Scholarly article on topic 'Translation of Song Lyrics as Structure-related Expressive Device'

Translation of Song Lyrics as Structure-related Expressive Device Academic research paper on "Languages and literature"

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Abstract of research paper on Languages and literature, author of scientific article — Elena Gritsenko, Evgeniya Aleshinskaya

Abstract The paper explores the role of translation as a resource of meaning-making in popular songs. The study material includes three songs presented at the TV show “The Voice Russia”. Although the audience of the show is predominantly Russian, contestants choose to perform these songs in two or more different languages. We argue that in all these cases translation is akin to code switching: it increases the expressiveness of the song by creating various additional meanings (both verbal and musical). The alternation of the original and translated lyrics is usually linked to the general structure of the songs.

Academic research paper on topic "Translation of Song Lyrics as Structure-related Expressive Device"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 231 (2016) 165 - 172

International Conference; Meaning in Translation: Illusion of Precision, MTIP2016, 11-13 May

2016, Riga, Latvia

Translation of song lyrics as structure-related expressive device

Elena Gritsenkoa, Evgeniya Aleshinskayab,*

linguistics University of Nizhny Novgorod, 31aMinin st. Nizhny Novgorod, 603155, Russia bNational Researh Nuclear University MEPhI (Moscow Engineering Physics Institute), 31 Kashirskoye shosse, Moscow, 115409, Russia


The paper explores the role of translation as a resource of meaning-making in popular songs. The study material includes three songs presented at the TV show "The Voice Russia". Although the audience of the show is predominantly Russian, contestants choose to perform these songs in two or more different languages. We argue that in all these cases translation is akin to code switching: it increases the expressiveness of the song by creating various additional meanings (both verbal and musical). The alternation of the original and translated lyrics is usually linked to the general structure of the songs.

© 2016 The Authors.PublishedbyElsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of the organizing committee of MTIP2016

Keywords: Translation; song lyrics; song structure; meaning making; multilingual performance.

1. Introduction

The translation of song lyrics or music-linked translation (Golomb, 2005) is a relatively new field of linguistic research. Most studies, so far, have examined the ways songs can be translated. Defining a song as a piece of music and lyrics designed for a singing performance (Franzon, 2008, p. 376), researchers address the issue of making a 'singable' target text and describe translation strategies intended "to permit the actual performance in the target language of foreign songs, with their pre-existing music" (Low, 2008, p. 2).

According to Low's 'pentathlon approach', there are four aspects related to music and performance -"singability, rhyme, rhythm and naturalness, which must be balanced by the fifth aspect - fidelity to the sense of the source text" (Low, 2005, p. 374). Franzon examines the options in song translation and the concept of 'singability'

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +74957885699; fax: +74993242111.

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1877-0428 © 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (

Peer-review under responsibility of the organizing committee of MTIP2016 doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2016.09.087

from a functional perspective and outlines strategic choices made by lyricists in translating songs. Moving from the assumption that a song has three properties (music, lyrics and prospective performance) and music has three components (melody, harmony and musical sense), he suggests that a song translator may have five options: (1) leaving the song untranslated, (2) translating the lyrics without taking the music into consideration, (3) writing new lyrics to the original music, (4) adapting the music to the translation, and (5) adapting the translation to the music (Franzon, 2005, p. 373).

Some authors address the discussions of whether songs ought to be translated. Two points of view are represented. One stresses the defective nature of translated lyrics arguing that singing in translation is "a weak substitute of the source text which offers the actual words set by the composer, along with their phonic features such as rhymes, vowel-sounds, and their integral meaning" (Low, 2008, p. 2). The supporters of music-linked translation emphasize the importance of singing in the language of the audience to foster understanding. For instance, Low quotes the British opera producer David Poutney who uses a convincing and colorful metaphor to support this point of view: "the sense arrives like a glowing hot coal, straight from the mouth of the singer, and strikes instantly at the head and heart of the listener" (ibid).

While most studies on translation of popular songs focus on monolingual material, Davis and Bentahila explore the role of translation in the creation of song lyrics which feature more than one language (Davis & Bentahila, 2008). They outline a number of ways in which translation can be used to produce bilingual and/or multilingual songs: translation as reiteration, translation as replacement, and translation as transformation (adaptation, imitation, and/or rewriting). They also argue that in bilingual lyrics translation and code switching often serve to produce similar effects, such as the affirmations of identity, stylistics connotations, a means of opening up the lyrics to outsiders, etc.

