Blue, Gorm, Elektrisches Blau: David Bowie in Irish and Transcreation

Táimid ann sa mhóimint dhraíochtach seo
Sin é an stuif as a bhfitear brionglóidí  . . .  *

I’m mega-fan of the music of the late David Bowie. I love everything he did from Hunky Dory (1971) up to his Lodger (1979) album (you can keep the rest). His so-called Berlin Trilogy is amongst my favorite recordings; I always go to some of his old Berlin haunts whenever I find myself in the Hauptstadt.

Indeed, Berlin is the European city for David Bowie fans to visit, even more so than his native London.

Plaque outside Hauptstraße 155, Berlin commemorating David Bowie. (Image: Ultan Ó Broin)
Plaque outside Hauptstraße 155, Berlin commemorating David Bowie. (Image source: Ultan Ó Broin)

Yet, Bowie didn’t speak German and often seemed aloof from real words on the Berlin streets.

Much of the heavy language lifting of David Bowie’s time in Berlin was done for him by his long-time assistant Coco Schwab and I even recall an interview with the man himself a few years ago when we went on about living in Charlottenburg (he lived in Schöneberg). Then we have the goofed spelling of the song title Neuköln (it should be Neukölln) on the “Heroes” album, his pronunciation of KaDeWe on one of his last recordings Where Are We Now? (2013) is definitely not that of a Berliner, and the German language version (‘translated’ by Antonia Maaß) of his most iconic song “Heroes” (“Helden“) is regarded as “odd” (“Und die Scham fiel auf ihre Seite“?) by German Bowie fans, who generally much prefer the English language version.

That said, David Bowie’s ‘heroic’ contribution to Berlin was recognized on his passing.

German Foreign Office Tweet recognizing David Bowie's contribution to the end of Der Mauer (The Berlin Wall)
German Foreign Office Tweet recognizing David Bowie’s contribution to bringing down der Berliner Mauer (The Berlin Wall)

But, does David Bowie’s work even warrant any translation from English? And, if so, do we care how it is translated?

I recently attended a performance of David Bowie’s songs in Irish (Gaeilge) which was held in the Pavilion Theatre in my native Dún Laoghaire: Réaltnach: An Tionscadal DAVID BOWIE (Starman: The DAVID BOWIE Project). The performance was by Liam Ó Maonlaí  and the Brad Pitt Light Orchestra and friends.

Bowie Realtneach project. Source: IMRAN/Pavilion Theatre
The David Bowie Réaltneach project. Image source: IMRAM/Pavilion Theatre

On the BBC News, Liam Ó Maonlaí said, “(David) Bowie’s work is so perfect it doesn’t need translating, but as a Gaeilgeoir or Irish speaker . . . (I) couldn’t pass up on this opportunity.”

I had arrived back from Berlin that afternoon, and I wondered whether the Irish language project that evening would work or not.

It did.

David Bowie’s songs were crafted beautifully as Gaeilge by a skilled writer and linguist in his own right, Gabriel Rosenstock. You can read some of the Irish-language versions of the David Bowie’s songs by Gabriel Rosenstock on his blog here, including a version of Bowie’s last work Blackstar (Dúréalt).

I am not sure whether the term transcreation is completely correct to use to describe Gabriel Rosenstock’s work in this context (normally we think of it being about marketing and branding), but I think it’s reasonable to say Gabriel Rosenstock re-created something new yet immediately familiar using the skill and talent of a great translator and artist together.

True, at times I thought some stuff I heard sounded a little bit hokey, such as the version of Sound and Vision (Fuaim is Fís) from the Low album (1977):

Gorm, gorm, aibhléis-ghorm
Sin é dath mo sheomra
Im’ chónaí ann
Gorm, gorm

Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the color of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue

(David Bowie / Gabriel Rosenstock)

But then, there’s hokey . . . and there’s hokey . . . 

However, when it came to Liam Ó Maonlaí’s performance of the Irish-language version of Win from the “plastic soul” Young Americans  album (1975) I could see tears in the eyes of audience members. You can listen to Liam Ó Maonlaí singing it here on RTÉ radio (about 6 minutes into the recording of the programme).

This was a simply astounding song in its own right. The emotion in the song, the lyrical flow of the words, and the passion put into the delivery by Liam Ó Maonlaí all resonated deeply with the audience, myself included. I came away feeling that the Irish version delivered this way might actually be better than the original English version on the album.

The performance also reminded me of what a beautiful language Irish can be, and the tragedy of how it has become something so difficult to use in even ordinary, human ways for most people in Ireland.

In the hands of culturally adept multilingual artists (Liam Ó Maonlaí and Gabriel Rosenstock are well qualified in this regard), I’d argue that even the most iconic songs, and perhaps other works of art, can be performed or communicated in any language. This is of course, a matter of much more than simply translation, but then when it comes to communicating human emotion, it always is, isn’t it?

Ultan Ó Broin outside the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin Ireland (#selfie)
Ultan Ó Broin outside the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin Ireland (#selfie)

A finer example of artistic transcreation I defy you to find. It’s the stuff of which dreams are woven.

That said, you may know of other great music translations or transcreations. Let us know in the comments.

* Here are we, one magical moment, such is the stuff

From where dreams are woven . . .


Ultan Ó Broin
Ultan Ó Broin (@localization), is an independent UX consultant. With three decades of UX and L10n experience and outreach, he specializes in helping people ensure their global digital transformation makes sense culturally and also reflects how users behave locally. Any views expressed are his own. Especially the ones you agree with.


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