Lyrics as a Foreign Language

"Lucky that my breasts are small and humble, so you don't confuse them with mountains."
- Shakira, "Whenever, Wherever"

English gets a bad rap, often from snooty Americans who spend two weeks in Italy or France and come back to tell you how beautiful other languages are as they make you sit through the slideshow on their MacBook Pro. But the vast majority of internationally famous songs are in English. Most are written by native speakers, but plenty of foreign-born performer/songwriters have crafted hit songs with their own take on the language. It goes beyond mere translation, as they find ways to connect with the words, often in a way an American or Brit would never think of.

We've had a chance to speak with a few of these songwriters with a talent for writing English lyrics as a foreign language. Here's a look at how they do it, and some of the greatest success stories.
Native Language: German

Hurricanes do not occur in Germany. Actually, a great many natural disasters don't occur in Germany. So the Scorpions had to do a bit of research to craft the rock classic with lyrics like "The bitch is hungry, she needs to tell, so give her inches and feed her well."

When we got Scorpions founder Rudolf Schenker on the phone, we learned a few things: He has a very thick German accent, the band has always written songs in English so they could break into the lucrative American market, and there was some real thought behind the words to "Rock You Like A Hurricane." Said Rudolf:
"I think 'Rock You Like A Hurricane' is a perfect rock anthem, which talks about attitude and sexuality. It's very important to recognize the tension between the verses and the chorus. I think Klaus (Meine) went over the lyrics around 8 or 9 times because the first lyrics of the song went something like 'blah blah blah blah.' And we said, 'No! The song is not feeling right.' But at the 9th or 10th time, it came."
When you're writing in a language you don't ordinarily speak, you're more likely to find creative ways of aligning the words. The Scorpions never chased a trend, and their brand of rock caught on in the '80s, about 15 years after they formed. By that time the band had perfected their sound and the English language hits came one after another. Schenker told us how they used their ESL status to give them an edge:
"We see things in a different way. We explain things differently and we go very deep inside with the music and the lyrics, and we have a different view. And people start liking this view because it's not the same as the views of other people."
The Scorpions were at first glance not too far removed from many of the other popular German rock bands at the time. But none of those other bands are being played to this day on American classic rock radio stations. There was something different about them that, though their homeland couldn't quite see it, resonated throughout the rest of the world. Perhaps it was their ability to speak eloquently about North American weather phenomena.

Native Language: Spanish

English is the most universal language, and as we learned in South Africa during the World Cup, Shakira might be the most universal singing star. Often mistakenly thought to be from Brazil, she's from Colombia, which makes her all the more remarkable, seeing as she's a Colombian export that you can't snort. And while her songs serve as a vehicle for her hips, she's also found a way to deliver the words in English in a way that doesn't sound like it was translated through Babelfish.

It was the song "Whenever, Wherever" that rocketed "Shakey" to international superstardom and, more particularly, mass popularity in the US. But we didn't know what to think of her at first. Was this a South American Britney Spears? Was she a little flare-up in the then-hot Latin Market? The test of time proved that Shakira was her own product - and usually her own lyricist - and many more international hits were on the way. So while the Britney clones were singing words written for them devoid of substance, Shakira was delivering heartfelt hits in her second language.

Here are the original Spanish lyrics to "Whenever, Wherever," which she worked on with Gloria Estefan:

"Yo puedo escalar los andes
Solo por ir a contar tus lunares
Contigo celebro y sufro todo
Y mis alegrias y mis males"

They translate into:

"Baby I would climb the Andes solely
to count the freckles on your body
Never could imagine there were only
Ten million ways to love somebody."

The words are beautiful in both languages but the meaning of the lyrics are gorgeous in ALL languages. And this is why Shakira blew up all over the world when performers of equal talent and comparable booty-styling, floundered. Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias had sizzles of fame with English songs, but Shakira had the longstanding success and was the choice to represent the world in South Africa. The telltale signs of her longstanding international acclaim can be seen in her first few albums. Sony Records thought she was a long shot, and left her free to produce her first album herself. So instead of having a Latin American producer making cookie cutter Latin American songs, Shakira played to the tune of her own timbales. Sure, there was plenty of Latin in there but she had control over her sound and was able to infuse it with other influences, which ranged from British pop to the early '90s Alternative boom in the US.

The end product was "Shakira music," a style of her own. She's the musical equivalent of Type O negative blood - a universal donor creating lyrical images and good vibes that translate to several languages.

Native Language: Icelandic

Björk is one of the most successful singers of all time and quite possibly the most popular singer on this list. She has earned her place in the "one name" pantheon with fellow superstars Cher, Madonna, and Bono - fortunate for us since her full name is Björk Guomundsdottir.

