surinenglish

Bossed in translation

Translating a technical manual is fairly straightforward but deadly boring. I worked on one once and nothing could persuade me to do it ever again - it felt like somebody was sucking all life force from my body with a rusty syringe. Very slowly.

By contrast, translating literature, poetry or song lyrics is quite difficult to do but extraordinarily stimulating and satisfying if you manage to do it well. Last week an old friend and well known Spanish pop star called to see if I could translate a song of his into English for a new project. He also wanted some backing vocals done and, of course, I was delighted to offer any help I could. This is where the fun began.

Luckily, the song is a good one (there's nothing worse than spending hours listening to and working on a tune you don't even like) but it's filled with tricky metaphors and idioms. You can't translate those things literally - they just sound ludicrous. Imagine pointing at a grumpy person and saying "Blimey, he's got bad fleas." No-one would have a clue what you meant even though it's a direct translation of the marvellous Spanish expression "Tiene malas pulgas". Likewise "He's got the face of a man with very few friends" just sounds daft compared to the hilarious "Tiene cara de pocos amigos". You'll be pleased to hear that neither of these gems is in the song because that would mean it was really rubbish but they do serve as examples of the point I wanted to make: artistic translation is really quite difficult.

So, we've established that you can't make a direct translation but nor can you stray too far from the meaning of the song and then - as if that weren't enough - the killer blow comes and smacks you mockingly about the chops: the translation needs to have the same number of syllables in each line as the original, otherwise the melody needs to be altered and that's always a bad idea.

The four-minute song (half of which is a repeated chorus) took me about eight hours in total if you factor in the time spent kicking random objects about in frustration but finally it's done and, truth to tell, I'm very pleased with it as is my chum, more importantly.

The thought of singing backing vocals on some of the lines filled me with great pride and, out of curiosity, I was keen to know which bits I'd be warbling. I made the call.

"Hi, it's Peter. Which lines do you want me sing in the studio?"

"Oh, just some Sha La Las will be fine, thanks."

Oh, well. It's only rock and roll but we like it.