Sam Lee-Potter and Helen Han are professional translators who have been working with Guildhawk on the localisation of songs for Chinese audiences.

As part of our Sector Spotlight, Regional Manager, Rachel Moss, sat down with both of them. Rachel wanted to know about the unique challenges of moving music from one language to another.

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Rachel: Thanks ever so much for joining me. We’re going to have a chat today about song translation, which is an area probably not many people know about. To be honest, I’m just really, really interested in how you came to work in this area.

Sam: Well, the first song translation that Helen and I worked on together was purely for fun. We were in Kunming in China in 2019, and Roy Orbison’s “I Drove All Night” was playing.

And we decided to try and bring it across into Chinese. We were just curious to see whether we could do it, really. And I remember we ended up with something quite catchy. At some point, we’ll have to track down China’s no. 1 Roy Orbison impersonator – there’s got to be one!

R: That would be amazing! ☺

S: So that was the first time that we ever attempted song translation. Then towards the middle of 2020, Guildhawk got in touch with a unique proposition. As a non-native Chinese speaker, bringing English into Chinese is not something I would ever attempt by myself, so we decided to work as a team. It’s been our first step into professional song translation together.

R: The project that you’re working on with Guildhawk at the moment; I hear it’s top secret, so maybe there’s not much you can tell me, but are there any insights based on the work you’ve done so far?

S: The first thing to say is that it’s been hugely rewarding and one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve worked on. I know that you’ve felt the same way, Helen.

Helen: Yes!

S: Without letting the cat out of the bag, we’re bringing songs from a very specific era from their original English into Chinese, and I think Guildhawk has a really strong sense of what they want to achieve. Everyone at the company seems to have a great passion for music, which goes a long way. And the musicians that we’re working with are unbelievablytalented. Very recently, we got to hear what they’d laid down in the studio; some early recordings which hadn’t even been mixed, and it was already sounding phenomenal. It’s a great privilege to be able to work with such a great team at Guildhawk and such brilliant musicians.

R: Could you tell me a little bit about what your work involves; what kind of challenges you face, and how you overcome them?

H: Yes, actually there are quite a few challenges. On the simpler end, it’s not always easy chasing down a difficult rhyme, and sometimes we’re having to abandon entire themes or topics in favour of something that resonates today. However, for me the biggest challenge is probably coming up with words and phrases in Chinese that remain faithful to a specific era. I overcome that by researching the historical backdrop of a song.

S: Yeah, having to factor in the time and place of the original song can definitely present a challenge.

R: So is it sort of like getting to the heart of the story, and then rewriting it to make sense culturally?

S: I’d say that’s the general approach, yes. But it depends very much on what the client is looking for. Sometimes they might want a straight translation, you know: “we’re trying to go word for word, follow the original meaning, not change things up too much”, which has its merits, but I think more often than not it’s better to lean into the localisation you alluded to, where you’ve got to think about the target market and say: “will this resonate with people in China?”

As Helen mentioned, it might even be the case that completely changing the meaning of the lyrics is the best fit for the target market. In which case, you start to get into transcreation, where you’re pretty much rewriting the song all over again, to talk about something completely new. The starting point is us establishing these things with the client.

We’d also want to ask: “are we talking about a single or an album? How do we retain a coherent statement in the target language?” The latter is especially true of an album. A lot of the best albums have that coherent statement from start to finish; it’s a whole experience.

Essentially we start by talking about anything specific the client hopes to achieve. And that’s what we did with Guildhawk and the artist in question this time, too. After that initial process is done, that’s when you can get down to the nitty gritty of the translation itself. It’s a lot of fun.

R: It sounds it! I’m quite envious of your job, I have to say! What do you both enjoy most about the process?

H: I really like the feeling of using the right poetic language to land on a specific moment within the song. It’s easy to lose yourself in the lyrics and become a witness to the events, just watching a story unfold.

S: A lot of the time, there is a tangible story in the song, and I get the same feeling; sometimes you get to put yourself in place of one of the characters, for example, and it’s always nice to lend yourself to that.

As Helen mentioned, it might even be the case that completely changing the meaning of the lyrics is the best fit for the target market. In which case, you start to get into transcreation, where you’re pretty much rewriting the song all over again, to talk about something completely new. The starting point is us establishing these things with the client.  We’d also want to ask: “are we talking about a single or an album? How do we retain a coherent statement in the target language?” The latter is especially true of an album. A lot of the best albums have that coherent statement from start to finish; it’s a whole experience.  Essentially we start by talking about anything specific the client hopes to achieve. And that’s what we did with Guildhawk and the artist in question this time, too. After that initial process is done, that’s when you can get down to the nitty gritty of the translation itself. It’s a lot of fun.

Guildhawk’s Rachel Moss with Sam Lee-Potter and Helen Han

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R: I would imagine you’ve got to be in touch with your emotions to do this kind of work…?

S: It certainly helps. So many songs are essentially love songs, and I think working on those as a couple obviously has its advantages!

Personally, I really like the puzzle element of song translation. Because you’ve got these limitations that you might not ordinarily find in other kinds of translation – you’ve got to conform to a rhyme scheme, potentially; there’s the rhythm; there’s the overall tone, and you might have some flexibility in there, but, more often than not, you won’t be able to break those boundaries down, so you have to find a way to work within them.

