American Hits With Foreign Titles

by Amanda Flinner

Digging through a half-century's worth of Billboard Hot 100 hits is hardly a lesson in cultural diversity if the titles are any indication. We have a whole category dedicated to songs with foreign words in the lyrics, but songs with non-English titles are a rarer breed on the US charts.

We compiled a list of popular songs (on and off the charts) with foreign titles and categorized them by language. So, without further ado: "Pantala Naga Pampa" (uh, that's Gambian, right?).
Spanish: "La Bamba"

In 1987, Los Lobos covered Ritchie Valens' take on the traditional Mexican tune "La Bamba" for the biopic about the late singer, who died alongside Buddy Holly in a 1959 plane crash. The Los Lobos version eclipsed Valens' on the charts, peaking at #1 versus #22, but the group's primary songwriter Louie Perez praised Valens for pioneering the Chicano rock movement:

"How bold was it back then in 1959 to take a Mexican song and make it into a rock tune, rock arrangement, and sing it in Spanish? That was pretty damn brave."

Had is not been for a resurgent "La Bamba," Gerardo would have a claim to the biggest Spanish-title hit in America with the "tasty and smooth" smash "Rico Suave."

German: "99 Luftballons"

Nena's anti-war song "99 Luftballons" topped charts around the world in 1983 and floated to #2 in the US. Illustrating the Cold War paranoia over the threat of nuclear war, the song tells the story of 99 balloons that inadvertently propel the world into a 99-year war.

Interestingly, the English version ("99 Red Balloons") released the following year was largely snubbed by American listeners. It did, however, soar to #1 on the UK charts. On the flip side, Falco failed to chart in the US with the German-language "Der Kommisar" just a few years earlier, but the English version by After the Fire peaked at #5.

French: "C'est La Vie"

In 1967, Frank Sinatra sang about life's inevitable ups and downs in the hit "That's Life," crooning, "Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race."

Almost 20 years later, the aspiring singer-songwriter Robbie Nevil was mulling over the same sentiment... in French. Nevil told us that his biggest hit "C'est La Vie" (translation: "That's Life") came together effortlessly, with a bouncy, sax-driven instrumental backing lyrics about poor J.J. and his broken-down car.

"C'est La Vie" has remained a popular song title, even dating back to a lovelorn jazz standard, but Nevil's #2 hit couldn't surpass the French-language "Dominique." The Singing Nun (not a novelty act - this was a bona-fide Belgian nun) landed at #1 in 1963 with this most unusual hit, beating out songs by The Beatles and Elvis. Well, you know what the French say...

Scottish: "Auld Lang Syne"

It wouldn't be New Year's Eve without a chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" – well, it would be, but celebrating the new year without the traditional Scottish tune made famous by poet Robert Burns would breach a longstanding tradition.

Despite being engrained in cultures around the world as a celebratory song, "Auld Lang Syne" has rarely hit the charts, though Kenny G's 1999 " Millennium Mix" peaked at #7.

Greek: "Kyrie"

The masses that made Mr. Mister's "Kyrie" a #1 hit in 1986 were crying out to the heavens in prayer when they belted the chorus – only they didn't know it. Many fans assumed the group was giving us the totally '80s advice to "carry a laser" in case any Luke Skywalker-style shenanigans should befall. But "Kyrie Eleison" is Greek for "Lord, have mercy" not "Lord Vader."

It marked the first time a song with a Greek word in its title landed on the Hot 100 in the US. As one Greek fan also pointed out, "Kyrie" can also mean "Mister," so the band name translated into Greek would be Kyrie Kyrie.

Italian: "Nel Blu, Dipinto di Blu (Volare)"

If "Volare" ("Flying") makes you dream of flying way up to the clouds, away from the maddening crowds, you probably haven't heard the original version by Italian singer Domenico Modugno. The 1958 hit, which translates to "In the Sky, Painted Blue," was sung completely in Italian.

It was the first foreign-language single from the rock era to fly to the #1 spot on the singles chart, also making Modugno one of the first Italian pop stars to earn international acclaim. That same year, Dean Martin's version incorporated the well-known English verses. Also reaching the Hot 100 at #45 in 1958 was Nat King Cole's rendition of the Italian love song "Non Dimenticar."

