When you listen to a new song for the first time, you listen hard. You listen for the Important Words, the ones that carry the emotional message. If the singer is doing their job properly, even when the song is in a language that you don’t speak, you will still pick up the extra emotional charge of certain sounds within it.
Try this: here’s one of my favourite songs in Russian. Yes, Russian. Don’t be scared. The singer makes the emotional charge available to you, as one human being communicating with another. Like a foreign language exchange student who goes home with a whole new stock of English swear words, you will feel the emotionally charged words leap out of the soup of unknowns. Honestly. Have a go. Which word or words jump out at you? :
How did you get on? Which word, or group of sounds drew your attention most? What was different about them? Did the singer sing them more loudly than the others? More deliberately? Did he change his expression when he sang them? What were you picking up with your antennae? Or was the emotional message too subtle to be able to describe it in words?
I know which word jumps out at me, but it might be different for you. There is no ‘right’ answer. All answers say something about human emotion. Just write the word or words as they sound to you – don’t worry about getting them ‘right.’ All phrase books rely on an approximation of sounds. Unless you’re writing them in Russian, they’re always going to be a shadow of their real selves.
If I tell you that the song is sung by a young soldier who is about to go to war and is thinking about all the beauty, love and life that he will never experience, are you surprised? Had you picked up the fact that the song’s a sad song?
When you’re the one singing, in English, you’re in charge of delivering the emotional message. You won’t always be singing to native speakers of English. You need to communicate the message of the song, using words, but knowing that some of your audience won’t know those words. How will you do it?
Our friend with the accordion communicated the central message of his song to you powerfully and perfectly. And it didn’t matter that you don’t speak Russian, did it?
© Sing Better English, 2014