Chinese Pop Lyrics

i-eb1e4c0f61953fa6ace63edbaedbb709-fayewong.jpgI am almost completely unable to enjoy Chinese pop music. In fact, I can barely stand listening to it: I find it saccharine-yet-bland and silly and clichéd. But there’s one aspect of it that’s kind of fun, though I can only appreciate it with the help of an interpreter. Chinese musicians record cover versions of a lot of Western pop hits, and the lyrics they write are amazing. When compared to the originals, that is.

Here are snippets of two late-70s song lyrics, translated by my wife from Chinese to Swedish and by myself from Swedish to English.

The birds are singing and cawing
Telling me to hurry home
The sun is going down soon
And the shepherd-boy should get on home
The kind and loving parents
Are waiting for me to come home

Recognise that? No? It’s Boney M’s “Gotta Go Home”! Coked-up Caribbean expats in a studio in Germany!

Headin’ for the islands
We’re ready man and packed to go
When we hit those islands
There’s gonna be a big hello
Diggin’ all the sunshine
It’s easy not to say goodbye

Headin’ for the islands
Hey yeah, we’re really flyin’ high
Gotta go home, home, home

Here’s another one. This one’s easy.

Her name was Lola
Everybody loved her
She was smart and good-looking
And her hair was long
Streaming in the wind like the leaves of a willow tree
She’s always cheerful
My fondest dream is to hear Lola sing that love song
And when she dances, she is enchanting

Not quite what Barry Manilow sang on “Copacabana”:

Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl
With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there
She would merengue and do the cha-cha
And while she tried to be a star
Tony always tended bar
Across the crowded floor, they worked from 8 til 4
They were young and they had each other
Who could ask for more?

The Chinese version of “Kookaburra sits in an old gum tree” is apparently about an effing hair dresser. And Faye Wong has recorded a version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. *shudder*

[More blog entries about , , , , ; , , , , .]


  1. #1 HP
    June 12, 2007

    The problem of translating songs between Asian and European languages cuts both ways, of course. Most famously, there’s the travesty visited on Ue o muite arukō/Sukiyaki. (I’m sure there are Swedish lyrics to this one, but I’d wager they’re translated from the English, rather than the Japanese.)

    Personally, I find pop music lyrics to be either insufferably banal or overly self-indulgent, so I much prefer to listen to pop music sung in languages I don’t understand. That way, I can pretend that the lyrics are probably pretty good. 🙂

    Plus, languages have their own rhythms and accents that influence the melodies and musical phrasing. I find, for example, Portuguese or Japanese pop songs musically satisfying in a way that English-language songs are not.

    (That said, I’ve not heard much Chinese pop I’ve cared for — and I enjoy a bit of Beijing opera from time to time. Most Chinese pop I’ve been exposed to seems to be bubble-gum synth-pop. I bet there was some interesting music coming out of Shanghai before WWII, but I haven’t run across any recordings.)

  2. #2 Amanda
    June 12, 2007

    There’s “a Chinese version of “Kookaburra sits in an old gum tree” Just the tune or the actual “lyrics”?

    I’m with HP on enjoying pop music more in other languages. I’m an old country and blues kind of girl but I’ve been learning German and my German teacher is a big fan of Xavier Naidoo. I really like listening to his songs, although if it was in English with the exact same music (although he’s the more “serious” end of pop) I wouldn’t be interested.

  3. #3 Stefan
    June 12, 2007

    What would they make of the line “gay your life must be”, one wonders?

  4. #4 Martin R
    June 13, 2007

    Amanda, you bet, there is one and it’s about a hairdresser. Pretty much very popular Western tune has a Chinese version.

    Stefan, I’m pretty sure some of the Mao era songs inadvertently promote gaiety now. Because the old Chinese Communist word for “comrade” literally means “likeminded”, and these days it has acquired connotations of “gay lover”. Comrade Chang, gay your life must be!

  5. #5 Z
    June 13, 2007

    is this gossip true?:

    I heard that when Pepsi cola intended to make it big in China, and spread the slogan of that era:
    “Pepsi, the choice of a new genaration”

    they had problems with the translation of the term “generation”, and accidently converted the line to, something like:

    “Pepsi, it will wake you ancestors to life!”

  6. #6 Asa L
    June 13, 2007

    And yet again it is proven that there is no such thing as simple transmission of cultural objects from one culture to another – they are alsyes squeezed through the sieve of contextual history to become the noodles of situated and embodied identity (now that’s poetry – or gibberish – you deicde 😉

    Z – I can just imagine the hoardes of chinese running screaming from the Pepsi-sellers. I mean, ancestors are revered, but I don’t think that many would like their nosy, interfering great-grandmother to make an appearance at the dinner table. From what I understand many rituals are upheld simply to avoid that stressful experience…

  7. #7 Savon
    June 13, 2007

    Vsterniserade japanska (obs!) mlningar ger mig utslag… jag vill spy…Kineserna r snart dr om inte de redan r?

  8. #8 Savon
    June 14, 2007

    The last comment I made was really on a low level. What I meant was that the western culture has got everything in its grip. Freedom has been the same as strolling around in huge shoppingmalls to watch and buy junk. We got to have the money to buy things that we NOW think is necessary to have, and the text in the music we NOW like to listen to have the same intelligent texts, about our extremely lonely hearts. We have got junkhearts, in my opinion. “Joggingshoehearts”…”sneakerhearts”…

    So a japanese Warhol really hurts. Its a sign. (Oh, I do not mean to forbid. But can we REALLY walk different paths?) You wrote about the translation back and forth, but does words matter? What you hear is the thing behind. And could it be “economic democracy”?

  9. #9 Carl
    June 15, 2007

    It’s not just China that is filled with translations of English language popular songs. Even in southern Europe, this is happening all the time. Especially in Spain and Italy.
    I’ve heard horrible versions of western pop songs on Italian radio. Mostly bad was the Italian translation of Faith Hill – “This Kiss” (the original is very bad, but the Italian makes me puke far more) and a very akward Italian version of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” (you know that song which has a chorus that is sung literary: LalalalalaLa-La).

    I think this is a way for Italian musician to be uncreative and yet have hit material for commercial radio-stations. They simply exploit the fact that much American music is lyricly too alien to Italian. As I’m a amateur musician myself, I sometime in a distant future predict myself translating old Swedish pop-songs to Italian, and make big bucks. Maybe.

  10. #10 kai
    June 18, 2007

    On the general theme, I just found Babelpop, machine-translated pop lyrics!

  11. #11 Jessica Guilford
    June 18, 2007

    Hi there. Main writer of Babelpop here. Some renovations going on at the moment, but please stop by anyway. The three most recent songs are:

    Pink “U + Ur Hand” (English to Italian to English)

    Joan Jett and the Blackhearts “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” (English to German to English)

    Tricky “She Makes Me Wanna Die” (English to Greek to English)

  12. #12 pough
    June 22, 2007

    Ah, but how do you feel about a Chinese version of a Cardigans song?

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.