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.

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Sollen wir auf Deutch singen?

The town where I went to high school had a radio station. The station had a German program on Sundays. Having lived in Germany for two years and having taken German in school, sometimes I would tune in to the program.

One Sunday I was working on some homework while the German program was on in the background. I wasn’t paying attention. The host played a record about an astronaut. As I worked on my homework I followed the story about the preparation for the space flight. Then came the countdown.





Now I can count in German until die Kühe come home, but the countdown in the song about the astronaut slapped me across the eardrums. While I subconsciously followed the song before, I was now aware that it was in German. I didn’t understand anything in the rest of the song. I can’t seem to understand a foreign language if I am aware it is a foreign language.

With that said, I do have an ear for what might be “passable” German.

Elvis recorded a song called Wooden Heart which has some German lyrics. While he is not singing perfect German, I think he is at least passable. He might come across to a German as saying “Wie gehts, y’all,” but he sounds as if he could possibly have a basic conversation in German.

The King might give Germans a chuckle.

Joe Dowell also had a version of the song

This has Germans either scratching their heads or rolling on the floor laughing,

It strikes me that, prior to this song, the only German words Mr. Dowell had ever heard were kindergarten and gesundheit. His German is cringe-worthy. He obviously was singing the words phonetically having no idea what they meant.

He later recorded the song in stereo. Oddly enough, this version does not have the German verse. I don’t know if there is a connection, but it seems that his German was so bad in his first recording that they decided to leave it out all together in the second.

This version is missing something.

There are a couple of songs with a German word that make me wince. Listening to them makes you think they are singing about the title character of a 1953 movie starring Alan Ladd.

One of them was done by several artists in the 1930’s and ’40’s, including the Andrews Sisters

The person who made the video misspelled schoen.

In the early 1960’s, Wayne Newton had a hit with another record that totally messes up the pronunciation of the word schoen.

Save me.

It would be one thing if the singers just mispronounced the word, but it it not really their fault. The rhyme schemes are predicated on the incorrect pronunciation. They rhyme shoen with explain and pain.

In German, the word is written schön, with an umlaut (the two dots) over the o. What does an umlaut do? Simply put, they add a slight e sound to the vowel which is why they are often replaced in English by an e (schoen vs. schön). That makes the umlaut over the u in Mötley Crüe redundant, and changes the pronunciation from Motley to Mootly.

Officer Toody gives us a demonstrates.

An example from one of New York’s finest.

How is schön pronounced? Take the word shoe and add an n.

It does not sound like

Don’t come back! Photo: Paramount Pictures

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