One song, two languages

The link to the video for sodagreen’s Mandarin version of “No Sleep” has been floating around Facebook, and it has me thinking about when one song gets recorded in two languages. Often, the second recording really suffers – the original sounds more natural, the lyrics seem to fit better, or it’s just not what you’re expecting when the music starts, and anything else is a disappointment. This might be because the second recording is usually the afterthought; in the examples I have, it’s always a Mandarin version of a song first penned in Hokkien, and it is generally aimed a phantom audience that might be put off by non-Mandarin music from Mandopop artists (more on that in a bit).

But sodagreen’s Mandarin version of their first big Hokkien release works in ways I never expected, and I have to submit it as an exception to the rule. First, the gorgeous original:

About perfect, right? It’s hard not to be skeptical when talk of a Mandarin version starts floating about. But in spite of that unavoidable first flutter that there was something a bit odd going on when he starts to sing in the wrong language (and the fact that I keep expecting a rhyme to pop up with the 樣 in “是不是都和我一樣” that never quite pans out when I’m expecting it), this version really works for me:

Admittedly, I started out utterly in love with the song, and this version puts it into a language I understand and can sing along with, as opposed to my increasingly dodgy attempts to mimic what I hear in Hokkien. (Back when I was living in Taiwan – or at least getting there every summer – I could do a much more credible imitation of Taiwanese songs. Not anything that would make you think I spoke the language, of course, but at least much closer to the original. These days, it’s as bad as when I try to “sing along” with Glay or Crying Nut: just very, very wrong. And probably capable of getting me into some trouble.) At the end of the day, I’m sure this is the very reason why they do the new versions – search no further. I’ll keep going anyway, though.

Something I found really fascinating is the extent to which Qingfeng kept the lyrics very similar in the two versions; some phrases are actually more or less the same, and overall, it is clearly the same song with the same message, just adjusted when linguistically necessary. To illustrate, I’ve taken a rough pass at translating both, though the standard disclaimers apply (namely, that this is a quick rough draft translation, that I of course don’t actually know any Hokkien and am trying to make educated guesses based on Mayday lyrics, and that why yes, they are much prettier in the original languages than in my translation).

“No Sleep (無眠)” Mandarin/Hokkien Line by Line Comparison
As you might imagine, below “H” means Hokkien, and “M” means “Mandarin” in my not-so-tricky coding system

H: 今阿日月娘那這呢光 照著阮歸暝攏未凍睏 連頭毛都沒休睏 (親像魚死底花園)
Tonight the moon shines brightly, causing me to be unable to sleep, every hair on my head is sleepless (like a dead fish in a garden)
M:今夜的月光超載太重 照著我一夜哄不成夢 每根頭髮都失眠
Tonight the moonlight is overwhelming, causing me to go all night without slipping into a dream, every hair on my head is sleepless

H: 你甘知阮對你的思念 希望你有同款的夢
Do you know I miss you, hope you’ll share the same dreams
M: 天空他究竟在思念誰 是不是都和我一樣
Actually, who is the sky longing for, could it feel just like me

H: 咱兩人做陣返來那一天 互相依偎的情愛
That day we got back together, a love in which we leaned into each other
M: 揮不去昨日甜美的細節 才讓今天又淪陷
Being unable to brush away the details of yesterday’s sweetness is making today disastrous

H: 底你的心肝內 是不是還有我的存在
Deep in your heart, is there still a place for me
M: 你現在想著誰 有沒有和我相同的感覺
Who are you thinking of now, do you have the same feeling as me

H: 永遠攏底等 有時陣嘛會不甘願
Waiting on forever, sometimes feeling unwilling to continue
M: 固執等著誰 卻驚覺已無法倒退
Stubbornly waiting for someone, yet suddenly realizing it’s too late to go back

H: 想講要作伙飛 去一個心中美麗的所在
We dreamed of flying together, going to an existence as beautiful as we’d imagined
M: 曾經想一起飛 在自己心中蓋了座花園
Once we wanted to fly together, build a garden in our hearts

H: 所有的一切 攏總尬你放作夥
Everything, brought together to be with you
M: 把你的一切 都種在這個地點
Your everything, all planted in this place