The contribution of the present paper to the field lies in its focus on the effective word-and-music alignment, specifically on the expressive functions of juxtaposing the original lyrics and translated pieces in a song. We will explore how words and music complement each other via the so-called 'linguistic transposition'. This concept was introduced by Alice Chik who studied the creation of Cantonies versions of English songs (Chik, 2010, p. 516). The term 'linguistic transposition' is used by analogy with the transposition of melodies from one key to another and refers to the creation of a local version of an original song which combines pieces in both languages.

We argue that integrating the original text into the localized (translated) version of the song and/or inserting the translated fragment into the original lyrics may reinforce the expressive potential of the song and create additional meanings. We also dwell on the perception of translated and original texts by the audience and music professionals and examine what indexical (symbolic) meanings can be achieved by language confrontation.

2. Methodology and study material

The paper is guided by the research on music-linked translation and song structure (Appen, & Frei-Hauenschild, 2015; Manuel, 1995). Pop songs appear to have a regular structure which consists of stanzas (verses) and a chorus or a refrain, with the lines fitting into a rhyming scheme that matches the music (Chan, 2009, p. 109). The chorus normally entails a pragmatic contrast to the verses - rhythmically, melodically, lyrically, harmonically and/or dynamically - and it is usually of a greater emotional intensity than the verse.

Androutsopoulos (2010) identifies several forms of language alternation linked to the structure of the song. The most common patterns are switching between the chorus and the verse and between the verses of the song. According to Davis and Bentahila (2008, p. 255), it is quite common for the verses to be translated while the chorus usually remains in the base language. This strategy may be explained by the fact that the refrain (chorus) is usually the song's keynote feature, the most distinctive and memorable element, which might be difficult to reproduce in another language.

Patterned switching between languages in particular sections of a song provides additional resources for meaning making. According to Appen and Frei-Hauenschild, meanings are more or less assigned to certain formal models, and song forms provide "an impetus for interpretation on the semantic, symbolic, and functional levels" (Appen, & Frei-Hauenschild 2015, p. 2).

In this paper, we examine three multilingual songs presented at the TV show "The Voice Russia": "Le temps des cathedrales" performed by Ivan Vabischevich and Vasiliy Turkin in Russian and French, "Une vie d'amour" performed by Yana Rabinovich and Andrey Tsvetkov in the French and Russian languages, and "A Yiddishe Mame" performed by Maria Katz in Russian, Hebrew and English. All three performances use the 'linguistic

transposition' pattern. The original lyrics and their English translations were drawn from the websites and The fragments of the songs performed in Russian were transcribed and translated into English.

We compare the verbal and musical fabric of the songs and examine how language alternation is linked to the song structure. We analyze the symbolic/indexical meanings conveyed by different languages in multilingual performances and show how the juxtaposition of translated pieces and the original lyrics (or vice a versa) reinforces the expressiveness of popular songs. To find out what the audiences think of such performances, we study the relevant comments of "The Voice Russia" TV viewers on Internet forums. To reveal professional opinion on the issue, we analyzed discussions of the jury related to multilingual songs and conducted a short online survey of pop music professionals.

Popular songs as items of mass consumption are always audience oriented. "The Voice Russia" is a vocal contest where the winner is selected by the TV-viewers and the jury. They both decide who will proceed to the next round of the show and who will eventually win the competition. Since the show is broadcast in Russia, most of the TV-viewers prefer the songs to be performed in Russian. The jury, who represent professional point of view, are usually in favor of singing in the original language1. Yet, the combining of the original and translated fragments in a signing performance is not just a way to satisfy both parties. ' Linguistic transposition' helps to reinforce the expressive potential of the song and the patterns of language alternation are usually connected with the structure of the song.

In our material, we identified three types of linguistic transposition: (1) switching to the original language in the final chorus of the song, (2) alternating between the original and translated fragments in different verses of the song, and (3) incorporating translated fragments into the first verse and the final chorus of the song. These patterns are further illustrated by three multilingual songs performed in different episodes of "The Voice Russia" (Series 1-4).

3.1. Switching to a different language in the final chorus

This pattern of language alternation draws upon the conventional function of the final chorus. The format of popular songs is closed, linear and goal-oriented, and their melodies (and/or harmonies) are directed "toward an expressive climax which usually occurs shortly before the end of the song" (Manuel, 1985: 166). Switching to a different language in the final lines of the performance highlights the climax of the song and reinforces its overall expressive meaning.

