Shakira: Suerte and the Dance of Translation

“She says she studied writing lyrics in English “when I could barely speak the language”, with the aid not merely of a dictionary, but the collected works of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Walt Whitman”

Having a poetic vision of the English language when you’re looking for rhyming syllables to suit the rhythm and meaning of your song can lead you to unusual, but workable English. Think of Britney Spear’s Hit Me Baby One More Time. The fact that Max Martin, the lyricist, is Swedish, led to him dropping the ‘up’ of the American slang phrasal verb ‘hit me up’. That ‘up’ didn’t fit the music. So he ditched the ‘up’ and left ‘hit me’ to mean ‘call me’. The sound works perfectly. It’s wonderfully sing-along-able. We take the sound to be the meaning. The scandal surrounding a literal, violent reading of “hit me” only helped to provide publicity.

In Shakira’s Suerte/Wherever, Whenever she’s made a poetic dancer’s job of choosing English sounds to suit her Spanish song. I imagine she tests English words by walking or dancing them into the music as she sings, to be sure that they fit.

In the original Spanish chorus, Shakira repeats “Contigo mi vida/Quiero vivir la vida” (“With you my love/I want to live my life”). She plays on the fact that mi vida means ‘my life’ and can also mean ‘my beloved‘. As a word, vida is a strong way to end a line: it has an all-embracing meaning, its central d is a clear beat and it bounces up and away onto its final a.

The Spanish word nada works in the same way. It has the same soft but strong bend in the middle and the light a ending.  It’s a wonderfully bouncy word to sing. Watch Lido Pimienta glory in the word Nada here:

Back to Shakira’s vida. Its double meaning (life and also beloved) brings pleasure – the human brain loves a bit of clever wordplay.

So how do you find a translation in English? Life is the word a dictionary will hand you. But, soundwise, life is a soggy word to substitute for vidaLife only has one syllable and only one widely understood meaning. Its final f sound doesn’t end a line of song with any kind of snap or upward energy. You don’t have enough notes in the line to let you construct a version of  the “With you, my life/I want to live my life” game in English. It wouldn’t work. It would sound forced and clunky, especially within the sound landscape of Shakira’s song..

Direct translation – trying to find exact equivalence for every single word you’ve already written in the song in its original language – is a recipe for disaster. It’s far better to begin again, using the original as a pattern of sound and emotion.

Hats off to Shakira for encapsulating the meaning of “Contigo mi vida/Quiero vivir la vida” in a completely different combination of English words: “Wherever, whenever/We’re meant to be together”. The snap and bounce of contigo mi vida is replaced by the springy swing of wherever, whenever and together. The double meaning of mi vida is replaced by our understanding of the explicitly unrestricted, airy expanse of wherever, whenever.

Impressively for a non-native speaker of English, Shakira takes full advantage of the schwa sound of each final er to pronounce them lightly. If she had paused to give those final ‘er’ sounds the rolled r sound natural to a Spanish speaker, she would have wrecked the rhythm by pushing the stress onto the final syllables and by making the final syllable ‘sticky’. Using the neutral English schwa sound makes ‘er’ glide away. The sound of an English schwa is very like the final a of vida, as Shakira sings it in the original Spanish.

I’d guess that Shakira is channelling  Walt Whitman when she calls on venerable English words like hereunder to translate “Contigo mi vida/Quiero vivir la vida” the second time it appears in the chorus. Simply repeating “wherever, whenever” was never an option.  Repeating the Spanish: “Contigo mi vida/Quiero vivir la vida” reinforces the strength of her emotions. By contrast, repeating “wherever/whenever” would start to sound vague and wispy.

So she has to start again. For the English version she needs two lines that rhyme, that put the stress on the second and fourth syllables, that keep up the idea of expansive, all-embracing love and that don’t compete with the first two lines of the chorus: ‘wherever, whenever‘ (as they’re the title of the song and the most singalongable lines). She comes up with “There over, hereunder/You’ll never have to wonder”.

There over” and “hereunder” are place-holder words. Their job is to move the song along without confusing the audience. They don’t need to carry important emotional content, but they mustn’t disrupt the emotional message of the rest of the song.

There over” sounds like a singe three syllabled word. It’s similar enough to ‘wherever’, with its central ‘er’ and its final ‘er’ to lull us into a sense of security It’s slightly different, so we’re interested, but it’s similar enough in sound to reassure us that we can still sing along. We know ‘there’ and ‘over’ as standard English words. We can imagine ‘there over‘ as a combination of the two. The same goes for ‘hereunder’. It’s a proper English word, but it normally lives in legal contracts, not love songs.

In an English exam, the line would be a fail. In Shakira’s song, it’s perfect.

