It’s very difficult to know how to present this, or preface this, or in general make this seem like anything actually intelligent. So let’s just say what this is going to be straight up:
I’m going to look at the Japanese translation of a song from the old Donkey Kong Country cartoon, and use it as an excuse to talk about translation of song lyrics and the difficulties it presents.
There is somewhat of a reason for how we got to this point – reminiscing about the cartoon, led to remembering there was a Japanese dub, remembering it existed led to looking up moments I remembered from it, listening to it and comparing it to the English version led me inevitably as someone who translates things to think about the translation. It’s not, perhaps, a subject matter that one would choose to translate or indeed be too concerned with the translation of – but it is none the less a translation that exists, in a genre and medium I enjoy working in, and does present some interesting things to talk about.
So, here goes nothing.
First of all, let’s look at the English version of the song. Let’s lay out the lyrics here, before we begin:
The Encyclopedia Banannica!
What’s it say?
See here, look what you’ve done now!
You have brought the wrath of Inca Dinca Doo on down!
How can such a pretty thing as this
make things really go amiss?
All I want is Candy’s kiss!
You’re a fool, can’t you see that there’s a curse?
Put the Banana back or things are gonna get much worse!
What’s with all the worry?
Can’t you see I’m in a hurry?
It’s the perfect gift for our anniversary!
The curse will bring the destruction of the entire island,
and there’ll be no bananas left for you to eat!
It’s the Curse of the Golden Banana!
The Curse of the Golden Banana!
The Curse of the Golden Banana!
The Curse of the Golden Banana!
This isn’t actually the original version of the show – that actually aired in France several years before there was an English dub – but for the purposes of this, we’re going to treat it as the source material. Though it may be a translation, it’s a solid one – it feels entirely natural in English and it is, I feel safe in saying, impossible to discern as a translation unless one knows it is. There’s no awkwardness in the lyrics, it flows naturally, the delivery is solid, it fits in its place in what passes for a plot in this show. It is a suitable source.
We’ll go through this block by block, comparing the English version of the song to the Japanese dub, and see what interesting little things we can spot and point out.
English: The Encyclopedia Banannica! / What’s it say?
Japanese: The island’s records… if we read these… / What do they say?
We kick right off with a dropped ball – the English version is making a reference that simply doesn’t convert into Japanese. Whilst the Encyclopedia Britannica (or Britannica Hyakkajiten) is something that exists and is known in Japan, obviously the translator assumed kids wouldn’t get the reference if they went with Banannica Hyakkijiten.
What we’re left with, then, is a neutered line that just uses the generic “the island’s records.” For the purposes of the “plot”, as were, this isn’t actually harmful at all – but it’s a direct loss of flavor, leaving the line far more dull than its original counterpart. Sometimes coming up with a pun that doesn’t feel forced can be difficult – there are plenty of easy puns you can make (doing a banana pun on “banashi” meaning stories is coming to mind) but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll feel natural in situe. As a non-native speaker that’s not a judgement I’d feel confident making, say, and its understandable a translator might not want to commit to a joke that might not fly in the target language, or might not capture the spirit of the original. But it is with keeping in mind that the pun is basically why the line exists – and dropping it is a real blow to the translation here.
In addition we get an added line directly pointing out that Cranky is going to read the book, as opposed to him mumbling what he reads out loud to himself in the English version. You know, just in case him visibly reading a book was, in any way, ambiguous.
Songs have a melody. This is something that should, I hope, go without saying. The real difficulty when translating songs isn’t in preserving the meaning so much as its in preserving the syllable scheme, and ensuring your resulting translation scans to the original. The first two lines of the actual song itself are nearly identical in meaning to the English version, with the same actual sentence construction and flow, which is great! Full marks on that front!
The problem, alas, comes in the syllable counts. Let’s look at the flow of the English version first:
See here, look what you’ve done now! (1, 1, 1-2-3-4-5 = 7 syllables)
You have brought the wrath of Inca Dinca Doo on down! (1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 = 13 syllables)
Okay, so that’s the base we should be aiming for – 7 syllables in the first line, 13 in the second. Let’s see how the Japanese works out:
Nanchuukoto shitekuretanja (11 syllables, no melody to the syllables)
Inca Dinca Doo no kami wo okoraseru to wa (1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3-4-5678910 = 16 syllables.)
In an effort to condense all the “information” – be it both what is being conveyed in the original and the actual delivery and construction of the line – into the time allowed by the song, what we’ve got is something that almost fails to be a song. The delivery of the first line and the end of the second is so rushed as to be devoid of any kind of rhythm, yet alone that being proposed by the lyrics. So, how would we go about fixing this? Well, how about something like:
Nanchuu koto shitanjazo (1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3-4-5 = 9)
Inca Dinca Doo wo okorasetanda yo (1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 = 13)
What have we changed here? Well, we’ve changed the long form of the verb that corresponds to “done” – the “shitekureta” into a shorter, snappier form, “shita.” It doesn’t quite convey the same tone, but for the purposes of making the song flow it’s an acceptable loss IMO. In addition we still have two extra syllables at the start of the first line, but they fit gracefully into the gaps provided by the pauses in the “see here.” without, as with the original Japanese, disrupting the overall line rhythm.
In the second line we’ve cut down the grammar at the end of the sentence – the original Japanese exudes a tone of disbelief and indignance. However, switching to “okorasetandayo” – a more factual and admonishing form – we manage to preserve the rhyme scheme by having both lines end in an “o” vowel, in the same way the original ended in an “a” vowel. We’ve also cut out the “no kami wo” – a clarifier indicating that Inca Dinca Doo is, in fact, a god – this is purely to make the line fit in the syllable count. We can, I hope, assume the viewer has worked out that Inca Dinca Doo might be a god from the fact the Golden Banana the song is about was stolen from an altar in his shrine.
