“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 vida. Life 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