Hey Diddle Diddle- the fiddly business of song translation.
Twenty days ago, we were asked if we would translate 36 English Nursery Rhymes and Songs into German. We said, “Yes of course!”.
We started to translate songs when we first met 21 years ago, as it was a fun thing to do. For our last album “Mostly German”, we translated some traditional German nursery rhymes into singable English versions
As we looked more into the English nursery rhymes, we realised that many were hundreds of years old and did not have a good German translation. As we wrestled with them to match meaning, rhyme and rhythm we realised why! Songs like “Hey Diddle Diddle” and “Mary Mary Quite Contrary” make no sense at all in English, so where do you start with translating them into German? Many of the songs could be political commentary I have heard, but this does not make translation any easier.
Here’s an example from “Three Blind Mice”:
“They all ran after the farmer’s wife
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice”
It has four consecutive rhymes to be translated and still rhyme, as well as the words being sung at the speed of a tongue twister. Absolute nightmare!
We started off by plugging the text into google translate to start ideas flowing. Some of these first translations are hilarious.
Once I caught a fish alive became
Eins zwei drei vier fünf
Einmal habe ich einen lebendigen Fisch gefangen
It is German alright, but there is no way those words will fit with the rhythm. The other major difficulty with this song is that nothing much rhymes with “fünf”, except Strümpf’ (socks) or Schlümpf’ (smurfs). So, we had to change to structure of the song to still convey the original meaning. Here’s what we did:
Eins, zwei, drei und vier
Ich hab’ ein kleines Fischlein hier
Fünf, sechs, sieben, acht
Jetzt hat er sich fort gemacht
We found some German translations for a few of the songs but that just served to give a few ideas..
Maik and I had a lot of back and forth, and middle-of-the-night bright ideas in order to pull this project together. So now we have 36 nursery rhymes with singable German translations, a really intense project but well worth it for the finished product.
And we eventually did find a way of rendering the “three blind mice” into German. It’s one heck of a tongue-twister even for a native speaker, but it rhymes while still conveying the meaning of the original English. Here it is:
Drei blinde Mäuse, drei blinde Mäuse.
Sieh, wie sie laufen, sieh, wie sie laufen.
Sie liefen hinter der Bauersfrau
Die wollte ihnen die Schwänze abhaun,
Mit ‘nem Messer, ja das glaube ich kaum,
Drei blinde Mäuse.
We translated and recorded some songs in 2015 for our Lingotastic “Mostly German” album. We took some traditional German Kinderlieder and translated them so they were singable in both German and English to help learn German. We also included verses in French, Spanish, Mandarin and Esperanto. In singing along language learning happens without even thinking about it. Get hold of your own copy here.