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Double entendres and explicit content: the nuances of Spanish lyric transcreation

A passionate hook-up in a club vs. a dreamy meeting with true love – how can the same song come across so differently in another language? The answer lies in lyric transcreation.

Remember Despacito? That wildly popular hit you probably had to detox from after hearing it a million times? Already a huge club number, a remix released featuring Justin Bieber catapulted it to worldwide fame in spring 2017 and turned it into the best-selling Latin single in the United States. But ask any Spanish speaker and they will tell you that the song’s English translations were heavily watered down into a milder version of the original lyrics.

It’s all in the tone

While Despacito’s English lyrics had young girls dreaming of true love and romance, the original lyrics talk about a passionate hook-up after meeting in a club. The original’s intro describes a guy staring at a girl in a bar – he wants to dirty dance with her, with the underlying implication being that he also wants to take her home. Meanwhile, the version featuring Justin Bieber refers to the woman as essentially the best thing that has happened to him – “my sunrise on the darkest day” – and implies a romantic albeit mildly sensual relationship. The irony being that as soon as it switches back to Spanish the singers are talking about getting her naked and wanting to discover her secret places with their mouth. Or my personal favorite, where he talks about signing the walls of her labyrinth and making her body into a manuscript. It is like comparing Fifty Shades of Grey to a Disney movie, the tones and levels of sensuality are that different.

Strategic or just plain wrong?

So what happened in translation? Why are the lyrics’ tones so different between the two languages? More than likely, the English translation style was strategic. Can you imagine what would have happened if they had translated the original version as it was? Not only would it have had issues getting air time on the radio, but it may have also suffered among the younger generations given the explicit content. While the US media has arguably become more liberal in recent years, that doesn’t compete with many Spanish-speaking countries that take a more free-thinking approach when determining what is aired on radio or played around family audiences in public areas.

In fact, what happened with Despacito wasn’t translation so much as transcreation. Translation is often put in A and get out B, more aligned with the original text. But when you are dealing with original text like lyrics, which are rife with cultural references, double entendres, and hidden (or maybe not so hidden) swear words, you must get creative. So yes, while the lyrics don’t directly align, that is exactly what makes Despacito an example of good transcreation. They took into consideration who their target audience was, what would be acceptable across the general public, and adjusted the tone accordingly.

The Despacito effect

While Despacito can’t take the credit for introducing Reggaeton into the US market, it can take some credit for bringing the genre back to the forefront. And it opened the gates for music to crossover from across the world. Ultimately, their success will be determined by how well the dialect and tone is transcreated for the intended target audience.

Video via Youtube


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