Lost in Translation

Shortly after the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in 1967, my oldest brother borrowed it from a friend. I listened to it a number of times. One of the songs that got my attention was She’s Leaving Home. My understanding was that the young woman in the song wanted a better life than the poverty-like existence that she had with her parents and was going to elope with “a man from the motor trade” — a young executive from Rolls Royce or Jaguar. The “motor trade” just sounds oh so upper class.

My wife is English. Although we have know each other for twenty years, even today sometimes she will use a Britishism or I will use an Americanism and we would look at the other and ask, “What did you say?”

Words or expressions are used in songs that are understood in the country of origin of the song but maybe not elsewhere. My wife has explained a number of such things, bringing clarity about a songs meaning. The young woman in She’s Leaving Home did not leave to find happiness with an up and coming industrialist.

She ran off with a used car salesman.

Beatles’ songs are full of English phrases that can be easily misunderstood by an American. I thought that knickers were something that golfers wore. There is a line in I Am The Walrus that says “Boy, you’ve been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down.” OK. She pulled her pants down. I guess that is naughty.

Oh, knickers means something a little more, er, intimate?

I have read that No Milk Today is Peter Noone’s favorite song of Herman’s Hermits. When I first heard it in 1971, the line “A terraced house in a main street back of town” made me think of a lovely home with terraced gardens on a hillside overlooking the city. But it’s not a “main” street, it’s “a mean street back of town.” And “too up, too down?” I thought he was having mood swings. No, the line is “two up two down.” The home has four rooms on two stories with two rooms on the ground floor and two on the floor above that.

And “a terraced house in a main street back of town?” A terraced house is what Americans would call a row house — in a mean street means it is a row house in a slum.

I wonder if one of the reasons the song was not that big of a hit in the US was because too much of it was not understood, losing much of its meaning.

I am not the only one who does not understand lines in British songs. While it seems to have been corrected, online lyrics for the Rolling Stones Get Off Of My Cloud had the line “In the morning the parking tickets were just like flags stuck on my window screen.” You would think people would think about the line and realize that parking tickets on a window screen made no sense.

I am sure there are many American songs that have people in the UK scratching their heads. As Churchill famously said, we are two people separated by a common language.

2 thoughts on “Lost in Translation”

  1. When those songs arrived, I’d already become a fan of British cinema and I even had a couple of British cars. The Beatles working class songs were clear to me, but I can certainly see how many would be confused. My wife’s from NYC, and my SF upbringing made communication a bit difficult at times.

    This was a great post– Very enjoyable.

    1. The first couple of years when I would drive up to Vancouver to see my (future) wife we would go to Rogers Video on Davie Street and rent DVDs — usually British films. It would not take long before I would have to turn the subtitles on.

      As the saying goes, turnabout is fair play. When we watched the DVD of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, we barely got two minutes into it when my wife asked, “Can we turn the subtitles on?”

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