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Musical Translations

Thursday, October 23, 2014 - 03:44 PM

Kiran Ahluwalia (Photo Credit: Ellen Horne)

While we were making the “Translation” episode, we started asking ourselves what we could do to make this dizzying swirl of stories feel cohesive. We did a listener call out for curses in other languages. If you aren’t afraid that they will set your ears aflame – and they will – you can listen to them here.

In a characteristically Radiolabby moment of goofing around in the studio during a script recording session, Robert Krulwich began imitating a language lesson LP…with the twist of it being an LP that helps us to learn Robert’s imaginary native tongue “Luden.” And then, there was the music.

We struck on the idea of doing 2 way translations – transposed and translated. It would help things to feel a bit farther away…like something that you had to strain a bit to find the common reference point.  We started with songs that everybody knows – Amazing Grace, I’ve been Working on the Railroad, etc. We were lucky to find Jon Dyden to do our arrangements, and he also played piano and accordian. He brought in Leah Torres to translate and sing in German. They recorded a few songs for us  - here are a couple of the rough mixes that we didn’t use:

And then the one that we ended up using to follow the piece about Nataly Kelly, the telephone translator.

While we loved the sounds of these, as a framing conceit to make the hour cohesive, we weren’t quite there yet. Jad said “It sounds like a joke I’m not in on. Why German? What does it mean?” We realized that we would need to go broader for it to serve the role we had envisioned.  

So, naturally, we called a puppeteer. Not just any puppeteer, but the very special one who we’d toured with during Apocalyptical, Miron Gusso. I got him in the studio and asked him, “Try it like a Russian Tom Waits”

While we scrambled to find folks who could both translate and sing, I still wasn’t completely sure it would work. Was this a doomed experiment? Would it still sound like an inside joke? Or, as Krulwich cautioned, just too literal? My concerns melted away when Kiran Ahluwalia came into the studio. First of all, if you don’t know her, go watch her video and then buy her new album, Sanata:Stillness. She was born in India, raised in Canada and lives in NYC. She’s won the Juno Award (Canada’s Grammy) twice. Dulcet doesn’t even begin to describe how lovely I find her voice. She sang 3 Blind Mice in Hindi for us.

 From there, it was a mad dash to the finish line. We got Viesta Traore, from Mali, to sing in Bambara for us.

 Then, our intern, Reem Abdou, brought in her mother, Azza Khalil for a heart wrenching rendition of Amazing Grace in Egyptian Arabic

 Next Catherine McCarthy came in to sing Yankee Doodle Dandee which she had translated into Italian

 And Last but not least, Margaret Glaspy was an incredibly generous good sport to not only take a shot at translating Aura Lee (which might sound a lot like Love me Tender to you, but for the record, that tune was based on the earlier traditional song) into Korean using pretty much entirely google translate BUT also she let me push her to sing it at a crazy fast pace and then use her stumbles for the closing music. Here is arguably a much more beautiful version, for your listening pleasure.




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Comments [28]

Adil Hindistan from Nj

Listened part of the show while driving. I loved Yankee Doodle! Soundhounf failed to identify all of them and I was wondering why. Now I know. Great show!

Apr. 01 2017 01:01 PM
Gabriel from Connecticut

If you like Kiran Ahluwalia, you might also like Najma Aktar, one of my favorites.

Feb. 08 2015 06:33 PM
Kate Hatcher from France

Loved this episode but please please please tell me about the sounds that come in around 13min 46 when you are talking about Chopin and then we hear it for about 20 secs - loved it - where can i find it?

Feb. 07 2015 10:07 AM
Falk Burger from Tucson, AZ

I can't believe I had the hubris to suggest subjects for future shows! Your episodes have so consistently outperformed, not expectation, but my imagination, I am happily humbled. To hear those familiar songs in foreign tongues! "Yankee Doodle Dandy" was positively subversive!
I'm currently reading Carl Zimmer's "Parasite Rex" and it's just as mind-blowing as any cosmic singularity, except it's not billions of miles away, it's right - inside - here! Aaaaack!

Jan. 18 2015 04:11 PM
Ruth from United States

Please offer recordings of these songs for purchase. They are great!

Jan. 18 2015 03:44 PM
David from Norman OK

Hi Guys,
With the emphasis on language and translation, it was driving me a little crazy that you were mispronouncing the name of the great theoretical physicist George Gamow... The name is Russian and should be pronounced Gamov or Gamoff. Actually, a show on the contribution of physicists to the founding of the field of molecular biology...and their role in bringing the Manhattan project to fruition (e.g. Leo Szilard et al.) would be interesting.

