What happens when fans don’t get you…literally

What happens when fans don’t get you…literally

Do international artists need to translate their lyrics? Or is music and aesthetics enough? 

Photo by Rocco Dipoppa on Unsplash

They say music is universal. That no matter the language, it gets to us. It occurs in all human societies. And though it varies in sophistication, it plays a key part in rituals of all varieties. It makes us move and dance and shake. Plus, bands create their very own aesthetic universe. Be it Kiss, with those white and black faces. Or Daft Punk with their futuristic helmets and suits. Or K-pop, with their unlike anything we’ve seen videoclips. 

But is it all the same? Is being ‘a universal language’ enough to not bother translating anything to our target audience’s language? Some bands’ home-grown success doesn’t fully translate across the pond. And some bands have the opposite experience, which is how the phrase ‘Big in Japan’ was born.  

Should lyrics be translated? How personalized should translation and campaigns be?  

Big in Japan  

There are now three major record labels left on the planet: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group. 

These three companies control as much as 80 percent of the music that is commercially available in the world. Including the worldwide rights to the music they sell, which means they also control how that music is managed and promoted. 

This is relevant since the term “big in Japan” was coined to describe Western pop bands who didn’t make it back home. But all the way across the ocean, they were huge. The Ventures, which maybe you didn’t hear about, sold more records in Japan than the Beatles in the 1960s. The Japanese Pop scene was less varied, and foreign artists were the main alternative. It was true to the point that during the 90s Archie Meguro, who worked for Sony, used to scan artists’ catalogs and think “This could be a hit in the Japanese market.”  

But the Japanese market has a very specific peculiarity: they require presence. Not digital. But actually being there. It’s important for artists to show up whenever they release an album and tour. So music is not enough. Adele is one of the biggest selling recording artists worldwide in recent years and her sales in Japan have been relatively low in comparison to, for example, Ariana Grande. They have visited Japan and interacted with fans and the media through concerts and promotional activities. 

The reason is simple: Japan has very passionate music fans deeply rooted in the Japanese collectivistic, but highly competitive culture. They strive for the limited edition release of an idol’s latest single, waiting in line for hours for meet & greet sessions, they are huge on Karaoke Bars and they even send monetary donations in their fan mail.  

So in this case, it’s not so much about language as it is about keeping ties with the local community. Having someone who will set a good deal, give concerts, be there to hug fans. Translation can be left for merchandising, shirts, cups, and multimedia campaigns announcing the arrival of foreign big shots.  

Japan travels back 

This phenomenon is pretty relatable though. So the potential of the strong fan community and proactive artist-fan relationships will not take long to root in the western markets. 

Consider that as of 2015, roughly 84 percent of US adults have smartphones. The entertainment industry is in the palm of our hands as never before. But despite the fact that Japan is the second-largest music market, it remains one of the most misunderstood and challenging local industries in the world.  

Take Perfume, a powerhouse electro-pop group that has dominated the Japanese music scene for over a decade. Not only with their music, but their aesthetics which is at least eye-catching. Objet d’art music videos and clockwork choreography have intensely influenced the genre.  

However, their atypical style hasn’t translated across the pond. Kimitaka Kato, the managing director of Universal International, stated that they wanted “to sell the package as they are now.” But unlike foreigners in Japan (a country that tends to be friendly when receiving their English speaking idols as they come: in English), not having command of English in the US is a problem.  

While touring America, they made an effort to find ways to interact with the audience. Be it picking out interpreters from the crowds, employing English greetings, and so on.   

Still, America is not Japan’s only market insight. The idol system is widespread across East Asia. And can we talk about East Asian Pop without mentioning K-pop? South Korea is the 6th largest music market in the world. And their market is much more similar to Japan’s. Japanese artists may be more focused on the domestic market, but if you take a closer glimpse, all big K-pop artists record two versions of their songs: one of them is in Japanese.  

The difficulty of lyrics translation 

This brings us to a final question. Should lyrics be translated? Translating songs isn’t a quick and easy task. It comes quite close to literary translations: there are rhymes, intentions, aesthetics. A question of style. Imagery, alliterations. It’s almost impossible to take them to another language and not lose content in the middle and attribute new meanings without intention.  

But lyrics are everywhere and they are the main ingredient of mainstream music. To this extent, Spotify now includes the lyrics and background of the making in their app. Apple music too. So, should we keep them in their original language? Have the translate option? Translate with machine translation or an expert? Should bands provide the translation to keep it faithful? Keep lyrics in both languages and have them side by side like in some poetry books? 

Listening to songs in a language you do not speak can help you learn that language. The exposure makes it possible to pick out new words. And with lyrics that accompany it, it’s even easier. Like watching a French movie with English subs. You end up catching snippets of meaning.  

Still, there are those who believe that when you don’t understand what is being said, you experience music differently. It’s like sprinkling salt on the musical styles. Interpret if it’s merry or sad according to other variables. It puts a halt on certain judgments we’d make beforehand. But maybe this should be a choice and not an imposition.   

So, if we do decide to translate, there are a few things to contemplate. The translator has to find a way to convey the original meaning of the song’s lyrics. Even though the sensitivity in the original song won’t remain intact, we must try to safe keep as much as is at hand. 

Which are the components they must pay attention to? 

Singability (they are, after all, songs. Is the translation only meant to shed some light on the meaning? Or is the purpose for it to be sung in a new language? If the intention is the latter then singability is important). 

– Rhyme 

– Rhythm 

– Fidelity to the meaning of the original text 

Be it lyrics, multimedia campaigns, or merchandise for the fans, if you need a hand, we have an amazing team of language experts who can help you out.  

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