You’ve got to ensure you don’t litter the song with vowel sounds that don’t lend themselves to singing; it’s often a lot nicer to end a line with a long “ah” than a long “ooh” for instance. Not something that occurred to us in the beginning, but it quickly became apparent.

And then – we touched on it before – but you have to stay mindful of how a song will sit within a bigger picture, especially in the case of an EP or an album.

Then there’s understanding when a localisation or a transcreation approach might be preferable to a straight translation. For localisation, it’s about seeking out the best way for the song to resonate in another market. For transcreation, there’s the added difficulty of coming up with a completely new direction for the song that still suits the melody and the overall feel. And for a straight translation, it’s about hunting down those – probably very scarce – combinations of words and phrases that capture the original meaning, while still conforming to the hardware of the song; the rhyme scheme and the rhythm.

 R: Are you both singers as well?

S: I think we can sing in tune, at least sober!

H: Whenever we’re in China we like to go to KTV (karaoke) a lot.

S: Karaoke is a lot of fun.

We do both enjoy singing. It’s something that, in the future, we could look at incorporating into our services; offering to create demos for artists to use as reference. I’m sure we could lay something down.

R: Is there a moment in your work so far that’s made you feel particularly honoured, or touched you particularly?

H: Some translations feel more logical and some feel more emotional. We finished one song and put the original English lyrics and the Chinese lyrics side by side… and it was touching to think that a song from a bygone era could resonate in a new language, with a new culture. Giving a song a second life is like communicating with the original creators. I really enjoy the moment we see that come together.

S: I get the same feeling. It’s great getting to work on something from a completely different time, that’s potentially been locked away for ages. Within its own right it’s a fantastic melody or tune, but now you have that opportunity to take it in a new direction; to give it a second life, as you said.

R: I guess you get to touch a whole new generation and loads of people who might not have even heard the original.

S: You hope so. I think that’s definitely something you have to aim for. A lot of the best songs are timeless; they resonate across different eras. But that’s not to say they won’t benefit from changes to make them more relevant to a modern audience.

We feel very honoured to be working with such talented musicians and such a professional team at Guildhawk. You guys have done a great job of bringing everyone together from the beginning. You make sure everyone’s at the table and settled on a general direction. As mentioned, the company seems to be full of people who have a great love for music and a great respect for artists. I think it can be hard for artists a lot of the time… to get themselves out there and to work in harmony with big companies.

Mixing Desk

We’ve found that Guildhawk places a lot of trust in the people around them, and has an innate understanding of the value of allowing people to use creativity in their work. It’s helped us a lot with this project. When you’re approaching songs, or any creative work… you need to give the people working on them breathing space to be able to find things organically.

Of course, there are always processes that need to be in place. But, ultimately, it’s an organic undertaking, and sometimes you have a gut feeling about something that pulls you in a certain direction. I think, more often than not, it’s worth following up on that direction. And Guildhawk definitely understands that approach.

It’s been great to hear how some of the songs that we’ve worked on so far have resonated with folks at Guildhawk. Those that have been working most closely on the project have heard some of the ones that we’ve laid down already. Having people come back to us on what they liked about it, and perhaps even seeing something that we didn’t necessarily think of ourselves – a new interpretation in the song – it never gets old.

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R: That’s wonderful! I know you’re limited in what you can tell me about your projects at the moment, but have you got any thoughts about what the future holds for you as song translators, or about the specialism in general?

S: It’s still fairly new, isn’t it, for us?

H: Yeah.

S: I think there’s a lot out there that we want to experiment with and find out for ourselves. But it’s an incredibly rewarding type of translation to work on, for sure. Certainly, we plan to make it a greater part of what we do.

We’d like to turn the tables in the near future, and translate songs from Chinese into English too. There are lots of Chinese songs from different eras that seem like great contenders.

Aside from the translation aspect, we’re looking into providing coaching to non-native singers. Because a lot of the time an artist or label might have something and think, “you know what? We want to make this more accessible in another market.”

Pronunciation can be a big barrier to making those projects a reality. I think it’s about sitting down with singers and helping them figure out how to go about learning those new sounds.

We’ve even thought about performing ourselves. Who knows? It would be fun to start work on our own musical projects. We’ve talked about incorporation, with a view to consolidating some of these different services.

With regard to the specialism in general, I think with so much cultural visibility across borders these days, there’s never been a better time for song translation.

The one thing we’re sure of is that this won’t be the last collaboration we’ll have with Guildhawk!

R: It sounds like a great partnership. And I have to say, I really can’t wait to hear some of what comes out of this secret project. Do you know when it will be finished?

S: We’ve got one more song to go on the album, and we’ve saved the most difficult until last. It’s always the way, isn’t it?

It’s a fast-paced number, and the rhythm is very unorthodox. Once it’s in the bag, we’ll have worked through them all.

The musicians have laid down most, if not all, of the tracks. I think it’s mainly a case of recording the vocals now.

So, I would have thought that if things keep moving at this pace, and hopefully with the pandemic beginning to ease in the UK, we’ll have something by the end of the year or early next year.

R: That is wonderful, and we’re really pleased to be working with you on this. I just think it’s going to be incredible. We’ve all missed live music over the last year or so, haven’t we?

S: We’re going to need it. It’s about time.