Why and how would you translate Taylor Swift’s Lyrics into Latin?

The Daily Mail reported recently that a Cambridge academic thinks that learning Latin will be more interesting and relevant if learners used Latin translations of Taylor Swift’s songs, in stead of the classic texts, like the ones about the Trojan War. The commentator, Tom Utley, did not think that any of Taylor Swift’s lyrics were particularly suitable for translation, because of the informal (slangy) style in which they’re written. But I thought that it wouldn’t work because her lyrics refer to things which did not exist during the time that Latin was the standard language used for writing. Even something straightforward like the words from Teardrops on my Guitar would get lost in translation:

"He's the reason for the teardrops on my guitar
The only thing that keeps me wishing on a wishing star
He's the song in the car I keep singing"

So, "teardrop"? Nope, no Latin equivalent, but perhaps "aqua in oculis" - water in eye? "Guitar" would be "cithara". "Car"? Nope. Perhaps "currus"  - chariot - can be used in stead. "Wishing star" translates to "volentes stellam". Now try to fit all that into the melody. It just won't scan. 

I’m afraid that, unlike other types of writing, not many lyrics would work in an ancient language like Latin, and also, very few songs would translate well into any alternative language at all. If you’ve ever listened to PSY’s lyrics, which are a mix of Korean and a dash of English, you’ll find that it’s amazing that the English and Korean words rhyme at all. But honestly, sometimes they are just yaourt.

Why remake a song so completely?

There are many musicians who do the most unlikely types if conversions of popular songs, and you do wonder why they bother. I guess it would be because they don’t care for fidelity, or they think the song will sound better with lyrics in another language, a new beat, different instruments, a different arrangement, etc. Or they’re inquisitive, or they like the challenge.

Of course, every style of music and every period in music history has an aesthetic, a specific sound, which someone might like a lot. I studied Medieval Literature at university, and we learned the words of some songs that are still sung today. One of the most famous ones is the 14th century French virelai, Douce Dame Jolie, by composer Guillaume de Machaut, which has a lively dance rhythm and in this version (below), a nice bit of syncopation too. And a very pretty flute solo. So, if this sound intrigues you, you might want to hear your favourite songs redone like that.

This version of Douce Dame Jolie by the John Renbourne Group has English lyrics.

Sometimes it works, for instance, Leo Moracchioli who makes Metal cover versions of perfectly normal Rock and Pop songs, with the most head-banging, screaming intensity. He leaps about in his studio like a madman…and those grimaces!! But, it works. Probably because he is a very good musician.

Then there are the out-on-a-limb musicians who reverse-engineer songs into ancient cover versions, with lyrics in older or dead languages, or using antique instruments, or fitting into music forms that are no longer used. This group falls into the “Bardcore” genre.

Imagine…Shake it Off as Gregorian Chant? I can’t.

Meet Hildegard von Blingin’

Hildegard von Blingin’” is a Bardcore musician who, with her collaborators “Cornelius Funk” and “Friar Funk”, makes very good Medieval-style versions of hits, and believe me, her translations of the lyrics are excellent. The name is Von Blingin’ – as in having bling, not Von Bingen, which is the name of the saint of the Middle Ages, Hildegard von Bingen, the Sibyl of the Rhine.

One of her hits is fantastically well done cover of Foster the People’s 2010 hit, Pumped Up Kicks, transformed into Early Modern English, and set against the backdrop of the Medieval-era Battle of Hastings. It’s called Buskin Boots. (A nice little pun there on busking.)

Above, left to right: the avatars of Cornelius Link and Hildegard von Blingin’, and the cover of the Medieval Era II – Medieval Legends sample library created by composer Eduardo Tarilonte, which was used in the production of the song. (Amanda McGowan, Bardcore’ trend sees modern pop songs reimagined with a medieval twist, in PRI/PRX, August 24, 2020)

Von Blingin’ says that she was inspired by two music videos by German software engineer Cornelius Link, who was the first successful Bardcore creator. She uses a DAW and the Medieval Era II music sample library to producer her songs, and her YouTube channel now has 829,000 subscribers. Not bad, I’d say, for something as niche as Bardcore.

Her songs are like dubs in reverse: if a dub of a song means that you update an existing, older recording with new and more modern beats or instruments, then Buskin Boots and her other creations are the products of reverse dubbing. They have older rhythms, instruments, and words.

Buskin Boots – A Medieval version of Pumped Up Kicks

Von Blingin’ and co. took Pumped Up Kicks and reverse-engineered it to make it sound like it is played by a Medieval orchestra, by using the appropriate sound library. They changed the singing style to more of a monophonic chant, and translated the lyrics to Early Modern English of the late 15th century to mid-to-late 17th century – the English used by William Shakespeare in other words.