H: 希望你 會當了解 (為著你 我一定等)
I hope you can understand (For you, I can wait)
M: 卻像魚守在裡面(像條魚守在裡面 守著幻影葬在裡面)
Yet like a fish guarded inside (like a fish guarded inside, guarding an illusion buried inside)

H: 我不管多少時間多少目屎多少失望來忍耐 我不管你當時會返來
No matter how much time, how many tears, how many disappointments I endure, no matter when you finally return
M: 不管要多少時間多少眼淚多少落空來等待 不管你是不是會回來
No matter how much time, how many tears, how much emptiness to wait through, no matter whether you’ll return

H: 其實我嘛不知影為怎樣為怎樣憨憨等待 你 是我唯一的愛
Actually I don’t understand why I keep foolishly waiting… you are my only love
M: 其實我也不明白 為什麼如此傻傻地期盼 你是我僅有的愛
Actually I don’t understand why I’m foolishly hoping this way… you are my only love

[Side note: I’ll take suggestions, if anyone’s got them, on either translation; I keep meaning to start posting more sodagreen lyrics on the main site, but Qingfeng’s writing is for the most part just so dang hard for me to interpret. I need a team of volunteers to really make a go of it, I suspect.]

So the question now is why does it work so well, when we’ve been pretty well conditioned to be disappointed by Mandarin versions of beloved songs? I have a few theories. One is the distance between the recordings – this is coming out just a year after the original, so we haven’t had years to get too attached to the original. That makes it feel less like an afterthought or, worse yet, an experiment, and more like a new version of a recent song. The second thing that works for it might be the fact that it really is the same song, just slightly rewritten to account for the languages.

Part of what makes me think the close release and the similar lyrics might be helping the version along comes from my experience with Mayday rewrites. For the most part, when Ashin rewrites Hokkien songs for Mandarin, they tend to be completely different. They might speak to the same theme, but often, even the title is not maintained. Now, this is arguably a bad example because it involves what might be Mayday’s most iconic song, but look at “Fool” and “Salted Fish” – they share same theme of struggling against all odds and being willing to confront your dreams, but they were told so differently (and in my mind, at least, sung so differently) they almost seem like completely independent songs [“Fool”: music video, translated lyrics. “Salted Fish”: music video, translated lyrics]. In this case, at least, I doubt many would argue with me when I submit that the Hokkien version was far, far superior. Part of the refusal to accept the rewrite here was the fact that the original was so iconic; it also came out five years earlier and closed every concert on early tours. The rewrite also seemed to foreshadow the end of the era in which Mayday albums could be as much as half Hokkien; this was signaled with Time Machine, but seemed unavoidable by the time this came out. If the band isn’t even going to sing “Fool” in Hokkien anymore, it suggested, then don’t ever expect much in the way of Hokkien music. [On a different note: are Mayday in Hokkien and Mayday in Mandarin the same band?]

By way of contrast, “Forever, Forever” and “Charge” are not anywhere near as difficult to accept. [“Forever, Forever”: music video, translated lyrics; “Charge”: music video, translated lyrics.] They also share a theme, but no actual lines of lyric; more critically, they were released in a much shorter time frame, only about a year apart, and the Mandarin version came out at a time when the band was bogged down in military service, and there were few options for new music (as with sodagreen now, in fact). Actually, on this one I confess heard the Mandarin version first, and that may account for the fact that I like both versions about equally (thereby busting apart my theory), but at the very least, I’d submit that this song is Mayday’s most successful attempt at creating both Hokkien and Mandarin versions of the same track. That it was released under circumstances most like that of the sodagreen song is not coincidental, I think.

For the least successful attempt, we naturally need not look any further than the utterly painful “Garbage Truck” debacle. Never that good of a song to begin with, a rough patch in 2005-07 gave us not one, not two, but three versions of this song (four if you get into concert versions, though I prefer to block them out entirely). The “love version” and “friendship version” lyrics, both in Hokkien, were more or less the same, but the Mandarin version was a monument to the band’s growing commercialization. Or, more charitably, a testament to the band’s deep and abiding love of instant noodles. (Though as you may recall, one of the chief fan objections to the song and the ad campaign was that they just weren’t very good noodles.) [“Garbage Truck” music video, love version lyrics, friendship version lyrics; “Youth Needs Compatibility,” music video, translated lyrics.] On this one you have a clearest attempt to make it into a brand new song: the instrumentation is actually different, the tempo is sped up, and Ashin sings it very differently. Because it seems like such an overhaul,it feels a bit like they needed a song for the advertisement but didn’t want to go to the bother of writing a whole new one. It feels decidedly recycled.