Björk grew up in Reykjavik, Iceland and quickly developed a penchant for piano, a wonderfully suitable indoor activity for such a cold clime. At first she learned all the important classical numbers and the popular fare of her homeland but it wasn't long before she began to branch outside the Icelandic songs played by the only radio station in her town. In the 1970s she took an interest in punk music, and formed a band with the decidedly American name of "Spit and Snot." This expectorant-obsessed group was rather ahead of its time, as was her '80s band, The Sugarcubes.

It was 1993 when Björk hit the big time as a solo artist, thanks in part to her move to England, which was a good place to experience some eclectic sounds. Dance pop was coming up in London while Manchester was experiencing its club scene boom. Shoegazing, the UK equivalent of grunge music, was also gaining a hold on the country's attention and amid these surrounds Björk created her masterful debut, Debut. It would be another four years before an equally snarky first album by a female singer would arise, Fiona Apple's decidedly meta title: Tidal.

"Debut" was recorded entirely in English, but no foreign tongue could quite tame the unique cadence of the talented young singer. Björk made even bigger headway with her second album, Post, a similarly clever album title. And if you're keeping score, Apple, to her credit, gave her sophomore album a 90 word title. Post garnered three top tens in the UK and, though it didn't place as well on American charts, the album still performed exceedingly well. Her next album, Homogenic, gave her even more fame all while being even more out there and experimental than her previous two. What is astonishing is that, as her music has become more complex and nuanced, she has actually gained more fans rather than losing them in her strange and dreamy dust.

But there you have it. International pop music success by way of Iceland, with a layover in London, to adoring throngs of fans in the US. What makes Björk special is that universal love for sound, and not just music, that makes her accessible. Björk communicates to us like a whale speaks to a dolphin: We don't always know what she's trying to say, and there's lots of room for translation, but somehow we get the message. Like Tom Waits and Radiohead, she's done some interesting sonic experiments - her album Medulla used the human voice as the most prominent instrument, to divine effect, proving that you don't always need a language to communicate vocally. Whether she sings in English, Icelandic, or even Swahili, she is still inimitable, inexplicable, and often incredible.

Yael Naim
Native Language: Hebrew

Many people have heard Yael Naim without even knowing it. Her wonderfully catchy hit "New Soul" was featured in Apple commercials and mainstream movies both in America and the UK - The House Bunny and Wild Target. Yael was raised in Israel, the daughter of Tunisian Jews, meaning they're actually from Africa. After doing her requisite military service in Israel (in the Air Force Orchestra), she moved to France to pursue music, writing songs in Hebrew, French and English. Leaving home was a really big deal in her culture, and something she sings about in her song "Come Home."

The song "Lachlom," from her self-titled album, is fully in Hebrew while "Paris" features both Hebrew and French. Both these tracks are lovely whether you understand the lyrics or not, but Yael also has an impeccable taste in English and, more specifically, American music. She covered Britney Spears' hit "Toxic" to great effect: Instead of a bland, processed, musical equivalent of a hot pocket, maybe tasty for a split second but ultimately unsatisfying after a couple bites, she turned the tune into an ominous, meditative dirge. This cover received well-deserved acclaim, but her biggest hit in the States came courtesy of Steve Jobs, who used her rompy "New Soul" in commercials for the Macbook Air.

"New Soul" starts out with a piano riff that brings to mind "La Vie Boheme" from Rent. But there the similarities end. The song espouses immortal human truths that speak to us no matter which dialect is used:

"I'm a new soul, I came to this strange world
hoping I can learn a bit 'bout how to give and take.
But since I came here, felt the joy and the fear
finding myself making every possible mistake"

Take that French! Yael went to her third language, the often-maligned English, to express herself in a way that is both eloquent and simple. When we spoke with Yael, she was quiet and measured, sifting through words to find the best way to help us understand what she's made of. Speaking about writing in different languages, she told us:
"The language has its own mentality. You know, Israeli is very direct. So there is something very simple for me in Hebrew, very intimate. English is really musical, something really free. You can have a lot of freedom with this language for music."
Yes, there is plenty of room for expression in English, and a sultry accent can certainly help.

Native Language: Swedish

ABBA is the fourth best selling music act of all time. The band has sold nearly four hundred million albums around the world and were the first non-English pop group to have massive success in the English market. In other words, they are the Granddaddies and Grandmas of this list. Mamma Mia!

But what was it about ABBA that made them so astonishingly successful with the English speaking world? Their grasp on the language was never perfect: "The Winner Takes It All" is a Stockholm Spoonerism of the phrase "the winner takes all." But one thing ABBA could master in any language was scathing honesty. Songwriters Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (The two B's in the group's moniker) spoke frankly of break-ups and broken promises, usually related to Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog, the A's. Lyrics like "There is nothing we can do, knowing me and knowing you. We just have to face it, this time we're through" have no problem breaking the language barrier.