Fuck, this is actually making me perform plot reception analysis on a childrens cartoon. MOVING ON.
So, if we were to strip out the flavor and translate this directly back to English, we’d get the meaning:
Look what you’ve done!
You’ve angered Inca Dinca Doo!
Which I think is accurate enough to the original whilst improving flow. Thought exercises!
Often, when doing an in situ song translation like this, you have to just straight up rewrite parts of the song. It’s a necessary evil – you have to match tone, and flow, and intent, and overall purpose, whilst sounding natural and having flow and having poignance in the target language. And sometimes the words provided to you by the original just aren’t capable of doing that. Sometimes you have to abandon your source in pursuit of something better.
And sometimes you abandon it in pursuit of the Japanese dub of Donkey Kong Country.
English: How can such a pretty thing as this / make things really go amiss? / All I want is Candy’s kiss!
Japanese: Will that god get angry / just because I took his / Golden Banana?
Let’s be clear – I’m not sabotaging that translation to make it look lifeless. It is lifeless. While some care has been put into ensuring Cranky’s sections of the song still rhyme in Japanese (bearing in mind Japanese songs don’t tend to make use of rhyme schemes so much, it’s a neat touch), very little has been put into Donkey’s. His actor can sing, but he hasn’t been provided anything worth singing here. It’s spoken word dialogue delivered with some music behind it.
It’s worth pointing out took that Japanese has a reversed order for sentence construction – so the Japanese sentence order is actually “Golden Banana, took just because, God get angry?” I point this out purely because we’re about to look at the actual Japanese itself, and it might help to understand how things ended up the way they did.
See, Japanese can have big long chain verbs – you take a verb, conjugate it, attach conditionals to it, attach following verbs to it, and you can have a simple verb expand into five or six syllables. Sometimes five or six syllables might be all a line has or can afford. Sometimes you’d want to break a line in the middle of one of those verbs, and then you’re really screwed.
But hey, I bet that drastic alteration to the meaning was so they could make the line scan really well, right? I mean, you wouldn’t just mess around with the meaning of a bunch of lines unless it was to the benefit of the song as a whole, right? …Right?
Yeah, brace for this one.
How can such a pretty thing as this (9 syllables)
make things really go amiss?(7 syllables)
All I want is Candy’s kiss! (7 syllables)
Kin no banana (5 syllables)
wo mottekaeta gurai de (10 syllables)
Kamisama okoru ka na (9 syllables)
“Hey, Kenta, do you think we ought to maybe shift some of the syllables out of that second line into the first?” “Nah, Sayoko, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Fucking kill me now.
No Candy for you
So at two points in the song, the English version makes mention of DK wanting to give the banana to Candy for their anniversary, in the hopes she’ll give him a kiss.
All I want is Candy’s kiss!
It’s the perfect gift for our anniversary!
The first line of this is cast away entirely – collapsed into the earlier segment about god getting angry because DK took his banana. The second line, however, is just changed to I’m gonna give this to Candy!
Quite why the references to wanting a kiss, or them dating, has been stricken from the Japanese translation of the song is a fucking mystery. Earlier he mentions in dialogue upon finding the banana “Maybe if I give this to Candy she’ll give me a kiss!” and later they fucking minecart into the sunset singing a love song at each other (I fucking love this show) so it’s not like the Japanese translation is being puritan about it elsewhere. It’s just here, in this song. For some reason. Okay.
That Wizard came from the Moon
English: You’re a fool, can’t you see that there’s a curse? / Put the Banana back or things are gonna get much worse!
Japanese: That banana belongs to the god! / If you don’t put it back, you’ll be cursed!
You know the syllables on this one are completely goddamn fucked too, but maybe it’s worth it for “That banana belongs to the god.” Maybe. But no I do have something I want to talk about here, the next two lines after this. Whilst these two are kind of funny in how they’re phrased, they do convey the same “information.” The same can not be said for Donkey’s reply:
English: What’s with all the worry? / Can’t you see I’m in a hurry?
Japanese: That’s just a myth! / I don’t believe any of it!
The actual delivery here is mostly fine – no syllablefuckery here! Instead we just have a complete rewrite which actually conveys more information than the original! While the original kind of pads out the “DK doesn’t care about your shit” refutation with stalling lines, the Japanese version actually provides DK with an actual reason to not believe it as opposed to just questioning what the big deal is.
Plot analysis, 90s childrens cartoon, etc etc. Get a life Magenta.
The next two line are just “Well HERE’S your reason.” statements from Cranky in the English:
English: The curse will bring the destruction of the entire island, / and there’ll be no bananas left for you to eat!
Whereas the Japanese instead has Cranky kind of goading Donkey with questioning forms instead:
Japanese: Then you don’t care if the curse destroys the island? / You don’t care if there’s no bananas left to eat?
Which doesn’t actually change much, but it’s fun. DK’s response:
English: No bananas?!
is also a bit funnier in the Japanese, IMHO:
Japanese: Anything but that!
English is a nice language, having contractions. “It is the”, a three syllable sentence fragment, can be condensed down to two syllables – “it’s the.” Like so:
English: It’s the Curse of the Golden Banana!
TL Note: “Curse of the Golden Banana” in Japanese is “kin no banana no noroi.”
Japanese doesn’t have that luxury though – if they want to say “it’s the”, they need three syllables, “sore wa.” Well, to be specific they really use a “the” equivalent, and “sore wa” just means “it is”, with their “it” taking up two syllables. Anyway, point is, you can’t say “it’s the” in two syllables in Japanese, you need three. Well, they don’t have three on this line. They have two.
Japanese: Sore kin no banana no noroi.
The Japanese lyrics, both in kanji and romaji form, and a translation thereof can be found here.