Lyric translation Supertext

How do you translate musical lyrics? Disney’s Frozen has the answer – in 44 different languages

Movie localization is bigger business than ever before. But what happens to a film’s soundtrack as it moves between countries? How do you translate a song? We explain how “Let It Go” became “Let It Snow” – and how transcreations help hit the right note.

There are two main ways for a movie to reach an international audience: with subtitles or through dubbing. And dubbing is more popular than ever, with Netflix’s stats showing that the number of dubbed movies is growing by 120% annually.

That presents a musical challenge for producers. Why? The soundtrack and background music contribute to an audience’s understanding of a movie – especially when the characters themselves sing. Anyone not prepared to adapt the lyrics as well as the spoken dialogue is in the wrong business.

Got rhythm?

Translating lyrics is a specialized art that requires musical inclinations, poetic talent and a playful attitude to language. Lyric translators break down a song’s text into individual pieces and then use their intuition to reassemble them again in another language.

It’s no easy task: in addition to getting the message across (and adapting it to the target culture), lyric translators need to pay attention to melody, rhyme and rhythm. A direct translation won’t cut it – as Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny explains here. In most cases, what’s required is a transcreation. This much looser adaptation ensures the song will be a cultural and musical success in the target language as well.

“Let It Go” till dawn in 44 different languages

Let’s take a more detailed look at the process with the help of movie giant Walt Disney Studios. The company is at the forefront of music localization – as you’d expect, given that its films are localized into 44 languages on average. The songs are translated and recorded new for each version, with the twin aims of finding performers with similar voices and ensuring that all the lyrics match up with the characters’ original lip movements.

For the smash hit “Let It Go” from Frozen, that meant finding 46 female singers from around the world with a similar timbre to the original performer, Idina Menzel. And while Queen Elsa sings about letting go in English, her international counterparts are more diverse, with topics ranging from getting up at dawn (the Italian “All’alba sorgerò”) and bidding goodbye to her sorrow (the Serbian “Sad je kraj”) to simply wanting snow (the Latvian “Lai nu snieg”).

Take a look at the award-winning Italian version below to see just how radically a transcreation can transform a song’s chorus.

    English (original) Italian
    Let it go All’alba sorgerò
    Let it go, let it go
    Can’t hold it back anymore
    Let it go, let it go
    Turn away and slam the door
    I don’t care what they’re going to say
    Let the storm rage on
    The cold never bothered me anyway
    D’ora in poi lascerò
    che il cuore mi guidi un po’
    Scorderò quel che so
    e da oggi cambierò!
    Resto qui,
    non andrò più via
    Sono sola ormai,
    da oggi il freddo è casa mia!
    Literal translation:
    From now on, I’ll allow my heart to guide me. I’ll forget what I know,
    and from today, I’ll change myself!
    I’m staying here, I won’t leave anymore.
    I’m alone now;
    from today, the cold is my home!

Discover more versions, from Portuguese to Cantonese, here.

Machines sing a different tune

Even human translators struggle with lyric translation at times, so it’s no surprise that machines can’t keep up. Songwriter Malinda Kathleen Reese proved the point when she let Google Translate loose on “Let It Go.” This video shows the hilarious results, translated back into English:


Cover image via Twenty20

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