Song Translations

Coby Lubliner

I approach the translation of song lyrics in the manner of the profession in which I was educated (though I have not practiced it very much), structural engineering. It is the structural engineer’s job to translate an architect’s vision into a structure that can be built and that will carry the loads imposed on it. When I translate poetry that is meant to be sung, the inspiration is the original poet’s; what I try to do is to maintain the original meaning as nearly as possible, but also to approximate the rhyme and meter of the original. It’s an iterative process, much like old-fashioned (pre-computer) structural design.

In practice, this is what is usually done by translators of musical-theatre works (musicals, operas). When it comes to free-standing songs, however, the typical practice is to create a virtually new song with only the vaguest connection to the original.

One of the most egregious examples of this practice is the poignant, bittersweet French song Les feuilles mortes, whose lyrics are by the great poet (and screenwriter) Jacques Prévert and which made a star of Yves Montand. The American music industry, alas, amputated this song of its verses and published only the refrain as the ballad Autumn Leaves, with typically mawkish lyrics by Johnny Mercer. But since this version was recorded by the likes of Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and their ilk, not to mention countless instrumental performances, it has, like the north wind, swept the original song into oblivions’s icy night, except perhaps in French-speaking cultures. I have modestly tried to remedy this (in my opinion) travesty.

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