What to Keep in Mind When Translating Songs

When translating a song, a poem or a proverb, it’s unacceptable to go about it in a literal fashion (though later on we’ll see an example where there’s no other option but to do so). In the specific case of a song, we must find a way to express the original meaning of the lyrics while adapting it to what is often a context complete opposite the original, which is where cultural or historical references of our target audience come into play. There are many instances of songs that lose their meaning or part so greatly from their original lyrics that they end up sounding like totally different songs. We might mention artists like The Beatles (Yesterday), Frank Sinatra, Bon Jovi (Bed of Roses) and many others whose songs have been popularized in languages other than English, in this case in Spanish, and they end up not having the same sensitivity.

It’s no surprise that more and more songs are listened to in Spanish that were originally written in English. Every artist wants to reach a broader audience and for musicians and singers, recording in a foreign language is usually too much to ask. This not only applies from English to Spanish and vice verse, but to/from any language pair.

Among the guidelines to take into account when trying to translate a song, we can mention the song’s artistic intention, its identity, so to speak, the context it plays out in, and, sometimes, much as we’d like to avoid it, forgetting about the previous tip and translating literally in order to favor the melody and phrasing. In order to avoid this last point it is recommended that the person translating have knowledge of music, or that the person translating a book or poem also be a writer. We’re not talking about theoretical musical knowledge, but rather knowledge of musical genres, melodies and rhythms, not just contemporary but of all periods.

This job is not for just anybody. It can be a real challenge, but if we follow certain specific guidelines such as those mentioned above, it can be very pleasing. Just as with comedy or humor, translating songs is by no means easy but it’s fun to try.