This pattern was used in the performance of the Russian-language version of "Le temps des cathedrales" from the internationally famous musical "Notre-Dame de Paris" by Ivan Vabischevich and Vasiliy Turkin in one of the battles rounds of Series 2 (2013). The original song consists of two verses, each followed by two choruses with different lyrics. The contestants performed the two verses and 3 choruses in Russian to ensure a better understanding of the French musical by the Russian-speaking audience. However, in the final chorus they switched to French - the original language of the musical:

(1) Chorus 3 (in Russian)

3. Analysis

Prishla pora piratov i poetov

Mrachnih pirov

Karnavalov na krovi

Prishla pora zakatov i rassvetov

Dnei i nochei

Dlya stradaniy i lyubvi

There came a time of pirates and poets

Of somber feasts

And carnivals on blood

There came a time of sunrises and sunsets

Of days and nights

For suffering and love

1 A more detailed analysis of professional and public views on language choices in "The Voice Russia" is presented in Aleshinskaya and Gritsenko (2016).

Chorus 4 (in French)

Il est foutu le temps des cathédrales

La foule des barbares

Est aux portes de la ville

Laissez entrer ces païens, ces vandales

La fin de ce monde

Est prévue pour l'an deux-mille

Est prévue pour l'an deux-mille

The era of cathedrals is over

The mob of barbarians

Is at the doors of the city

Let these pagans, these vandals enter

The end of this world

Is envisaged for the year 2000

Is envisaged for the year 2000

As we see, the Russian text is a loose translation of the original lyrics. By inserting the fragment in French from the original version of the musical, which is recognized internationally, and rendering the final chorus in a distinct and climactic manner, the contestants were able to amplify the expressiveness of the signing performance. The use of linguistic transposition was much appreciated by the audience who burst into applause.

3.2. Switching between the verses of the song

In another battle round of Series 2 (2013), while performing the international hit "Une vie d'amour" by Charles Aznavour in French, contestants Yana Rabinovich and Andrey Tsvetkov chose to sing the second verse of the song in Russian translation:

(2) Verse 1 (in French)

Une vie d'amour A life of love

Que l'on s'était jurée That we vowed to each other

Et que le temps a désarticulée And that the time mutilated

Jour après jour Day after day

Blesse mes pensées Wounds my thoughts

Tant des mots d'amour So many words of love

En nos cœurs étouffés Suffocated in our hearts

Dans un sanglot, l'espace d'un baiser In a sobbing, the space of a kiss

Sont restés sourds They stayed deaf

À tout mais n'ont rien changé To everything but they couldn't change anything

Chorus 1 (in French)

Car un au revoir Because a goodbye

Ne peut être un adieu Cannot be a farewell

Et fou d'espoir And crazy of hope

Je m'en remets à Dieu I rely on God

Pour te revoir To see you again

Et te parler encore And to speak to you again

Et te jurer encore And to swear to you again

Chorus 2 (in French)

Une vie d'amour A life of love

Remplie de rires clairs Filled with clear laughters

Un seul chemin Only one way

Déchirant nos enfers Tearing our hells

Allant plus loin Que la nuit La nuit des nuits

Verse 2 (in Russian)

Vechnaya liubov' I vremya bez kontsa I vnov' i vnov' Pechalyatsya serdtsa Ot gor'kih snov I proschal'nih slov Eto navsegda S toboyu i so mnoi Liubov' beda Nachertani sud'boi Na ruke tvoei No mi ne verim ei

Going farther Than the night The night of nights

Eternal love And time is endless And again and again Hearts are blue Because of bitter dreams And words of farewell This is forever With you and me Love, misery Are inscribed by fate On your hand But we don't believe it

Chorus 3 (in French)

Des aubes en fleurs Aux crépuscules gris Tout va, tout meurt Mais la flamme survit Dans la chaleur D'un immortel été D'un éternel été

The blossomed dawns In grey vespers

Everything leaves, everything dies But the flame survives In the heat

Of an immortal summer Of an eternal summer

Chorus 4 (in French)

Une vie d'amour Une vie pour s'aimer Aveuglément Jusqu'au souffle dernier Bon an mal an Mon amour T'aimer encore Et toujours

A life of love

A life to love each other


Until the last breath Good year bad year My love

To love you again And forever

Translated lyrics were incorporated by the performers to reinforce the contrastive focus. The original version of the song presumes a continuous build-up of sound and emotion from the verse to the chorus, and there is a distinct contrast between the verse and choruses in terms of the intensity of sound. By inserting the Russian fragment into the second verse and combining it with less intensive instrumentation, the performers emphasized the contrast between the first and second verses and shifted attention from music to meaning. The subsequent switch back to French in the final choruses of the song helped to create a more intensive and emotional sound, which made the climax of the song.

