1 song 3 languages: How to translate your songs into other languages

We live in an English speaking world, or at least it seems that way to us, here in the US of A. It’s hard to believe, if not completely shocking, that English is not the predominant language in the world. It’s actually 3rd behind Chinese and Spanish. This statistic is interesting to me in a few ways. First of all in that we are so centric in our thinking we forget the rest of world is not like us and secondly that most of the world cannot sing along with us English speaking worship leaders because of a language barrier.

A barrier that, if broken, opens the heart of a nation to the gospel and the glory of God. Which is why, even though it’s challenging and a bit of work, we break it as often as we can. Even though we are very tall and very white God has laid it on our heart to specifically reach the Spanish speaking population of the world. This has led to several trips to South America and to translate some of our songs into español. A language which I took many years of schooling in, actually got a minor in college in it and still struggle to be at about 70% fluent. Not a problem until you don’t know the one word that will make the difference between communication and what I like to call ‘Tarzan talk’.

Hopefully your heart has been softened, if not set ablaze, to reach beyond our English language. But we still need to know how to do it. Here’s some steps.

Step 1: Get help

If you are not a native speaker you are at a disadvantage already. Speaking to people is not the same as creating poetry or song lyrics. It takes a different level of mastery. So you are looking for a foreign language poet/lyricist not just someone who speaks the language. As an English speaker, you also don’t understand foreign metaphors and they don’t understand ours. “Out on a limb” means something in English but the Spanish equivalent is “Standing on the edge of an abyss” and “Roller Coaster” is “Russian Mountain.”

Step 2: Don’t use Google translate

As far as technology has come, it hasn’t come far enough. I can say from experience that translation apps only lead to trouble. By “lead” I mean, ‘direct down a path’ not “lead” like the metal. One is translated “dirigir” and the other “plomo” which is not something you want to do to a person.

Step 3: Test your translation

Every language is not universal among everyone who speaks it. Even in English there is a vast difference between those who speak it in England, Australia, the U.S., and in the south. ‘Elevator’ is ‘lift’ many places, ‘boot’ is the ‘trunk’ of a car, and ‘smack you like a Junebug’ means something only to people who know what Junebugs are even though we all speak the ‘same language’. You have to test your translation out among different groups before you spend money to record it professionally like we did. Yep, took our songs to Peru and we couldn’t get them to sing along and felt a severe lack of the anointing. It wasn’t till afterwards that the pastor sat us down to tell us the hard truth that our song didn’t make any sense…at all. Thankfully, they helped us retranslate our translation and the next service was amazing.

Step 4: Test record

Now you have to put the words into print and on a recording. Be ready to practice your pronunciation. Casual conversation is a lot easier to forgive your non-native accent, however now that it’s on a permanent recording they will correct your every syllable. I sometimes have to write it out phonetically to remember it all. S special lee when it came to recording Portuguese. Thought it would be easy since I speak Spanish, but nope not at all. My wife, however, apparently has a latin soul because everything she said what immediately praised and while my attempts were met with “no.” Record something and have it reviewed for errors.

Step 5: Record the final

Quality matters, so spend some time and money to get a good recording. People around the world may not have the same standard of living but they have the same standard of music. If you can, have a language coach present at the recording to give you feedback.

Step 6: Make a video

Most people around the world do not buy music but will listen to it via the internet and especially on a video. It can be as simple as a picture of the album or artist, a lyric video, or an actual music video. Just something to get it on YouTube or Facebook.

Step 7: Resource

Give them the lyrics or a how to play tutorial of course keeping in mind that most of the world does not talk about music in terms of letters: A, B, C minor etc. so you’ll have to translate the music as well. Latin countries primarily use solfège (DO is C and Rey is D and so on).

You may never make a ton of money but you’ll reach a lot of people. Which for us is the whole point.

As an example here are three videos of our song “God of the Redeemed” one in English (filmed at the Gran Tetons), one in Spanish (filmed in Machhu Picchu, Peru) and the last in Portuguese (filmed in our practice space at home). Hope you enjoy and if you know somebody who speaks that language pass it along.