(pic credit: AwesomeHats ©2017-2019 by crisbaj. Used with permission)
This final installment will look at a few issues of using ‘translated songs’ in a cross-cultural, cross-linguistic setting.
[a] THE ‘ALMOST-BUT NOT QUITE-RIGHT’ SHOE-FIT
I was drafted into a make-shift worship band in a large Conference in Guatemala City back in the late 2000’s. I tried to wiggle out, but they found a really nice bass guitar and insisted I play. They were my hosts, and ‘Hispanic hospitality ethic’ meant I played bass for a Conference that day.
There was this really, really gifted worship musician who led. He played fantastic guitar, sang with a beautiful Central American vocal quality, and had a lot of energy.
We got along really well.
During lunch of some wonderful Guatemalan empenadas, he really wanted to let me know a lot about all the translated songs that were ‘requested’ be sung at that Conference.
(Here are my mental notes memory)
“They gave me the list of the songs they wanted to sing. No Marcos Witt, no Jesus Adrian, all translated stuff from English churches…”
Then came the honest-opinion of a born-and-bred Hispanic worship leader…
“Hermano, did someone ever give you a pair of shoes, told you that you really need to wear them, and you put them on because they asked you, AND… well, they are SO CLOSE to fitting right, but they don’t fit well. They are funny on your feet, and they make your toes hurt with time…
That’s what these songs are like. My feet hurt after I sing them all day.”
It’s called PROSODY. Ethnomusiologists define it as ‘the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry and musical lyrics… where the stress and intonation of the lyrics naturally fall within the rhythm of the lyric”. My music Prof always called it ‘the way lyrics hang on the melody’.
Prosody is very language-dependent. British Pop-music writers know this mechanism incredibly well; the difference of a come-and-go pop song from a chart-crusher, million-seller can be the prosody of the lyrics, especially in the chorus.
The problem with a certain lyrical meaning in English, and it’s given prosody within the melody of a song, is that translations into Spanish RARELY, if ever can carry over the prosody of a lyric while holds a meaning CLOSE to the original. English and Spanish structures don’t easily match in this regard, since English is based in a Germanic root of Proto-Indo-European (north-central Europe, began piecing together in 2400 BC), and Spanish is based in the Romantic, Latin root formed in the Iberian Peninsula at the fall of the Roman Empire (south-western/Mediterranean Europe, Roman Latin in 800 BC, but came together around 500 AD).
Totally different structure, pentameter, intonation, vocalization… even significant differences in the alphabet!
The big problem in the translation work? Many translators, in the instance where the prosody of the meaningful translation is way too awkward, will grab for something that ‘fits and works… which means you end up with a totally different meaning (and subsequent loss of why THAT song was so heart-grabbing in English)… or, the translator inserts a simple, throw-away line to meet the demands of the prosody within that particular song… usually something like the un-deniable ‘God is good’ stuff, but really a puffed-wheat element to replace a profound gold-nugget lyric in English.
[b] IMPERIALISM AND UPWARD ECONOMIC MOBILITY
So, I asked my new-found, honest friend, “so, Hermano, why do these Guatamala-queños ask you to use these songs? Don’t they hurt their feet as well?”
He smiled at my question. “Ahh, you ARE a Méxicano, no? You see when la fruta en the store has moscas, [flies], no??”
“Hermano, these songs come from los Americanos who have nice clothes and nice things. They come down and take mucho tiempo to teach us these songs. It’s important to them, so we listen and learn, no? If we say no, they may take their money and go somewhere else, like Costa Rica, eh? (laughter). Keep the dinero coming to Guatemala!”
“After they leave, los hermanos here want to sing those songs, because they want to be like the Americans with their shiny things. They sing the songs, maybe they get the nice clothes the Americanos wear when they come here. Si hay milagros, no? (Aren’t there miracles?)
The Conference went well, the worship was energetic… I’d rate it a 6/10.
So, I tried a simple comparative experiment.
The next Sunday, I was asked to preach in a small church on the outskirts of Guatemala City. To close the service, I had arranged for a guitar, and I led the altar call with the familiar-to-every church-goer from the north México border to the tip of South America; a song written IN Spanish, by a Spanish worship leader… “Renuevame, Señor Jesus, ya no quiero ser igual…” (Renew me, Lord Jesus, I definitely don’t want to be the same anymore…)…
There was no comparison between the Conference energy (6/10) and what happened at that church service. At least a 9/10. The walls shook, the people responded, the altar was packed, the tears flowed, lives were impacted for the Kingdom that morning… Guatamala-queños, who speak Spanish and some variants of Mayan…
I saw knowing in the faces of the people responding, worshipping and repenting in Spanish, their heart-language.
That was a good day.
[c] TO BE FAIR…
It would be unfair for me to leave this Blog with the idea that all English-songs-translated-into-Spanish are inferior.
There are some really, really strong translated songs that found a solid lyrical prosody, kept the ‘main intent’ of the song, didn’t go for lesser, ‘throw-away phrases’ to fill a difficult spot, and have been adopted across a wide spectrum of the Hispanic church world.
Some songs. Not too many. A couple of dozen.
Actually, my experience with churches in México is that there are three types of pastoral approaches in this area:
^some churches do a 50/50 mix of translated songs and Hispanic-composed, and navigate the songs well (this is probably 60% of churches that use a PA)
^some churches do almost nothing BUT translated songs (this is probably 20%)
^finally, there are ‘purist’ churches that would never allow a translated song to make the worship set (20%)
Why the ‘that use a PA’? If they have a PA, they probably have some musical content flow from the outside, and don’t limit themselves to very old, Mexican hymnal-based song services.
Here is the quandary: use translated songs, or use songs written in the ‘native tongue’?
I was part of a great chat with worship-wildman Sean Feucht from the Bethel collective in the lobby of a Conference. He takes worship-music teams all over the world (you should hear some of his stories), into very radical language-different areas, and this topic came up.
He advocated that the translated songs from Bethel could be the bridge and ‘crutch’ (his word) of a newly-broken-out worship movement amongst a people group, UNTIL they start writing their own tunes and lyrics.
When I train missionaries, we spend a lot of time un-packing the critical Acts 1:8b verse: “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
This verse is a crucial guide to ‘who-what-where-when-how’ of going out in apostolic ministry. This verse holds a huge mandate of going to the familiar ‘same language/culture/life-ways’ as the missionary (Jerusalem) to the totally un-familiar and un-known ‘radical different language/culture/life-ways’ (end of the earth). The narrative of Acts leads us to see and understand a great deal about ‘going from the familiar, and to the radically un-familiar’.
Since the peoples from the ‘ends of the earth’ can now migrate and move in next-door to us in suburbia… hmmm, time for some cross-cultural and cross-linguistic training for God’s people… especially related to worship music.
written by crisbaj
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