Tag Archives: translation studies

Covers by Lovers — Sigur Rós

Oh-ho ho, man I just got back from a whirlwind trip around the Pacific. You may know that I’ve spent the last year in Korea, and I recently took a vacation to Guam, stopping in Japan on the way. Needless to say the language circuits of my brain are a little fried, having switched abruptly between Korean, Japanese, and English dialect, and sometimes I’m still tempted to order coffee in Korean down at the local shop–obviously to no avail. But this has had me thinking a lot about language and what I may or may not be missing when I try to eavesdrop on that foreign-language conversation around the corner.

That’s why today’s Covers by Lovers features Icelandic ensemble Sigur Rós, a group I admire for, among other things, performing in a language other than English. This is not to say that English is a horrible language or that singing in it has somewhat invidious overtones, but I really do appreciate a band that can do so well in the English-speaking market without actually singing in English. Of course there are other foreign artists who sing in English that I really admire–Peter, Bjorn and John for one, Bjork for another–but it’s nice once in a while to experience something so closely tied to the artists’ homeland and culture–the language.

Sigur Rós’s discography shifts between Icelandic and what is commonly translated as “Hopelandic”–also known as Vonlenska, “a term used to describe the unintelligible lyrics sung by the band.” Though the non-Icelandic-speaking community often loses out on the meaning and thus full impact of the song, a little research into translations can aid in the comprehension of the tone of the song. When all else fails, there is at least one amateur artist who covers these songs in English translation, and some of these covers can be found here today.

To ease into this bilingual escapade, let’s start with one that features no language. This is a simply- but well-done cover of the instrumental part of the song Ágætis Byrjun, from the synonymous album that really helped launch them into international acclaim. It comes from youtube user Markv86, which appears to be the online alias of a member of the band “Hangover Sunday”* The cover stays pretty loyal to the original version, but as Markv86 states on the youtube page, “it’s not 100% accurate.” Oh well, I think that can be chalked up to personalization that comes with the cover territory. Check it out here:

The next song can help my fellow Americans and basically anyone not from Iceland get a little better grasp on the full effect of the music of Sigur Rós. This is a cover of Heysátan, sung in English translation by youtuber TheRoyalRey. Now I know English and Icelandic are related, but much to my chagrin, this song is not titled “Hey Satan!” in English; rather, it means “Stack of Hay,” which becomes apparent with TheRoyalRey’s translation. All in all it’s a good cover. Where the original is heavy on strings, a xylophone, and brass, TheRoyalRey recasts the song into piano and guitar parts, along with vocals. I thought it was a rather creative take on a song with non-traditional pop-music instrumentals. Enjoy it here:

The next cover is also by youtuber TheRoyalRey. It’s an English translation cover of Hoppípolla. The instrumentals again are well done–recreating Sigur Rós’s music with traditional musical instruments. This one also shows a bit of creativity on the part of the author. The video is so interesting. According to the page on youtube, it comes from an 8mm film he found in the woods. What good luck! It fosters in me a sense of resourcefulness and makes me want to create things with the discarded (or perhaps unfortunately lost) relics of another’s life. Watch it here, then go out and find something:

Our last cover today comes from youtuber Brunchman. It’s another cover of Hoppípolla, but this time sung in the original Icelandic. Though the artist appears to be a native speaker of English, it’s nice to see a tribute to an Icelandic band in Icelandic! The video is also noteworthy because it shows the process of creating the work–multi-track vocals, keyboard, and guitar. It gives one an idea of how much work can go into a hobby for the simple love of creating music. It also gives us a look at his technical skill. Brunchman apologizes because “the vocals are extremely boy-bandish” (most likely due to the amount of reverb), but I appreciate them nonetheless. The solo guitar part in the background also adds a nice touch, though it may be a bit boyband-ish as well. In any case, it’s a well-done cover that clearly took weeks to put together, and for that, I share it with you here:

Be sure to check out the originals, too!

Ágætis Byrjun video
Heysátan from the Sigur Rós movie Heima
Hoppípolla from Heima

*end note: I know I’ve said in the past that this blog would only feature amateur covers, so I was on the fence about posting the first cover by Hangover Sunday. I looked at their youtube page, which redirected me to their website and myspace page, which claims they are unsigned. Whether or not they are considered professional or amatuer, I’m going to let it slide today because I really like this cover. Judge for yourself. Also, there’s another cover of doubtful amateur status below, but I enjoyed it so I thought I’d post it anyway. Enjoy!

Gobblidigook, covered by Appledog:


M. Ward – Chinese Translation

The song Chinese Translation by M. Ward. has been on my radar for a while after having seen the video for it, but only recently have I come to appreciate M. Ward’s other songs. Chinese Translation is still my favorite, so I’ve found two covers for you today.

What I really like about this song is that it can actually bring to light “translation theory.” This is apparently a newly-emerging field, and some universities even have departments dedicated to studying the act of translation. For one– should a translator have a “voice,” or should he remain in the shadows and present only the best approximation of the original words in a new language? And what is the best approximation? Should the work be localized and made contemporary for the audience, or should the audience view the work through a foreign and ancient lens?

In the case of M. Ward, I’ve searched the internet (although not exhaustively) and have yet to find an original Chinese tale from which this has been directly translated. Some people offer the view that it’s a loose translation (see footnotes), or from a folk tale by Chuang-tze (see footnotes). If this is the case, it seems as though Ward has decided to have his own voice in a translation, as well as both modernizing and localizing the work–Ward’s song rings with American folk, while still retaining a twinge of Chinese traditional music. The concepts of fixing a broken heart definitely seem a bit modern, but the idea of going on a quest and asking a wise old man 3 questions seems both ancient and Eastern. The question now is whether this is an accurate translation, a quality translation? Does it mean the same to the modern Occidental listener as it does to an ancient Chinese student wondering about the Tao? Is there a problem if it doesn’t have the same meaning?

We could discuss this at more length, but seeing as this is a blog an amateur covers, I’ll get to the music. The first cover comes from youtuber swammy05. He’s got a really nice voice, and I love the multiple tracks with guitar and voice. Ward’s original kind of fades out on the low notes at the end of the phrase “he sang/played for me this song,” and swammy05 does the same, which I always enjoy. Give it a listen here:

The second cover, from thewhoorwhom, while lacking the multiple voices in the original, has something additional that most other covers don’t. A lot of the covers I viewed stopped singing after the second verse, when the old man says “he played for me this song.” But what’s important in the original is the movement backwards in time. A young man asks an old man under a weeping willow tree 3 questions. The old man sings a song about how he once asked the same questions to an old man underneath a sapling tree, and the old man played a song. At this point Ward continues to play out the melody on his guitar, but doesn’t sing. The backward progression from weeping willow tree to sapling tree is just as important as the progression from singing a song to playing a song–and thewhoorwhom’s cover plays out the melody in the original, making the song complete. I really enjoy the little things he does differently with the song–including changing octaves where it is more convenient (I assume) for his voice. Check it out here:

Isn’t it fun to watch these? It’s kind of like a translation of a translation.

Anyway, here’s the original: Chinese Translation by M. Ward

Footnotes: Here’s a link to some places I looked for some info on Chinese Translation by M. Ward:

The Yahoo! Answers page suggesting it is a loose translation.

SongMeanings.net. The user named frivolity makes a connection between this song an excerpt from “The Tao of Pooh,” which recounts a similar story from Chinese philosopher Chuang-tze.

Living in Peace – The Natural State. A site where you can read a longer excerpt from the story from “The Tao of Pooh”.