhyme scheme is the pattern in which those repeated vowel sounds occur. Rhyme may consist of only a repeated vowel sound, or a terminal consonant that follows the vowel may also be repeated. Furthermore, sequences of vowels in two or three syllables may also be repeated. For example, "feeling" and "seeing" would constitute a bisyllabic rhyme, but "soaring" and "flying" only constitute a monosyllabic rhyme. In translating song lyrics, there is some flexibility in fidelity to a rhyme scheme consisting of multisyllabic rhymes, but the rule is that if any rhyme exists between a pair, triplet, or quartet of lines, there should at least be a corresponding monosyllabic rhyme in the translation.

It may help the translator to tabulate the rhyme scheme throughout the song. For example:

We’re soarin’

A

Flyin’.

A

There’s not a star in heaven that we can’t reach.

B

If we’re tryin’,

A

So we’re breaking free.

B

Syllabication

This refers to the number of syllables in each line. One should be careful not to look strictly at the lyrics when counting syllables. If the music calls for the singer to draw out what would otherwise be one syllable into two or more syllables (Think of how the monosyllabic appellation "Mom" becomes a bisyllabic "Mo-om!" in the mouth of a whining child), this grants the translator some extra liberty, as he then has the option of keeping the lengthened word as a monosyllable and using the extra syllable to insert a separate foreign word that enhances fidelity to meaning.

Tabulation may also be useful in analyzing syllabication.

We’re soarin’

3

Flyin’.

2

There’s not a star in heaven that we can’t reach.

11

If we’re tryin’,

4

So we’re breaking free.

5

Melodic Stress

This refers to the stress imposed on certain syllables by the melodic beat. This is the only aspect of pro canendo song translation that may or may not apply depending on the nature of the target language. If you are translating song lyrics into a stress-dependent language (meaning that the location of the stress in an otherwise identical word makes a difference in meaning, as in Spanish trabajo and trabajó), it is a factor that must be considered. If the target language is not stress-dependent (like English or French), it can be wholly disregarded.

If melodic stress is a factor, the stress imposed on certain syllables by the beat of the song must correspond with the standard spoken stress in the foreign word. Any syllable or sequence of syllables not stressed by the beat are ambiguous and can be treated thus, but a syllable stressed by the beat must be the same as that which is stressed in speech.

One tactic for handling melodic stress is drawing from certain classes of words. If the beat of a song places the stress at the end of a line, for example, one who is translating it into Spanish can at least begin by attempting to structure a sentence that ends the line in a future tense verb, an infinitive, a noun ending in –dad, a monosyllable, etc.

Tabulation may also be helpful in addressing melodic stress. Here, a /*/ indicates an unstressed syllable and a /^/ indicates a stressed syllable.

We’re soarin’

*^*

Flyin’.

^*

There’s not a star in heaven that we can’t reach.

***^*^****^

If we’re tryin’,

**^*

So we’re breaking free.

**^**

Having considered all these factors, the sample verse given above might be rendered in Spanish as:

Volamos
Alto.
No hay estrella que nos eludirá.
Y logramos
Liberarnos ya.

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

As challenging as pro canendo translation can be, there are a few useful strategies that can be applied (besides the two mentioned above). One highly important tactic is to analyze the lyrics and determine any key elements of meaning that you think are central to the song and are unwilling to sacrifice. The translator may also reverse the order of lines within a verse in order to accommodate better rhythm. He or she may add minor modifiers if a translated line is actually shorter than the original or restructure a sentence so that the right word occurs at the end of a line. There is no rule against being cunning in song translation.

Another trick is best exemplified by my Spanish rendition of the following verse.

This could be the…
Start of something new!
It feels so right
To be here with you.
And now, looking in your eyes,
I feel in my heart
The start of something new.

I found the ideas of feeling something in one’s heart and looking or seeing in someone’s eyes to be key elements of meaning, but I simply could not find away to mention both ojos and corazón in the same verse and carry similar meaning. I noticed, however, that this refrain was repeated four times (an even number). So, I wrote two different versions of the refrain, one mentioning a feeling in the singer’s heart and the other mentioning looking in someone’s eyes, and alternated them throughout the song.

Creo que un…
Gran principio es.
Estar aquí,
Hoy, contigo pues
Me da un muy buen sentir
En el corazón.
Principio nuevo es.

Creo que un…
Gran principio es
Estar acá,
Hoy, contigo pues.
En tus ojos veo ya
Que es lo mejor.
Principio nuevo es.

AUTONOMY AND HOMAGE

Because of such strategies, the lack of direct equivalence, and the compromise that must be made between meaning and music, pro canendo translation shares one thing in common with pure adaptation. It involves the writing of poetry in a foreign language that is, in a sense, original. All viable pro canendo lyric translations have an element of originality in their very nature that results inherently from the challenge the translator faces. Translation is an art, and lyrical translation is one of the most artistic types of translation in existence. In the effort to maintain the highest degree of equivalence possible while trimming and reshaping meaning to accommodate function, some limited autonomy is yielded. A pro canendo translation retains some artistic merit independent of the original lyrics while simultaneously remaining a distinctly derivative work. The translation is executed with all due respect and homage to the original lyricist. Let no song translation be printed without both the name of the lyricist and that of the translator in its heading. For the former to be omitted would be outright plagiarism. For the latter to be omitted would be an insult to his or her efforts.