TED Translators

The joy and agony of translating song lyrics

TED the Musical, 2014.

Earlier this year, the TED staff wrote a musical, complete with an original song called “We’ll Make a TED Talk Out of You.” Our translation volunteers had quite a time bringing it into their own languages. Photo: TED

By Kate Torgovnick May and Krystian Aparta

Music is the universal language. So why, then, do so many songs get translated? Sometimes, bands adapt their lyrics into English to reach international audiences—which explains why so few of us can sing ABBA in the band members’ native Swedish. Other times, songs are adapted into local languages for international release, as exemplified by this 25-language compilation of “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen.

Lyrics translators are faced with a painful trade-off: do you go for accuracy or strive to make the translation singable? TED staff: It's TED, the Musical TED staff: It's TED, the Musical But our Open Translation Project volunteers working on the parody video “TED, the musical” found themselves dealing with an even bigger challenge: How do you translate comedy lyrics and, on top of that, make them work as printed subtitles?

Khalid Marbou, who translates TED Talks into Arabic, initially hesitated on whether to take on this translation at all. “I figured that no matter how good I made it, it still would feel weird to read something in a completely different rhyme than what you are listening to. It felt like an impossible task,” he says. But in the end, he was glad he accepted the challenge. “I tried my best, and it certainly was a lot of fun. It turned translation into more of a creative process.”

Translator Stanislav Korotygin also emphasized the creative joy of bringing this madcap talk into Russian, but admits that translating lyrics is alway a difficult balancing act. “It’s like searching for the best path through the forest which must satisfy several conflicting criteria: it must be the shortest, the nicest and the safest. And you have to meet the wolf on the way,” he jokes. “You start thinking like a poet or songwriter.”

But what works in one language may not be possible in others. To Japanese translator Kazunori Akashi, the main goal was making the subtitles short enough to enable viewers to easily follow the video, while also following Japanese lyrical traditions. “I tried to adopt the conventional Japanese style of lyrics, namely using phrases which consist of five or seven syllables,” he explains. “For example, when I translated the line ‘It’s your time to shine,’ I did ‘Kimi-ga-kagayaku / toki-ga-kita,’ which are seven and five-syllable phrases.” And to Mile Živković, the number of syllables proved to be the biggest challenge in the Serbian translation. “It required me to compress everything so that I could imagine singing it in Serbian,” he says. “Initially, I attempted to make the entire song rhyme, but it proved virtually impossible with the line length.”

TED, the Musical” has now been translated into 30+ languages, and counting. Krystian Aparta, TED’s Localization Community Manager who’s worked with many Polish bands on translating their songs, is in awe of the OTP volunteers’ results on this talk. “There’s so much work that goes into translating lyrics: you need to think about the connotations of the words, rhymes, alliteration, which words will be stressed by the singer, how to adapt the song to make as much sense in the target culture… By translating these lyrics and bringing the fun and humor in this video to so many audiences all over the world, these guys are truly proving that music can be the universal language.”