To satisfy worldwide craving for all things ABBA, the foursome also recorded their own foreign versions of their songs in Spanish, French, German and their native Swedish. Indirectly, this led them to spearhead the then-new music video market. In the '70s, years before Michael Jackson was dancing with zombies or a-ha were creating Hentai, ABBA recorded videos of all of their most popular tunes because they were so popular all over the world and couldn't reach all these places by tour.

These days, Swedish songwriters are known for cranking out ultra-commercial pop for American singers, and ABBA certainly led the way musically with their catchy tunes and big choruses. What's easy to forget is how ABBA could express the most immortal of human truths with soul-baring courage, and do it in their second language. Sure, it's tough to see the soul-baring courage under all the spangled miniskirts and GoGo paisley, but it's there all right. It's why ABBA has tribute bands and broadway shows and fan clubs, while their Swedish followers Roxette and Ace of Base do not.

The Asteroids Galaxy Tour
Native Language: Danish

You probably haven't heard of these folks, but they make great use of lyrical versatility in the English language.

The Asteroids Galaxy Tour are a Danish duo, and Like Yael Naim, they were first heard in America thanks to an Apple commercial. They probably would have never crossed the radar of Steve Jobs were it not for an unlikely saving grace in the form of one Amy Winehouse. The late, troubled chanteuse heard the band's demo and brought them on as an opening act when she toured Copenhagen. Soon after, Katy Perry, an expert at shamelessly ripping off better talents, poached the talents of TAGT and they played a few dates during her 2009 tour. If nothing else shows the fortitude of this band, it's the fact that they spent long months in close proximity to Katy Perry and Russell Brand and emerged unscathed. They remain on the fringes of mass acclaim, getting another pop in 2011 when their song "The Golden Age" was used in a Heineken beer commercial.

The Asteroids Galaxy Tour never sang in their native Danish and instead preferred to record entirely in English. This wasn't so much a commercial move as an artistic one. Lars Iversen, who is the songwriter/producer in the duo, told us:
"It is just so much easier to make something make sense in English. The very few times that I've tried to write lyrics in Danish, they sound so weird and clumsy. Danish is a much more simple language. We have less words per item to describe something."
Perhaps this appreciation for the English language leads Lars to use it more effectively than his tourmate Katy Perry. Witness her lyrics:

"You're hot then you're cold, you're yes then you're no, you're in then you're out, you're up then you're down."

Something tells us this song could be translated into several languages without losing the subtle nuances of the prose, but for songwriters interested in delivering heartfelt words to an international audience, English simply can't be beat. It is an eclectic and varied language which almost always has the right word for the right spot, and if it doesn't we'll make one up. It's really a mashup of many different tongues, from Norman French to Saxon pagan and so much in between, which means it has evolved in a way that it can deliver deeper meanings and greater truths with its inexhaustible wealth of linguistic resources.

September 3, 2011
Landon McQuilkin and Carl Wiser

More Song Writing

Comments: 12

  • Sam Inman from UsaI am surprised that HYDE did not make your list. His band L'arc en Ciel is the only Japanese band to sell out Madison Square Garden. Vamps his rock band was amazing and his solo work HYDE, he is rocking the English progressively for over 30 years.
  • Anuj Kholia from IndiaSometimes they make a correct translations but sometimes they do it in such a way that whole sense of song changes
  • Jaidani from Us Of Athat's not what Shakira's lyrics translate to in english at all. ya'll need to fix that...
  • Melodina from PhilippinesEnglish;language for global undersatnding
  • Tim from CaliforniaDon't forget Nightwish from Finland! That Tuomas Holopainen has a way with words, at least in English. Also, one of the members of the band is from Sweden.
  • Linda from Inland Empire, CaFirst Aid Kit, the sister duo from Sweden, comes to mind, too.
  • Svein Sørensen from NorwayGood article about ABBA, but what about a-ha?
  • Splat from Frankford, DeRicky Martin released several albums in his native Spanish language before his 1999 self-titled album (whose big hit single's title was a mix of Spanish and English!).
  • Adrian from ScotlandThe current Scandinavian crop includes Oh Land (Danish) and the utterly charming Gabi Froden (Foreign Slippers) from Sweden. Must be something in that cold Arctic water...
  • Shawnerz from Any, MdOK, I missed the point in the Shakira translation example. That's not what the lyrics translate into English. Were you saying that's what they translate to, or were you saying that is what Shakira and Gloria Estafan felt should fit there?
    But it was a good article. :)
  • Markxus25 from San Pedro, CaGolden Earing, a Dutch band
  • Dan from OkcYou forgot Sepultura!
see more comments

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