It works because we can reach for the meanings, back through the mists of time, all the way to the 15th century. Both there over and hereunder have a bit of a Shakespearean sound, so we accept them. They work with the music and their ‘not quite English as we know it today’ feeling somehow adds to their mystical, all-embracing reach. As they’re not words in common English use, Shakira can place the stress as it suits her song. Perfect.

If English isn’t your first language: when you write a song in English, or translate one of your songs into English, poetry is a good place to start. Sound is more important than meaning. Be brave. Love the language and you can’t go wrong.

Which do you prefer? Shakira’s original Spanish song or her English version?

It’s tricky to create a version of a song where one music fits two languages. Watch Sílvia Pérez Cruz singing the original Frederico Garcia Lorca poem which inspired Leonard Cohen’s Take this Waltz. She sings the Spanish words to the music Cohen designed to fit his English translation. She’s a wonderful singer, but the words are not a perfect fit:

Here’s Leonard Cohen singing in Granada, Lorca’s hometown:

Leonard Cohen had refashioned the original to fit his music, which is why Sílvia struggles to make El Pequeño Vals Vienés fit comfortably. Cohen thought of his song like this:

Shakira needed two versions of her song, each of which had to fit her music perfectly. Like Leonard Cohen, she had to change the original Spanish to suit. Unlike Cohen, she had to be sure that both Spanish and English versions danced to the music.

Human emotions are universal. The sounds we use to express them, in any human language, are close cousins. Sometimes it’s the person who can’t speak a language well who can look beyond the ‘correct’ exact translation to seek the right sound.

When you write a song in English, whether you were born into the language or not, let the sound of the music lead you to the words.

© Sing Better English 2019


4 thoughts on “Shakira: Suerte and the Dance of Translation”

  1. “Sound is more important than meaning.” YES! This is what I keep telling my Ukranian friend Igor, who is translating his lyrics too literally from German to English. I’m going to send him this post, because you’ve explained it far better than I ever could.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Poor Igor. That wish to treat translating song lyrics as if it’s an exam question is horribly hard to shake off. We all carry a teacher on our shoulder, judging us when we do ‘school type’ things. Unless your Ukrainian friend is a professional translator, I’d guess that he’s in exam mode and he’s trying to please the teacher, rather than pleasing the song.

      I’m really impressed with Shakira’s translation of her Spanish song. I imagine her knowledge of English poetry gave her a feeling for the music of English.

      I’d suggest that Igor bathes in some Dylan Thomas:

      I’d also send him David Bowie’s version/translation of Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ to see how the soul of a song can be captured in English without having to use a dictionary for every single word. The songs aren’t exactly the same, but each works in its own right and is beautiful, rather than dutiful, in its own language.

      Jacques Brel’s original:

      and Bowie’s ‘translation’:

      Sound is what will make Igor’s lyrics sing in English. He needs to use the idea of his song in German to build his song in English. But he needs to go back to his original inspiration to build it new. To build it from the ground in English, with the music as his guide. If he ties it too hard to his original German words, he’ll kill it. Leonard Cohen said it took him 150 hours and a nervous breakdown to get his translation of Lorca right!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Leonard Cohen spent 150 hours and a nervous breakdown on Lorca?! My goodness. Poor Igor, indeed! (He is not a professional translator, alas, nor are German or English his native languages. But the heavy metal spirit is strong in him, so I know he won’t give up!) As always, thank you for the absolute treasure trove of wisdom and great examples you’ve shared. I will be delighted to pass them on to Igor in their entirety, with the admittedly selfish hope that your advice will make helping him with his translations a little bit less onerous.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you, Heide. Did Igor translate the original lyrics into German from his own native language? Hats off to him for stepping in and out of different languages.

        I guess the trick for him, as a heavy metal practitioner, is finding the English words that bring power to the right parts of his song. Lots of German words have a harsh coating that has been worn away over the hundreds of years they’ve lived in English. It would be hard to sing the word I, in place of the word Ich, without sounding floppy. The growling, guttural parts of German aren’t available in English, so Igor will need to find his power in a different way. It’s there to be found, some of it in his own vocal technique.

        Watching Rob Halford of Judas Priest in the build up to Breaking the Law, you can hear him growling the r sound and landing hard on the word law, with an extra grrrr added to the w. You can see him holding the microphone away from his mouth as he adds an extra scratchy scream to certain vowel sounds in the video. All English words are available for heavy metal. Some of them just need a bit of ‘heavying up’ from the singer:

        And here’s Emeli Sandé singing her song Breaking the Law. She softens and warms the words breaking the law for her love song. She adds a bounce to the central king syllable. She slows and enjoys it. Judas Priest power right through the words, using each one as a hammer blow:

        English words are neutral on the page. They suit love songs as much as grime, punk or death metal. The singer shapes words to suit, through intention, breath, mouth shape and throatiness.

        Sometimes it helps to think of words as colours. Paint on the brush of an artist. The singer is the creator.

        Liked by 1 person

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