The connections between translation and music

Translation is a bit like music. Whether you’re talking about an orchestra playing a symphony, or a one-man band busking for pennies, there are good analogies with the process of translating. In my own personal experience, music and translation are very much intertwined and highly dependent on context — perhaps not just in business and technology, but in my own thought processes.

In addition to working in the translation software business at Smartling, I also run a music blog. Sometimes, it’s amazing how these seemingly-separate worlds most definitely overlap; either directly, or by triggering trains of thought where music, language, context and translation all inhabit the same alternate reality.

Music makes me think about translation, the importance of understanding the context from which you are delivering your message, and the importance of simple processes that make your effort more effective. Without correct understanding of context, a translation or a musical performance can fall flat and fail to deliver the intended impact. Without a simple process, we may fail to grasp a business opportunity or need, such as when a “new” language is identified. Maybe it’s how my brain is wired, but a recent musical performance helped me to think about the importance of new languages.

My music blog covered California’s State Fair, which is held annually in Sacramento. In addition to showcasing local livestock and produce; arts and crafts; the talents of many local performers; and the culinary gems to be found in each county of the state, the fair has an evening series of concerts by well-known artists and bands.

One of this year’s performers was Bret Michaels, lead singer of Poison, and the slightly-infamous star of several TV reality series. While researching for my review of his show, I was fascinated to learn about his Rusyn heritage. Rusyn is an east Slavic language and spoken by, according to Wikipedia, a “diasporic ethnic group” from the Carpathian area of Eastern Europe. This was fascinating to me because, despite having spent time studying the Polish language and Eastern European history, and also having worked through various big-company challenges with language coverage for Eastern European customers, I had not previously encountered Rusyn. This language, also known as Lemko or Ruthene, has its own ISO code (rue) and is spoken by an estimated 50,000 people. Still, it was new to me!

Is Rusyn at the top of the list of long-tail languages to be added to everyone’s priority lists? Probably not, but what if Rusyn, or any other language similar to it, suddenly became necessary for global business? It’s not such an outlandish thought: laws are passed every day, and some of those laws can affect the use of language, and the ability to export and import. Even without the need for legal compliance, a change in politics and the use of social media can suddenly trigger a rapid drop in customer satisfaction if a certain language is not supported. At the most extreme, language can even be a cause for national unrest and ethnic division.

In everyday terms, this means that when you have a business case to extend your language scope, adding another language to your translation workflow should be easy: as easy as pushing a button, and paying for the translations. Today, for anyone working in the language industry, Rusyn may be another interesting story of linguistic evolution, language connection and ethnic identity, but “discovering” another language need for your business should not become a painful surprise to implement.

Of course, Michaels didn’t perform in Rusyn at the concert. He sang his inimitable rocking American English. At the same California State Fair concert series, simultaneous interpretation was in use, to give access to an audience who would otherwise have been unable to understand, and fully enjoy, the performance. Interpretation at a rock concert might sound a little unusual, but it works! It’s not spoken (or sung) interpretation, but interpretation through American Sign Language (ASL). The interpreter signs the lyrics as the band performs, sometimes with the help of an auto-cue, sometimes without, and often with the interpreters being as animated and dynamic as the performing artists themselves. They put the words, visually, into the minds of people who would otherwise be unable to understand them, making the meaning of the songs accessible and enjoyable to a larger audience.

In fact, I am seeing ASL interpreting services provided more and more frequently at the shows I cover. It’s making entertainment that depends on sound accessible to people who cannot hear the content. Just like translating written content, or subtitling a video, it’s all about making the words (in this case, the lyrics) understandable to people who would otherwise miss out.

One of my most amusing experiences of sign language interpreting at a rock concert was during a performance by Weird Al Yankovic last year. He was singing “Smells Like Nirvana,” his spoof of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and so the sign-language interpreter was signing, “What is this song all about? Can’t figure any lyrics out, How do the words to it go? I wish you’d tell me, I don’t know.” If you hadn’t known it was Weird Al singing, or the original song and artists that he was spoofing, you might well have thought that the interpreter was cracking up on the job. She wasn’t — she was interpreting the song perfectly.

Just goes to show, context is really important. In music, in translation and in performance sign-language interpretation too.

For me, music is like translation. It makes me think about the challenges and solutions we all work with every day, and the steps we need to take to ensure everyone has the opportunity to appreciate the same song.