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Lost In Translation

Monday, March 07, 2011 - 12:16 PM

Most of us have had the experience of reading something (usually an instruction manual) that has been translated into English in a way that might be described, charitably, as “inexpert” – though most of us would probably go with “hilarious.”   This often happens when the original language has a different syntax and structure: unrelated languages like Korean and Japanese, for example.  But something as simple as Spanish to English can go horribly wrong, as when a fellow soccer coach, originally from South America, sent me an email recently saying that the work of training a player “doesn’t end when the ref blows the weasel.” 

You might think that translating from English to ASL – American Sign Language – would be pretty routine.  But it isn’t.  My younger daughter is learning ASL in school, and the syntax of ASL is apparently quite different from English.  So the idea of having to translate song lyrics for a non-hearing audience at a concert is a daunting one.  As Monica Hesse points out in her Washington Post article, a Lady Gaga line like “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick" is already tough to figure out – what does Gaga mean here?  If anything?  If you signed it in ASL just as the lyrics suggest, the resulting translation would be "I want to ride on the twig of John Travolta's dance moves."

Of course, translating a line like that into any other language would pose the same problems.  Opera has wrestled with this for years – do you translate operas into the language of the opera company?  I for one would rather hear Don Giovanni in Italian than in an English translation: as good as Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto is, you go to hear Mozart’s music.  A supertitled English translation gives me as much of the language as I need; it’s amazing how much of the story comes through in the music and the singing, regardless of the language. 

With pop music, even when it’s in English we often don’t understand the words.  Didn’t stop millions of us from buying Michael Jackson’s songs.  (Go ahead, sing anything from “Beat It” other than the words “beat it.”)  I can’t imagine that anyone who went to his concerts walked out disappointed that they couldn’t understand all the words.   And how many times have you checked out the lyrics to a song you liked, only to find out they were completely lame, and knowing them somehow ruined the mystery, or the story that you’d supplied to the song yourself… 

For deaf audience members, the most obvious solution seems to be supertitles.  But some people (and probably many singers) could find that intrusive.  And anyway, if you were deaf, and went to a Lady Gaga concert because of the spectacle and the excitement and the lights and the dancers, why would you also be expecting a poetry reading?  Wouldn’t it be enough to get ASL versions of the titles, and maybe the big lines in the chorus?  For most of us, that’s all we’re really getting anyway. 

What’s the best way to help hearing-impaired audience members to enjoy a concert?  Should concertgoers, hearing and non-hearing alike, have access to the words at big pop music events?  Leave a comment.  

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