Humor and Translation — Music as Translation

By Mark Herman

In her recent book on Music and Translation1, Lucile Desblache assumes an extremely expansive definition of translation, applying the term to virtually any cultural artifact that has been influenced in any way by another cultural artifact from the same or a different culture. In particular, she is interested in exploring the interactions when one or both of the cultural artifacts involve music in some way.

According to Desblache, every piece of music is inherently a translation since “by essence, music depends on variations” (31) and relies on “a set of references which may relate to musical or dance forms, style, melody, rhythm, and song lyrics…which are transformed or kept intact….[and] a musical translation generally depends on several texts from its translation: words, sung or spoken, instrumental accompaniment, visuals, dance, and sometimes more[,] (35)”

I disagree with Desblache. Although definitions are not right or wrong, they are useful or not useful, and I find it more useful to restrict “translation” to its traditional meaning and to use the words “adaptation,” “alteration,” “contribution,” “inspiration,” “influence,” or whatever for the other phenomena covered by Desblache’s use of the term “translation.”

Here are two “translation” examples cited by Desblache that few actual translators would think of as such:

ethnic music, for both composers [the Hungarian Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and the Czech Leoš Janáèek (1854-1928)], was deemed essential to the building of musical and political identity. In many respects, they were translating their [national] identit[ies] into music for the world to hear. (23)


Jimi Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was initially written and performed by Bob Dylan, but only took off after Hendrix’s interpretation. Dylan himself eventually adopted Hendrix’s interpretation. (180)

Desblache realizes that her definition of translation is not the standard one and offers several explanations for her expanded definition, few of which I find convincing. For example, she says that “an increasing exposure to audiovisual texts has…change[d] the very concept of translation.” (133) Even less convincing is her appeal to authorities, such as translation theorists who, “[s]ince the last decade of the 20th century, …have given translation a broader meaning.” (160)

Desblache also embraces the term “transcreation,” calling it “helpful in music, as an umbrella term referring to creation from established reference points.” (25) Once again, I disagree. I do not regard the term as helpful.

Desblache does at times discuss translation in the traditional sense, citing the songs translated into various languages from filmed and staged musicals such as The Lion King, Frozen, and The Phantom of the Opera. (45) However, she also states that, in some “translations” of the song “Auld Lang Syne,” the original meaning has been abandoned (45). Unlike Desblache, most translators would say that, once the original meaning has been abandoned, the result ceases to be a translation.

Desblache nicely states one of the main reasons for poor translation quality: many consumers of translations want cheap rather than good. (74).

She quotes a few opera singers as to the reasons why opera should not be sung in translation (79-80), neither quotation mentioning that opera is, or should be, drama as well as music, but then states:

Curiously, this trend for singable translations [of musicals] happens at a time when opera largely abandons it to adopt surtitling, a sign of the rift between high and popular musical cultures. (83)

Perhaps the rift is not so much between high and popular musical cultures as between bad and good theater, and between an opera establishment with a long history of frequently wretched translations and a musical theater establishment well aware that such translations do not sell tickets.

Desblache makes a good point about the often extreme provincialism of English speakers regarding other languages, or rather about the extreme provincialism of English speakers that is assumed by some commercial interests. As an example, she cites the Zulu words in the opening song of the musical The Lion King, essential to the narrative, which are simply omitted from the purchasable score. (118) A publisher expecting a more sophisticated audience would include the Zulu words, together with an English translation.

In addition to The Lion King, in which human actors pretend to be animals, Desblache discusses actual animals and some studies exploring the possibility that music can serve as an inter-species language, studies some people criticize on the grounds that music meant to communicate with animals only disturbs them. (201) Still, the idea has become a fad and therefore ripe for exploitation:

[There have been] a flurry of offers designed to appeal to human pet owners… : dog-(RelaxMyDog) and cat-friendly (RelaxMyCat) playlists are seemingly popular with a YouTube channel of over 600,000 subscribers. (201)

I will close this column with some trick questions, also known as word-trap riddles. A collection of them appears in Richard Lederer’s column in a recent issue of Funny Times.2 Probably the best known such riddle, in various formulations, is:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Each wife had seven sacks.
Each sack had seven cats.
Each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cat, sacks, wives,
how many were going to St. Ives?

and the parody of it, once again allowing the English to get in a dig at the French, is:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Of course, the wives weren’t his.
But here in France, that’s how it is.

The riddle is ambiguous, still allowing for the possibility that they all are going to St. Ives, that the speaker overtakes the others who are going in the same direction. Here is a riddle without ambiguity:

Assume that the distance between Boston and New York is 225 miles. A train leaves Boston for New York at noon, traveling at 110 miles per hour. Another train leaves New York for Boston at 1 PM, traveling at 125 miles per hour. Which train is closer to Boston when they pass each other?

And finally:

If a child playing on the beach has made three piles of sand, and another child playing nearby on the beach has made four piles of sand, how many piles of sand are there after the children have put all their piles of sand together?


  1. Desblache, Lucile. Music and Translation: New Mediations in the Digital Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).
  1. Lederer, Richard. “Are You An April Fool,” Funny Times (April 2022), 21.




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