That these bands never seem to be rewriting Mandarin songs into Hokkien is clearly a comment on the market. It does happen now and again that artists will sing Cantonese or Japanese versions of popular songs in order to reach new audiences (for example, here’s Leehom singing “Forever Love” in Japanese), but the Hokkien-to-Mandarin shift is slightly odd when you consider how small the Hokkien market was to begin with (compared, at least, to the Mandarin, Cantonese, or Japanese markets). Even within Taiwan, Fujian, and Southeast Asia not everyone can understand the Hokkien original, so there’s a motivation to make a more accessible version, right? Except that in most cases, I think these Mandarin versions are aimed at phantom audiences. The new versions that really work – like sodagreen’s “No Sleep” or Mayday’s “Forever, Forever/Charge” open up the possibility of covers and karaoke fun, maybe, but for the rest of them, the audience seems to prefer the original version even if they don’t understand it (and in some cases, perhaps a bit because they don’t understand it – it makes it seem exotic, and brings a bit of cachet to the listener when showing off among friends). Mayday concert audiences on the mainland had no trouble with Hokkien lyrics (and here I’m referring to the audience in Nanjing, too, not just Xiamen where there’s a linguistic affinity), and there are endless threads on Baidu that translate lyrics and write out creative romanizations so fans can learn them. You know, just like what we do to get them into English. I’m not against the new versions – especially during these military service enforced hiatuses when we could use the new(ish) music – but I confess, I don’t completely understand the motivation for them.

Now, songs that were first in another language and rewritten in Chinese for a new artist are a whole other story, and one that speaks more to lack of creativity than anything else. I’m looking at you, S.H.E, though the erstwhile Shin Band had a whole series of songs that were Korean hits with Chinese lyrics (for example: Korean original, Shin Band version – in this case, though, the original sounds a bit like a cheesy tragic drama soundtrack and the Shin Band version turned it into a pretty rockin’ monster ballad, so I grant them an exception from the general condemnation). But this is a subject for another day.

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18 Responses to One song, two languages

  1. V says:

    Fantastic post, this has been on my mind too. I really do like the Mandarin version of 無眠, because it feels true to the original and has the added benefit of being comprehensible to me without having to nut out the Hokkien lyrics. I hope they add it to KTV parlours :)

  2. Steve says:

    Wow, that’s a super-post. Great topic. I agree with you on all these songs. The bit about the passage of time is a great point, because singers and bands inevitably change over time and can never really recapture their old sound, in my opinion.

    Here’s my take: “No Sleep” works in Mandarin because musically, it’s classic Mandopop — though, as with most Sodagreen Mandopop, it’s at the pinnacle of that art form. Mandarin can be used for a variety of things musically, but it lends itself well to that kind of mellow, ordered sound. “Salted Fish” does not work because “Fool” is a long way from Mandopop. It’s a youthful shout out to the world, and the “sharp edges” of Hokkien suit that kind of tone. “Salted Fish” sounds like a “polite” version of “Fool,” which is inherently contradictory. The sound of “Forever, Forever” is not as hard-edged as “Fool,” so it’s not as bad in Mandarin. As for “Garbage Truck,” I think the original actually *was* that good a song. It doesn’t translate well to Mandarin because the other kind of music that Hokkien is good for is a folky sound. Plus, of course, with “Youth Needs Compatibility,” they went the wrong direction musically and didn’t even execute the style they were shooting for well. I mean, “Garbage Truck” is a good song, but not good enough to stand up to that.

  3. ZhengX says:

    I know this may be a bit late, but I think Qingfeng mentioned once that he wrote the Mandarin version on the plane to London, and the Hokkien version with Will Lin in the studio, so technically the Mandarin version is the ‘original’ song, although of course it was recorded later. I may have heard wrongly though.

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