3.3. Switching to different languages in the first verse and the final chorus of the song

This pattern of linguistics transposition is illustrated by the performance of the famous song "A Yiddishe Mame" by Maria Katz in the second quarterfinal of Series 4 (2015). The song was originally written in Yiddish, which is not understood by the Russian audience. There is also an official English language version of the song, but it is less popular than the one in Yiddish. Maria Katz presented a new interpretation of this song by performing it in three languages - Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish:

(3) Verse 1 (in Russian and Yiddish)

A Yiddishe Mame Drugoi takoi na svete net A Yiddishe Mame So mnoiu riadom stol'ko let Ti zabyla pokoi, posedela golova Slovno s detstve, ti gladish rukoi Shepchesh nezhnyie slova

My yiddishe momme

There is no one else like her in the world

My yiddishe momme

Has been by me for so many years

You have forgotten peace, your hair is grey

Like in the childhood, you stroke

Whisper tender words

Verse 2 (in Yiddish)

In vasser in fayer Volt zi gelofn far ihr kind Nisht halten ihr tayer Dos iz gevis di gresten zind

Chorus 1 (in Yiddish)

In water, through fire She would have run for her child Not to hold her dear Is surely the greatest sin

Oy, vi gliklekh un raykh

Iz der mentsh vos hot

Aza shayne matuneh geshenkt foon Got

Nor ayn altichke Yiddishe Mame

Mame Mayn

Verse 3 (in Yiddish)

A Yiddishe Mame

Es gibt nisht besser oif der velt

A Yiddishe Mame

Oy vey vi bitter ven zi felt

Vi shayn in likhtig iz in hoiz

Ven di mame iz do

Vi troyerig finster vert

Ven Got nemt ir oif Olam Haboh

How lucky and rich Is the one who has

Such a beautiful gift presented from God Like an old yiddishe momme Momme of mine

My yiddish momme

It doesn't get better on this earth

My yiddish momme

How bitter when she is missing

How nice and bright it is at home

When momme is here

How sad and dark it becomes

When God takes her to Olam Haba

Verse 4 (in Yiddish)

In vasser in fayer Volt zi gelofn far ihr kind Nisht halten ihr tayer Dos iz gevis di gresten zind

In water, through fire She would have run for her child Not to hold her dear Is surely the greatest sin

Chorus 2 (in English)

Oh I know that I owe what I am today To that dear little lady so old and gray To that wonderful yiddishe momme Momme of mine

The overall meaning of the song is created by the carefully thought-out progression of fragments in different languages. The performance starts in the local lingua franca (Russian) which sets the intimate tone and conveys the main idea of the song. The fragment in Russian provides an introduction which, according to Hennion, "serves both as a signal to the listener, enabling him to recognize the song immediately, and as a foretaste, making him want to listen to the rest. The 'intro' reveals enough to suggest the mood: sound, rhythm, type, etc." (Hennion, 1983, p. 165).

The switch to Yiddish for the most part of the song (until the final chorus) emphasizes the authenticity of singing performance and indexes performer's ethnic identity. The use of English in the final chorus connotes modernity (up-to-dateness) and helps to globalize the message of the song.

3.4. Professional and popular opinion on language choice in singing performances

Analysis of TV viewers' online comments concerning the issue of translation in song lyrics reveals different points of view. Most of them approve the translation of song lyrics into Russian as it ensures understanding ("It is very good that they sing in Russian "). Some comments, however, indicate a strong attachment to singing the original language of the song ("One should always sing in the original") and show low tolerance for mistakes (grammatical inaccuracies and/or signing with the accent, etc.). The jury and pop music professionals see Russian translation as contextually appropriate ( "In Russia we should sign in Russian " (Pelageya, coach)), although their personal preferences may lie with the original lyrics ("I think such mixing spoils the overall impression" (Ivan, musician)).

Apparently, both TV-viewers and pop music professionals see the ability to sing in the original language as a necessary skill and a sign of professionalism.

4. Conclusion

Translation of song lyrics has never been about lexical precision. Its aim is to convey the message of a song in a different language by matching words and music, i.e. by integrating the verbal component of a song into its rhythm and melody. In multilingual performances based on the so-called linguistic transposition, semantic equivalence of the original and translated lyrics is even less relevant. The meaning-making function of translation is preserved but it transcends the verbal domain and spreads to the domain of musical aesthetics.

In terms of the content, translation into Russian (the native language of the audience) fosters understanding and ensures the empathy of the listeners. Singing in the original language is usually symbolic: it helps to preserve the original flavor of the song and reinforces its emotional effect by reviving pleasant memories connected with the singing performance.

The alternation of the original lyrics and translated fragments is connected with song structure. The meaning-making process is manifold: in addition to verbal meanings (denotative and connotative/indexical/symbolic), musical meanings can also be created. Language juxtaposition can highlight the climax of the song; reinforce the contrast between the verses and/or between the verse and the chorus, and serve as an emotional introduction conveying the message of the song.


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