Song Localization: A Case Study (Translatable but Debatable)

Song Localization:  A Case Study

At the latest monthly meeting of the Israel Translators Association, I offered a talk not exactly about debating translating, but about localizing vocalizing.  About a case of an American song rewritten for Israel, France, and other countries.  But with a target length of ten minutes, I didn't have time to mention such relevant matters as Confucius and the goblet.  Here is the talk with tangents and links included.  Nothing about how the musical arrangements differ from country to country, but if you check them on YouTube, you may find those differences interesting too.

At least the way I heard the story in college, Confucius was irritated because the Chinese word for “goblet” implied a squared-off shape and goblets no longer had that shape.  When in order to understand a word, you need to understand that it doesn’t mean what it says, communication is losing its efficiency.  Of course English also provides examples.  When an album of music is a CD, it isn't an album in the original sense.  A glass might be made of glass, or it might not.

Similarly the song “City of New Orleans” (click the link if you don’t know the song) carries a little edginess because although New Orleans is a city and the song title even includes the word “City,” in the song the City of New Orleans is a train.  The song, by Steve Goodman, has been recorded many times, and even in English not every word is always the same, but I based my talk on a web page that claims to show the original lyrics.

The lyrics carry symbolism even though they’re reportedly very much a true story.  A good writer knows how to edit the truth.  For example, Goodman has been quoted as saying his wife was asleep on the train as they were travelling together to visit her mother, but there’s no wife in the song.  I imagine that a wife, or a specific purpose for the journey, would only have complicated the song’s description of an encounter between the protagonist and his country.

America provides a lot of train songs, and the train is always going somewhere far away, for better or worse.  Sometimes it’s bound for glory.  Sometimes “the only girl I ever loved was on that train and gone.”  Commonly the train ride represents a big transition and there’s no return trip in the foreseeable future.  (We won’t count “Nine to Five (Morning Train),” which was British.)

Having established that this particular train carries “Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders, three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail” —at least at this point, not a lot of riders — the song mentions departure from Kankakee, a colorfully named location that the song’s listeners haven’t necessarily ever heard of.  One of the natural resources of the USA, for writers, is that it has lots of intriguing names that not many people have heard.  You can delight the public with a song about Okalona, or Lodi, or even Kealakekua, Hawaii, reflecting the alluring, unknowable vastness of the USA.

From Kankakee we even pass by “towns that have no names,” but their allure turns questionable as they’re typified by “freight yards full of old black men” whose fate is comparable to the fate of “rusted automobiles.”

The chorus starts:  “Good morning America, how are you?  Don’t you know me?”  So in this song, not only don’t you know the places as you pass by, the places don’t know you either.  “Don’t you know me?” is what Al Jolson asked at the climax of his most famous song.  “Mammy, don’t you know me?  It’s your little baby.”  There’s a questioning of America’s attitude toward her child — her “native son,” as the song goes on to say.

Native Son was the name of a famous 1940 novel about how hard it was to be a black man in the United States.  But it turns out that the native son in this song isn’t a person — not literally, at least —  but “the train they call the City of New Orleans.”  So we have a duality of first-person speakers, the protagonist on the train in the verse and the train itself in the chorus.  We also have — not quite surprisingly, for a song written by a young American in 1970 with Jewish roots — a repeated undertone of concern for the condition of black Americans.

In the second verse, the protagonist on the train is again the speaker, and the scene described is a more benign one.  He’s in a card game where no one bothers keeping score, and everyone is sharing a bottle of liquor — two indications that materialist competitiveness has yielded to camaraderie.  That the sons of Pullman porters are riding with the sons of engineers recalls Martin Luther King’s vision, in the I Have a Dream speech, that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”  The Pullman porters weren’t just people who carried bags; they were all-around servants for the train passengers and they were all black.  But here the train is an inheritance that belongs to them as much as to anyone else.  We also have mothers and babies filling out the picture, and in general — in contrast to the earlier scene outside — conditions seem fine inside the train.  It’s a little community; the train they call the City of New Orleans does in a way resemble a city.

In an e-mail, Karen Gold reminded me that the last line of the chorus, about being gone five hundred miles, recalls another much-heard train song, known as “500 miles,” “100 miles,” or “Railroader’s Lament.”  As if to prove that in these songs the distance is symbolic rather than geographical, YouTube carries a clip of Jimmie Rodgers, who was briefly a superstar in the 1950s, singing wistfully about being five hundred miles from home to an audience which happens to be enjoying a pleasure cruise and has no problem being much farther from home than that.

But I digress.  In its final verse, “City of New Orleans” turns ominous.  We’re looking forward to the end of the journey, with the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea, and all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream.

The conductor has an unfinished announcement, “The passengers will please refrain…”  I’m reminded of the uneasiness you feel when there’s an announcement you can’t understand, in the army for example.  Probably it’s nothing you need to know, but you can’t be sure.  I was adding that nervous concern to the general bad-dream ambience of the third verse, but Karen Gold noted that there’s a better known association:  “Passengers will please refrain from flushing toilets while the train is standing in or passing through a station” — an announcement that amusingly fits the tune of Dvořák’s seventh Humoresque.

