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Translating songs, carols and traditions, an impossible task?

Published 22/12/2023

As the festive season approaches, preparations are in full swing all over the world. Each country has its own practices, customs and traditions that symbolise the Yuletide period.

You may be surprised to learn that, in the Czech Republic, Father Christmas doesn’t exist. Instead, presents are brought by the baby Jesus. Or, did you know that in New Zealand, it’s summertime at Christmas? Needless to say, barbecues and chilled beer on the beach are the order of the day! In addition, Father Christmas is not dressed in a fur-lined suit with big black boots, but in shorts and jandals (a New Zealand word for flip-flops)!

Back in Europe, the Italians smash plates and old unwanted objects just before midnight on 31 December, in a symbolic act to mark the separation from everything they want to leave in the past, but woe to anyone who breaks the peace after midnight, who risks starting the New Year off on the wrong foot! On the Iberian Peninsula, meanwhile, the Spanish see in the New Year by eating twelve grapes at midnight, one at each chime of the clock.

In spite of all these differences, there is one tradition shared by all countries: Christmas carols and festive songs!

From the great classics to modern songs via the hits of the 80s and 90s, music and carols have played an important part in Christmas celebrations for many years all over the world. Some carols were written several centuries ago and have been translated into many different languages, such as Silent Night (or Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, its original title in German, Douce nuit, Sainte nuit in French, Noche de paz in Spanish and Astro del ciel in Italian). In some cases, the titles and words of the songs are translated very loosely in order to preserve the rhythm and meaning of the song, such as the well-known Jingle Bells, which was written in America in the 19th century and was translated into French as Vive le vent (which roughly means “long live the wind”).

Other songs aren’t translated but spread from one culture to another in their original language. This is particularly true of modern pop songs such as All I want for Christmas Is You and Feliz Navidad, which was written in Spanish and English. These songs, (some of which are “unusual”, to say the least!), are “untranslatable”. The lyrics or the cultural references they contain are so closely tied to the original country and language that it would be impossible to translate them in a way that would allow foreign speakers to truly appreciate them!

We hope you’ve enjoyed discovering these fun facts, and a have learnt something new about translating songs and carols.

All the team at the Home of Translation wishes you Happy Holidays and a very Merry Christmas!

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