Songs in Translation

Songs and Lyrics don’t always translate

My daughter just showed me this video this morning. It’s very powerful.

I was aware that movies are often dubbed into other languages. But this is a very dramatic demonstration of the art of dubbing.

Frozen French Poster
La Reine des neiges
(The Queen of the Snow
or The Snow Queen)

It’s not easy to translate a song into another language and keep the same meaning. As you know the words of a song are often a poem set to music. This poem has a rhythm that corresponds to the rhythm, beat or melody of the music.

Translations of a sentence from one language to another will change this rhythm.

It should also be pointed out that rhyme, which is a big part of poetry in English, is not all that important in other languages.

In other language like Italian where most of the words rhyme anyway poetry is created by the rhythm of the words. So the rhythm created by the placement of the syllables and the meaning of the words are more important than the rhyming of the words. Once again this sort of poetry doesn’t translate very well.

Beyond the Meaning

One of my favorite examples of a song that was changed in translation is “Beyond the Sea”. “Beyond the Sea” is based on an original French song «La Mer» by Charles Trenet (written in 1946).

«La Mer» of course is “The Sea”, but is also a homonym for «La Mère» (the mother). This is a double meaning that is completely understood by the French but is completely lost in translation. The sea is the giver of life.

La Mer is a song about the changing moods of the sea. It’s about the beauty of the sea in the sun and in the rain.

The song La Mer was translated and basically rewritten by American song writer and lyricist Jack Lawrence.

In the English version the words «la mer» have been changed to “somewhere”, which rhyme. And then he added “beyond the sea” keeping with the Sea theme.

The Jack Lawrence version are some what reminiscent of “Somewhere over the rainbow”. It’s a song about an imagined journey on a sailboat to a place beyond the sea. A sort of magical place that one can dream about.

I’ve always like the song “Beyond the Sea” but watching the original French song «La Mer» on Youtube I’m now a fan of both versions.

Which comes first the Music or the Words?
(It all depends on who is writing the song)

French Poster
Le Roi Lion
(The Lion King)

Elton John is a famous British singer and song writer. A number of years ago Elton John appeared on the British talk show hosted by Michael Parkinson. Parkinson asked Sir Elton how he wrote songs. Sir Elton had grown up playing the piano and could play in the style of any pianist that he saw as a child. Sir Elton said that he wrote the music to his songs based on the lyrics, of whichever lyricist he was working with at the time, game him. So in Elton John’s case the words came first.

Knowing this beforehand, Parkinson had one of his writers prepare a simple poem about a cat (a moggy) which he read for Sir Elton. Sir Elton after listening to the poem only once was able to ad-lib the music as he sang the words to the poem.

This is amazing to watch. It becomes a completely different poem once it is set to music. And Elton John with years of experience was able to recreated the poem musically almost instantly. Amazing!

In this same interview, Sir Elton spoke of working with lyricist Tim Rice on the movie “The Lion King”. Once again Tim Rice wrote the words to fit the story and Elton John wrote the music based on Tim Rice’s lyrics.

During the pre-production of “the Lion King” the story was changed a number of few times and Time Rice had to do a number of rewrites. But as the rewrites matched the rhythm of the original lyrics Elton John didn’t have to change the music.

The Translation Game

I’m no Tim Rice or Sir Elton, but I do have fun from time to time translating lyrics of my favorite song into French. I’m no singer but I have my own version of “I love Paris in the Spring time”.

♪ J’aime Paris au printemps
♪ J’aime Paris à l’automne
♪ J’aime Paris en hiver quand il pleut
♪ J’aime Paris en été quand il grésille

My syllable count is way out of wack here, I need a one syllable French word for fall. L’automne is just to long. But it still might work.

My French vocabulary isn’t really big enough for my to be able to pick and choose just he right words yet. But I had fun doing it. This is game that I sometimes play with my fellow French learners. The main thing to remember is not to take it seriously.

Translation Game Rules

1. There are no rules.

2. It is OK to use Google translate.

3. It’s OK to completely change the meaning of the song if you are so inspired.

4. Don’t look up someone else’s translation of a song until you have had a crack at it yourself.

5. Don’t show this to anyone that my criticize you. It’s none of their business.

6. This game can also be played in reverse. Take a French song and translate it into English.

7. Try and make your new word fit the rhythm of the music.

I’m always reminded of a scene from the original book “The Three Musketeers” «Les Trois Mousquetaires»  by Alexandre Dumas (first published in 1844).

Cardinal Richelieu who appears in the book as one of the main antagonists of the Musketeer was a real person. Richaelieu wrote books on fencing and also an opera. When Cardinal Richaelieu is first introduced to DÁrtagnan he is composing “Mirame, a Tragedy in Five Acts” counting syllables on his fingers.

Counting syllables on ones fingers is a centuries old practice.


This sort of translation for fun, but with a purpose is very educational and will stick with you longer than flash-cards.

Memorizing song lyrics is a good way of learning a new language. Some people are really good at memorizing lyrics. I never really have been. But if this technique works for you then it’s worth doing.

Trivia: There are French versions of many English pop-songs and vice versa. In fact many songs that you may have thought were created in English are just translations of French songs. Surprise!

Bonne chance!