Translating Music

Translating Music

Please see a blog below written by one of the Hebrew-English translators on our team, who is also a musician. It’s her story about translating a Greek song into English and the process she took. Enjoy!

 

I heard the strains of the song and felt my heartstrings vibrating. Its haunting melody and flowing words blew me away, although it was all Greek to me…. literally. As the melody continued to reverberate, I asked a friend “what is that song?” Edna, who was into all things Greek, said “To Tango ti Nefelis… It’s a famous Greek song, written and sung by Haris Alexiou; it’s about Nefele, who was turned into a cloud by Jupiter. But you know”, she said, “there is a version in Hebrew, why don’t you check it out?”

As a translator and as a singer/songwriter, I was intrigued. I am always interested in the way folk music travels around the world, and how it lands in different countries and settings. What local quirks and costumes might it adopt? Nefele was a prime example. In Greece, written by a Greek singer, the melody had been cloaked in Greek myth.

I set out to hear the Hebrew version, which is also entitled Nefele’s Tango.

I did find Nefele there, not quite resembling the Nefele in the Greek myth, where Zeus had turned her into a cloud to save her from having her “golden rag being stolen by the two little angels”. The Hebrew version had Nefele, shrouded in darkness and yearning for something, perhaps a voice calling out to comfort her and soothe her broken heart. Interesting, I thought, the feeling of the song is similar, a different kind of love song, a different version, a different vision.

Quite easy to explain actually. If all translation is an art, and often necessitates listening to the music of the words in order to select just the right turn of phrase, translating the lyrics of music is doubly challenging. In addition to the flow of the spoken word, there is the musical rhythm and tempo to adhere to, so often the localizer will choose the feeling and the cadence over a more exact translation.

At the time, I was content to leave it at that, and started singing the Hebrew version. Eventually, as in love with the song as I was, I decided to record it on my album. And here I hit an obstacle. Several people said to me, “you know, it doesn’t sound so great on you…. in Hebrew…. why don’t you write an English version? I wasn’t that surprised. Though I have lived in Israel for nearly fifty years, and my Hebrew is very good, there is a difference in the way one sounds when singing in their native tongue.

A challenge is a challenge. As I said, translating or localizing music means listening to the tempo of the music; the words must fit so seamlessly that the singer doesn’t have to add on extra syllables that usually end up sounding rather awkward. I cleared my calendar and, with a quiet heart and mind, set about researching and listening. Much to my surprise, I discovered that the original version of Nefele’s Tango is actually called Tango to Evora, and was written as a harp solo by Loreena McKennitt, for her album “The Visit” in 1991. With its lilting melody, it is no wonder that it inspired Haris Alexiou, a famous Greek singer to write words based on a Greek myth. In 1999, Nitza Termin, an Israeli singer who usually sings Mediterranean music, used the translation by Israeli poet Hamutal Ben Ze’ev, as the lead song on her album of the same name.

I took a look at the first lines… I counted them out… In Greek, the first line is To hri-so Kou-re-li (the golden rag), which is six syllables. In Hebrew, the first line, also six syllables is…. mi-she-hu-ko-reh-lach (someone is calling you).

I mulled about, hummed a bit…listened again to the Greek version and the the Hebrew version; spoke them out and sang them in the proper rhythm, contemplated the ambience and the feeling in both songs and played around…. such is the nature of my poetic muse… and finally, there it was… my first six-syllable line, “Can you hear me cal-ling”.

After that, the words came quickly, and my version of the song, Timeless Child, was born. Lo and behold, it had been transformed from a love song between the nymphs and the angels, to a love song between a man and a woman and then to an ode to the child in me; the child who, though sometimes hidden, is eternally present and ready to spark my next creative venture.

Timeless Child

Can you hear me calling

Ever so softly

It’s my voice that waits there

Hiding in the shadows

Listen to the silence, you’ll hear my whisper

Did you know that I am still a part of who you are?

 

I can see you dancing, a ray of sunshine

Cheeks aflush with scarlet, eyes ablaze with color

Feet entranced by magic, captured by the rhythm

How can you still be so much a part of who I am?

 

Please do not forsake me

I am your spirit

I fill your heart with whimsy, your soul with fire

Always I am here

I’m your timeless child

 

Yes, I will remember, you set me free

I can dance until tomorrow, I’ll sing forever

Ever will you be

You’re the child in me