Jan. 17 2015 11:12 AM
ariella mostkoff from miami beach, fl

A band called "the books" did something similar with a popular folk song (i won't reveal which song).. They translated the song lyrics into a different languages on a free translation website, and used the translated results as the base for the next translation. After a couple of languages, they translated it back into english.. and the result is a song called "free translator."
Listen here:

its totally rad

Jan. 06 2015 01:47 PM
elf ludwig van platoven from USA

play them simultaneously.

Dec. 27 2014 05:28 PM
Van Royko from Canada

Are there full length versions of these songs? You guys should definitely sell an album to support the show!

Nov. 21 2014 07:12 AM
Jason from Los Angeles

I transcribe music for Disney Character Voices International. We do this on a daily basis. This is a mashup of 25 of the languages into which "Let It Go" from Frozen was translated.

Nov. 20 2014 07:49 PM
Dave L from Las Vegas

I loved Rober's absolute delight at his faux language, especially the bippity bipity sounds to introduce the piece about electrodes on the tongue. Playing the songs in minor keys was another subtle brilliant twist to make the songs slightly more unfamiliar and make the delight in "translating" them even more delightful.

Nov. 15 2014 04:30 PM
Joseph from New York

I loved the translation episode! The language lessons and translated songs in between episodes were brilliant! I found myself laughing for joy in between each story. If you ever need help related to intellectual property law, electrical engineering, or Korean, I'd gladly volunteer my time. Well done!

Nov. 05 2014 03:47 PM
Katie from Boston, MA

Yes, yes, yes, please record full-length versions of these songs and release them on youtube! I swear they would sell like mad. I'd buy like three copies. Do itttttt.

Nov. 02 2014 05:49 PM
Misha from Boston

Absolutely Brilliant!

Nov. 02 2014 11:48 AM
Anna from California

These are seriously great. Is there any way to download these as an album?

Nov. 01 2014 02:45 AM
Claudia from Tampa

I really enjoyed this episode and the translated songs, especially since you included German!!!, but the grammar in the German translation is incorrect. It should be "Ich arbeite an der (not dem) Eisenbahn (not Seilbahn)/schon den ganzen Tag lang." Thanks!

Oct. 31 2014 10:48 AM
Timothy Reeves from United States

Radiolab, how could you?! Playing Erik Satie while talking about Frederic Chopin in the context of getting to know who he really was? Egads.

Oct. 30 2014 04:45 PM
Gail from Beaverton, Oregon

I'm confused. The first one is supposed to be Amazing Grace? It sounds to me like You Are My Sunshine.

Oct. 29 2014 08:14 PM
Marc from Pacific NW

These versions were great! On first listening I kept wondering where in the world Jad found all those eclectic recordings. Should have known they were a Radiolab original production. Well done!

Oct. 29 2014 01:07 PM

Amazing Grace is one of the most beautiful songs. I wonder if it moves people when sung in other tongues the same way it does in English. I can't help to wonder if Azza Khalil's rendition has undertones of the struggles that Egyptians are experiencing.

Oct. 29 2014 12:52 AM
Artyom from Moscow

Hey! What's wrong with Russian translation? There are no such words as [dogadaesh] and [tunee] and the pronoun is wrong and [rad toboyu] or [ne otberi] are grammatically awful.
It still sounds really Russian and somehow beautiful, but it also sounds disfigured if you know the language. Quite a sad thing to come across in the 'Translation' episode.

Oct. 28 2014 09:08 AM

omg omg omg omg can you please make an album with these songs!!!!!! I would purchase in a heartbeat! love love love it!

Oct. 27 2014 07:07 PM

It's so great to disguise them all by putting them in minor keys! They sound so odd and unfamiliar, and then you realize that you know them.

Oct. 27 2014 05:34 PM
Alijaha from Spokane,WA

What a great idea, I absolutely loved these songs, although two of them left me wanting so much more. Miron Gusso gave me goosebumps and Azza Khalil was simply beautiful. Of course I love visiting the web site and i download each podcast, but I was wondering if there was any way to download these two clips? I can't get them out of mind!

Thank you for all your hard work, this show gives me answers I never knew I needed and makes me question everything!

Oct. 27 2014 03:51 PM
Greg from Seattle

I loved the idea behind the "translated" songs. But why so many minor turns on major themes? Yankee Doodle, Amazing Grace, Working on the Railroad all get the flatted third treatment. So sort of a dreary note pervaded these translations. Or was that irony?

Speaking of irony, the music during the Chopin segment was, ahem, Satie. Yes, we're listening out here!

Love you guys.


Oct. 27 2014 01:53 AM

There audio clips should be working now!

Oct. 25 2014 01:13 PM
FHP from california

Oooops! All my little bars are empty.

Oct. 25 2014 12:01 AM

These sound clips won't play for me -- tried in three browsers and two computers.

Loved the songs in the episode, especially the Hindi "Three Blind Mice."

Oct. 24 2014 09:07 PM

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