Tag Archives: translating

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.

Casper’s inspiring language learning story

This week we are really lucky to hear Casper’s inspiring language learning story.

When I was a kid, I always woke up very early on Saturdays and Sundays to watch TV with my little sister. We used to watch Cartoon Network for hours! The cartoons were in English but (luckily) there were always Dutch subtitles. I honestly believe that subtitles are the main reason that most Dutch people speak English at a sufficient level. Also, when me and my sister weren’t watching English spoken TV, we would listen to English music.

When I was about 10 years old and went to elementary school, to my delight, me and my classmates were introduced to English class. Another great way of learning English!

In high school we were also taught English. Furthermore, we could choose between French and German – I picked German because it is similar to Dutch. Easier to learn, I thought… I thought wrong! German is a difficult language to learn, but so is French… If only we could choose between French, German and Spanish!

In 2016, I completed my bachelor course ‘International Business & Languages.
The program consisted of a number of marketing-related subjects and three languages: English, Spanish and German. A very broad study program which, in my opinion, is not a bad thing at all. I learned a lot about many different aspects of marketing and languages.


I spoke English and German before I started the 4 year bachelor study, and I learned Spanish in these 4 years. It was a very intensive program; I spent 7 months in Spain to improve my Spanish and three months in Australia to use my English. I also have a Spanish friend who lives in Germany (very convenient in order to maintain both languages!)

Many people, including myself, think it is an absolute must to maintain your language skills by practicing. If you master a language, and want to keep it that way, you should keep practicing. You can do so without traveling; listen to the radio, watch TV with subtitles, write your ideas down in another language and, most importantly, interact with people in the desired language!

I personally learned a lot in class, the basic knowledge for example. But it’s when I actually had conversations with people who were native speakers of Spanish, German or English, that I started to apply my previously learned knowledge and really picked up the language skills.


Fun things when learning a language:

You automatically develop an accent – there is nothing you can do about this. I spent seven months in Zaragoza, and when I speak Spanish with a Spaniard, they often tell me I speak with the accent of a “Zaragozano”.

Also, I found out that, when you’re not a native speaker of a language, you will never reach the same level as a native speaker; even if you really want to. Think of expressions and proverbs. In Dutch, which is my mother tongue, it is very difficult for non-native speakers to use the correct preposition. I know some people who have lived in the Netherlands for over 40 years, their Dutch is nearly perfect, but even they sometimes use the wrong preposition.

Not too long ago, in February 2017, I launched “Your International”.
A small translation company with experienced translators all over the world. What makes the company unique is the fixed fee of € 0.07 per word. Also, when we feel like it, we translate documents as an exchange service. A while ago we translated a promotional text from Dutch to English and Spanish: in exchange, we received two bottles of wine… Delicious wine, I should say! We’re always interested in new assignments, whether as an exchange service or as a paid service. Head over to www.yourinternational.com or find us on social media!

https://www.facebook.com/YOURlNTERNATIONAL/

https://twitter.com/yrinternational/

Want to share your language learning story? Get in touch in the comments below.