The song’s punch line is that “This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.”  The whole infrastructure may not be around much longer.  Trains have lost much of their importance and the government is cutting back.  If not for the publicity from the song itself, the train they call the City of New Orleans might indeed have been terminated.

Behind the song there’s another sad fact, which is that its writer Steve Goodman was living with a diagnosis of leukemia.  The idea that life is like a river that ends at the sea is another familiar metaphor.

Despite the melancholy side of the song, the phrase Good Morning America got picked up to be the title of the ABC television network’s morning program, and the program used the music in the spirit of a straightforward happy hello.

Interestingly, television treated the song’s Hebrew version, Shalom Lach Eretz Nehederet by Ilan Goldhirsch, in the opposite way.  Goldhirsch’s lyrics are straightforward and happy — “Hello, you wonderful country” — but the phrase Eretz Nehederet got picked up to be the name of a cynical weekly TV satire.

The Goldhirsch version is not only happy, it’s stably happy.  There is no disappearing railroad; in Israel the railroad system is growing rather than shrinking.  But even if you laid a track from tip to tip of the country, there wouldn’t be five hundred miles to travel.

Goldhirsch doesn’t bother mentioning any trains at all, and Goldhirsch includes no sense of unknown places.  Whereas it isn’t expected of a patriotic American to know every corner of the country — and it’s not possible — a good Israeli is encouraged to learn the entire geography.  Last year, a movie came out in Israel — The Ballad of the Weeping Spring — that used a few fictitious Israeli place names for the sake of not pinning down its locale.  Whenever an actor uttered a fictitious name in all seriousness, the movie’s audience laughed.  You can’t fool them.  If a place exists in Israel, they’ve heard of it.

In between the cities and towns, Goldhirsch inserts what Goodman left out:  the family.  “My grandmother, my grandfather, the Sabbath bread, and the Sabbath candles.”  These aren’t old people in a condition to be mentioned along with rusted automobiles, they’re old people mentioned alongside the Tel Aviv springtime; they’re eternal.

The only tension in the Goldhirsch lyrics is between the protagonist’s travels abroad and his homecoming, and it’s not much tension.  He starts by saying “I’ve been to Rome, I’ve been to Paris… but there’s nowhere like the land of Israel,” and he lists the sights of Israel and concludes:  “How good it is to travel, but coming back is even better.”  Such is his confidence in the unchanging sights of Israel that it appears he can enjoy the rest of the world wholeheartedly as well, tacitly dismissing the old rabbinical ruling that a Jew lucky enough to be living in Israel is “not allowed to leave the Land of Israel in order to go touring.”

While the song’s American version is all about America and the Israeli version is all about Israel, the French lyrics don’t mention France.  Nationalism has not been widely admired in France for quite some time.  But “Salut les Amoureux,” the song’s French version as performed by Joe Dassin (French lyrics credited to Richelle Dassin and Claude Lemesle), does give us a dose of tension relating to the narrator.  It’s a good French existentialist tension that takes the form of observing your own behavior detachedly.

Instead of meditating on the impending decommissioning of a train, a man is reflecting on the end of his relationship with a girl at the same time that he’s ending it.  “On s’est aimés comme on se quitte / Tout simplement sans penser à demain,” he remarks.  That is, “We’re breaking up the same way we were in love:  simply, without thinking about the future.”  He may not be thinking about the future, but he’s thinking about not thinking about the future.

Like the world outside the train windows, the time the couple spent together seems like nothing worth perpetuating — “l’amour fait place au quotidien,” the man says.  “Love is yielding its place to everyday things.”  It’s become boring.

He remarks that the couple may later look back and think the relationship wasn’t hopeless, but “on a passé l'âge, on n'y croirait plus.”  “We’re too old to believe that.”

Still, they keep thinking of something else to say — the length of the song, which is considerable, underlines the length of the breakup much as in English it underlines the length of the train ride — and we’re led to question whether it would be naïve of this couple to think the relationship could be saved, or whether they are naïve not to realize that this is as good as it gets.  Maybe the best chance they’ll have.

The chorus ends by referring to “adieux qui quelque fois se passent un peu trop bien” — goodbyes that sometimes go too well.  Maybe too well because a fight would have provided the couple with the permanent break that it needs, or maybe too well because a good attack of regrets would have kept them together.

What sets the song obviously in France is that at the end the man imagines going down the stairs together after the breakup and the lady who runs the café downstairs says “Salut les amoureux” — Hello young lovers.  The café at the bottom of the apartment building suggests a postcard-perfect French street scene.  Meanwhile, the greeting “Salut les amoureux” is summarizing the irony of the song.  The couple gives the café lady the impression that they’re still in love, and it’s hard to say whether she’s wrong or they are.

I find in Wikipedia that the same song has also been localized for other countries.  In Latvia, it’s about taking a plane from far away back across the snow to Riga.

In Norway it’s about a brave little boat that can go places that more modern transportation can’t reach.

In Finland, it’s about driving a truck.

In Holland and Germany, it poses the question “When will we have another real summer?”  And Holland has a second version honoring the national soccer team.

Your own comments are welcome in the space below.