Before I met my wife she already had pretty good conversational English which she learned from English music and through working in the service industry in a town with a lot of foreign visitors.
She is also a musician – a very talented singer and now also songwriter – and I used to help her learn the words to the songs that her old cover band played in Oaxaca. Although the lyrics to the verses in “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns N’ Roses are almost impossible to decipher and I doubt that any of the audience members knew the words anyway.
Now here in Canada my wife is in a band called Mngwa that plays original music. She has already written a few songs in Spanish, in Spanglish and in English. The band describe themselves on their Facebook page as “a group of sonic sculptors” who “come together on the edge of the world, with the nebulous intent of collapsing time and place, creating music that reflects in essence the global migration of our lives”. Their music and lyrics incorporate many different styles and allow them to blend cultures and mix languages.
So now I am helping my wife to re-write her ideas in English. Songwriting with a direct translation is impossible so we have to take the basic idea and fit it into new words in the second language.
How do language and music work together?
What does it mean to write a song in a language that is not your own? And why is English the chosen language of so many international artists from ABBA to Shakira to Bjork?
Maybe artists write and sing in English because there’s a market for it, or maybe they do so because English words work well in songwriting. I think that English as a language is quite ugly sounding, but there is something to be said about the fact that English words have less syllables that make it fit well both musically and also lyrically.
I’ll leave you with these two English-language songs that have been translated into Spanish. The first song – Sean Paul’s “Punkie” – doesn’t work in the second language but the other – ABBA’s “Conociéndome, Conociéndote” – even with its multisyllabic words is so, so good. In Spanish the line “conociéndome a mi, conociéndote a ti” which translates to just “knowing me, knowing you” takes up the same number of beats as the English “knowing me, knowing you it’s the best I can do” – so now I see why songwriters choose English.