Spanglish: "Livin' La Vida Loca"

Los del Rio already had Americans doing the "Macarena" for a few years by the time Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin wowed the nation with "La Copa de la Vida" ("The Cup of Life") at the 1999 Grammy Awards. Almost exactly a month later, Martin, who was being hyped as the Latin Elvis, released "Livin' La Vida Loca" (translation: "Livin' the Crazy Life").

The bilingual tune gave an English-speaking audience just enough of a Latin flair that it's remembered as a Spanish-flavored hit, but they were mostly being wooed by their own language. The song's co-writer Desmond Child told us: "That particular song had parts that sound like Spanish but aren't. Like, 'skin the color of mocha.' 'Mocha' is an American term - we don't say that in Spanish. But it sounded like Spanish."

Frenchlish: "My Cherie Amour"

Had it been released under its original title, Stevie Wonder's 1969 soul classic wouldn't make the list. As "Oh My Marcia," the love song was an ode to a girlfriend he met at the Michigan School for the Blind. After their breakup, the lyrics were changed to "My Cherie Amour" ("My Dearest Love").

Wonder later recorded Spanish and Italian versions, but neither was as successful as the French rendition, which peaked at #4 on the Hot 100. Hey, they call it the language of love for a reason.

Italianish: "That's Amore"

Though it plays on the stereotype that Italians equate food with love (take it from an Italian girl, it ain't a lie), "That's Amore" did have some authentic Italian influence, making it a little less Ragu than it seems. Not only did it become a signature hit for Italian-American crooner Dean Martin (born Dino Crocetti), it was also composed by Harry Warren, born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna to Italian immigrant parents.

Martin debuted "That's Amore" (translation: "That's Love") in the 1953 movie The Caddy, his tenth film with comedy partner Jerry Lewis. Incidentally, Martin really did drool over pasta fagioli. According to daughter Deana Martin, it was her dad's favorite dish.

Gibberish: "De Do Do, De Da Da Da"

Sting would probably be miffed at us for putting this in the gibberish category. He said The Police's "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" was his attempt to write "an articulate song about being inarticulate" that ended up going over everybody's heads.

Inspired by classics like "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Do Wah Diddy Diddy," "Be-Bop-a-Lula," and "Tutti Frutti," the single peaked at #10 in 1980.

Icelandic: "Svefn-g-englar"

The Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós first found favor outside of their native country with the single "Svefn-G-Englar," meaning "sleepwalkers" or "sleep angels." The track was named Single of the Week by NME in the UK, where they would earn a huge following. While it didn't chart in the US, the song was included on the 2001 Oscar-nominated Vanilla Sky soundtrack, which was hailed by the New York Times as a "music masterpiece."

But the band's bass player Goggi Holm, who met Vanilla Sky stars Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz at the film's wrap party, wasn't impressed with the "plastic" LA scene. He told The Guardian: "I couldn't live in LA. I'd be found dead, face down in a swimming pool with a straw sticking out of my nose within a month."

Aside from Sigur Rós, the Icelandic experimental artist Björk also became a worldwide sensation, but nearly all of her singles have English titles and the few in her native language didn't make an impression in the US.

Japanese: "Sukiyaki"

Styx incorporated Japanese lyrics in "Mr. Roboto," their #3 hit from 1983, but the only real Japanese song to top the Hot 100 to date is Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki," originally titled "Ue O Muite Aruko" ("I Look Up as I Walk").

British music exec Louis Benjamin renamed the track "Sukiyaki" after his favorite Japanese dish, knowing it would be easier for English-speaking audiences to pronounce and would be instantly recognizable as being Japanese. Soon after, he enlisted Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen to record it as an instrumental. After its success on the UK charts, an American DJ tracked down Sakamoto's original version and played it under the new title.

Americans were struck by the song's beautiful melody that suggested a heartache they couldn't glean from the lyrics. An English-language version from Taste of Honey hit the charts at #3 in 1981 and indeed confirmed a sorrowful tale. The group's Janice Marie Johnson translated the lyrics about the end of a love affair, but other interpretations suggest it's about a man facing execution.

