Saturday, March 10, 2012

Translating Folksongs

Our school's academic team usually does very well each year, making it into the national competitions held every spring.  We're there again, which means practice times seem endless sometimes.  (We begin practicing in October, and the nationals don't end until late April or sometimes even May.)  The kids spend hours learning everything from time zones in Russia (there are 9 -- did you know that?) to factorials to iambic pentameter to Wikileaks.
Thursdays for us mean practice -- with the buzzer boards -- until 5 o'clock.  Usually, we concentrate on quick answers on Thursdays, and the competition can get fierce.  But I had to stop for a few minutes this Thursday to "translate."
Me: "This is a famous song by Robert Burns, traditionally sung at New Year's Eve."
Student 1: BUZZ.  "Old langzyne."
Me: "That's 'Auld Lang Syne.'  You have to pronounce it right or they might not accept your answer."
Student 2: "What the heck does that mean, anyway?"
So we had a moment while I explained to the kids that Scots is a closely-related language to English, but it's not the same.  Auld = old.  Lang= long. Syne = since.
As several of the kids have me for Spanish as well as English, they had no problem with accepting translations.
But, of course, most people outside of Scotland who sing the song have no freakin' clue what it's really about.  (I've posted on this before.)
Then yesterday, for no reason I could come up with, I found myself humming "Waltzing Matilda."  Realizing I only knew the words to the chorus, I searched through my nearly 7800 songs in iTunes and found only slow, sad versions of the tune, all instrumentals.  So, it was off to Amazon to search through different versions to find one I liked.  At Amazon, as on iTunes, you only get snippets of songs to see if you like them.  And I was getting lines like:

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled
"You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me."

Um.  Yeah.  Sure, that makes sense to me.
So I finally found a Rolf Harris version (similar to the one in this video) which explains all the Aussie slang in the song.  And guess what: it's not a sad song at all; it's completely silly.

But as I thought about all this, I couldn't help recalling my days traipsing about the globe to do dance festivals in many countries.  For the song that caught the ear of every audience, whether it was in Italy or China or Hungary, was always the song that is most closely associated with the USA.  No, I'm not talking about "The Star-Spangled Banner" or even "America The Beautiful."  I'm talking about "Oh, Susanna."
I've heard that song performed in honor of visiting Americans by Chinese people who'd learned it syllable by syllable until it didn't even sound like words or by nervous Poles who stumbled over awkward and unfamiliar words, words like "The sun so hot I froze to death" or "A buckwheat cake was in her mouth, a tear was in her eye. Said 'I am comin' from the South.  Susanna, don't you cry.'"
And really, folks, if you're from China, isn't a banjo about as foreign as a billabong or cup o kindness?
I'm not against globalization by any means.  I hope that someday our descendants will view the world as one whole place and treat it kindly.  But am a little saddened by the homogenization this brings on, with everyone getting a bit too alike.  And it's comforting to know that some things -- like folksongs -- are still slathered enough with regional charm to require a bit of study in order to appreciate them.
Now then, who'll come a-waltzing with me?  :)


  1. I know I lived in that town where you teach when I learned the words to Waltzing Matilda.

  2. Humanity will never be homogenised, we're too varied. It's only politicians and businesses who want it and they don't last long enough.