Compare the Lyrics

“Pumped-up Kicks” by Foster the People
Songwriters: Mark Foster
Pumped Up Kicks lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Robert's got a quick hand
He'll look around the room,
he won't tell you his plan
He's got a rolled cigarette
Hanging out his mouth
He's a cowboy kid

Yeah found a six shooter gun
In his dad's closet, in a box of fun things
I don't even know what
But he's coming for you, 
yeah he's coming for you

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You'd better run, better run,
outrun my gun

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You'd better run, better run,
faster than my bullet

Daddy works a long day
He be coming home late,
and he's coming home late
And he's bringing me a surprise
'Cause dinner's in the kitchen 
and it's packed in ice

I've waited for a long time
Yeah the sleight of my hand
is now a quick pull trigger
I reason with my cigarette
And say your hair's on fire,
you must have lost your wits, yeah

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You'd better run, better run,
outrun my gun

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You'd better run, better run,
faster than my bullet

“Buskin Boots” 
Lyricist, vocals, producer: Hildegard von Blingin’; Arrangement: Cornelius Funk; Male vocals: Friar Funk

Robert hath a swift hand
He doth gaze upon the fyrd,
and he maketh a plan
He hath a jaunty cap,
Perched upon his head, 
He is a longbowman

He did find an old bow of yew
And a quiver of arrows in his father’s chest,
Wherefore I cannot say
But he cometh for thee, 
yea he cometh for thee

All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots
Best ye go, best ye go
Outrun my bow

All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots
Best ye go, best ye go,
faster than mine arrow

Father worketh all day
And he cometh home late,
yea he cometh home late
Mayhap he bringeth me a gift
For stew is in the pot 
though it doth taste of grit

I have waited e’re long
Now mine eye is quick
and mine arm is strong
I reason with my crooked cap
And say “Thou art an artless,
greasy tallow-catch.” Yea

All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots
Best ye go, best ye go
Outrun my bow

All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots
Best ye go, best ye go,
faster than mine arrow

Modern references changed to Medieval references

These words and expressions in Pumped Up Kicks have been given Medieval equivalents in Buskin Boots. They translated the ideas as well as the words, meaning that “Robert”, the boy who tells the other kids to outrun the bullets from his gun, is now telling the other bully-rooks to out-run the arrows from his long-bow. Almost every word had to be replaced, meaning that, as with all translation, the lyrics is pretty much a recreation:

  • room = fyrd (a Medieval army)
  • cigarette = cap
  • cowboy kid = longbowman (English longbow, a powerful medieval type of longbow about 6 ft (1.8 m) long, made of yew, used by the English and Welsh for hunting and as a weapon in warfare)
  • six-shooter gun = bow of yew (longbow)
  • bullet = arrow (used with longbow)
  • dad = father
  • closet = chest
  • Yeah = yea (meaning “yes”)
  • kids = bully-rooks (term of reproach: meaning bullies, fools or rogues)
  • pumped up kicks = buskin boots (only recorded in English since 1503 – “buskin” means “half boot”, a knee- or calf-length boot made of leather or cloth which you close with laces, but it is open across the toes, like Roman legionaries wore)
  • sleight of my hand = mine eye is quick
  • quick pull trigger = mine arm is strong
  • your hair’s on fire, you must have lost your wits = thou art an artless, greasy tallow-catch (insult: “artless” means without skill or finesse. A “tallow-catch” is also an insult, and means a low, mean fellow, who is compared to a round lump of fat rolled up by the butcher to be carried to the chandler to be made into a nasty-smelling, cheap tallow candle.)

The sound of Medieval Music

Together with the Medieval words, the instruments and the way the melody is performed had to change as well. Medieval music often used Gregorian chant, which was monophonic (everyone singing the same notes, in the same key). Polyphonic music began to develop during the high medieval era, becoming prevalent by the later thirteenth and early fourteenth century. The vielle, a bowed, stringed instrument; the harp; the psaltery, a type of zither; the flute; the shawm, a double-reed woodwind; the bagpipe, and drums were all used during the Middle Ages to accompany dances and singing.

Above: Medieval music instruments – flute, psaltery, lutes, pipe and tabor, vielle and shawms. (These images sourced from: Case Western Reserve University, College of Arts and Sciences, Early Music Instrument Database – https://caslabs.case.edu/medren/)

Trumpets and horns were used by nobility, and organs, both movable and stationary, appeared in the larger churches. What the organs did not have was a sustaining sound effect, which creates that flowing sound in modern music. The piano with a sustain pedal was only invented around 1700. Therefore the beat in Buskin Boots is not a sustained sequence.

In Buskin Boots I can hear the drums, flutes, a harp, lute or other stringed instruments. No trumpets, horns, or pianofortes – the earliest piano was only invented invention around 1700. The beat of this song sounds like a march in step-style, played not by a machine but by a drummer holding a drum in his hands, like with the tabor in the picture above.

Very clever indeed

The point about this song by Von Blingin’ is that it is pretty darn good. There is something about the stripped down, raw sound, the slow, chopped rhythm, and the slightly off-key instruments that I like very much. It suits the serious and sad meaning of the song. If Foster the People had ever made an acoustic, unprocessed version of Pumped Up Kicks, I imagine it could’ve sounded like this. So, I’m afraid it will be a miracle if the developers of that Latin course can get their versions of Taylor Swift’s songs into anything that is remotely as good as those of Hildegard von Blingin’.

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