Sanskrit/Tamil: "Pantala Naga Pampa"

Dave Matthews didn't know the phrase "Pantala Naga Pampa" meant "There's a cobra in my pants" until after he used it as the 40-second intro to the 1998 album Before These Crowded Streets. Legend has it, he thought it was a Gambian phrase meaning "Welcome to our home," a fitting way to greet listeners as the opening track of an album. But he actually borrowed it from an Indian chef, who either had a ribald sense of humor or an alarming personal issue.

Swahili: "Hakuna Matata"

The The Lion King production team was on safari in Kenya when they heard a tour guide use the phrase "Hakuna Matata," meaning "No Worries." Working with lyricist Tim Rice, Elton John spun it into a musical number for the 1994 Disney film, where the meerkat and warthog duo Timon and Pumbaa use it to teach lion cub Simba to forget all his troubles and live in the moment. Not only did the song introduce the phrase internationally, but it also was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song and bubbled under the Hot 100 at #105.

To further solidify its status in pop culture history, it was referenced in the Seinfeld episode "The Merv Griffin Show," when Elaine explains she was caught singing it in her office.

Polish: "Warszawa"

Poland's capital city was a bleak landscape when David Bowie passed through twice in the mid-'70s, inspiring a haunting feeling he couldn't shake. While working on the 1977 Low album, Bowie brought "Warszawa" to Brian Eno and came up with a mostly instrumental track punctuated by moaning. Although it wasn't released as a single, it was the opener for many of Bowie's concerts throughout the decade.

Bobby Vinton was also known for tunes that reflected his Polish heritage, including "My Melody of Love," a #3 hit in 1974 that boasted lyrics partly in Polish (but not the title, hence Bowie's non-charting hit getting the nod here).

Irish/Gaelic: "An Cat Dubh"

As an Irish schoolboy, Bono was required to take classes in Gaelic – which he failed. Nevertheless, he called this 1980 track from U2's debut album "An Cat Dubh," which translates to "The Black Cat." The song lyrics are in English and tell the story of a black cat that stalks and kills its prey before sleeping next to it – a metaphor for the brief affair Bono had before reuniting with the woman he later married, Ali Hewson.

Ewok: "Yub Nub" / "Ewok Celebration"

John Williams was the go-to composer for the anthemic music of the Star Wars trilogy, but Industrial Light & Magic sound designer Ben Burtt wrote the Ewokese lyrics for "Yub Nub," the celebration song that closes the original series in Return of the Jedi. Williams' son, Joseph Williams, wrote English lyrics that clue us in to what the bearcub-like creatures are actually singing about:

Freedom, we got freedom
And now that we can be free
Come on and celebrate

In a move hotly debated among Star Wars fans, creator George Lucas replaced "Yub Nub" with a solemn orchestration by John Williams called "Victory Song" when he remastered the trilogy in 1997. Instead of keeping the celebration strictly in Endor's redwood forest with the Ewoks and our heroes, Lucas added scenes of mirth from other regions of the fallen Galactic Empire, including Mos Eisley and the Cloud City. Ee chee wa maa!

September 21, 2015
More Song Writing

Comments: 6

  • Terry from Willmar, MinnesotaAULD LANG SYNE
  • K.c. from NhI don't know if these count, but there's "Another Auld Lang Syne" (Scottishish?) by Dan Fogelberg, and if you REALLY want to pick nits, there's British Slang - completely different from American - "Randy Scouse Git" by the Monkees.
  • Jeff Adler from NebraskaOOOOPS! You've completely overlooked the 1968 #1 song (5 weeks) "L'Amore Est Bleu" (Love is Blue) by Paul Mauriat. The translated title of the song is on the record label, but the actual title of the Grammy nominated song is French. Also "Tequila" by the Champs (#1, 5 weeks, 1958). You can't get around that one word song, there is not an Anglo word in either of those two songs, although both have been translated into English (English for "Tequila" is "Tequila" but it's still Spanish.)
  • Brian Bell from Sydney Australiamanana / besame mucho / les bicyclettes de Belsize / arrivedecci roma / hasta manana /
  • David from San DiegoKorean: Kangnam Style (강남 스타일)
  • Camille from Toronto, OhGreat, interesting article. I know and love many of these songs. My Cherie Amour, lovely as a summer day.....
see more comments

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