Localisation sing-along

Localisation is about adapting a product to a foreign market, taking account of both the technical constraints of the medium (web interface, application, software, etc.) and the destination country. Music producers were pioneers in this field and, when marketing Anglophone hits abroad, were already considering commercial and cultural elements to be transposed in the translation (recognise what this is? It’s called ‘marketing strategy’).

In the 1960s, few were the fans of American music who spoke English: although captivated by the fresh beat of new hits, they had no idea what the lyrics actually meant. Yet, for several thousands of copies of a record to be sold, everyone had to at least remember the chorus easily.

As selling was the most important thing, lyrics were adapted without much care for staying true to the original version. The only constraint was the music. We could call it extreme ‘transcreation’.

Let’s take the example of the song If I had a Hammer. Composed in 1949 by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, it was originally a protest song in support of the American Progressive Party. Not surprisingly, the track didn’t yield much success when released in the United States.

The lyrics preach justice, love between people and freedom.

“When I’ve got a hammer, and I’ve got a bell
And I’ve got a song to sing all over this land
It’s a hammer of justice, it’s a bell of freedom
It’s a song about love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land”

The reference to a bell may seem obscure to the French public, since it is both an allusion to the bells rung at plantations to punctuate the working day of slave labourers and a biblical reference,  reused by Martin Luther King in his famous “I have a Dream” speech (thanks to Poisson Rouge for this info).

Personally, I prefer Peter, Paul & Mary’s version

However, it was Trini Lopez’s version which – with its far lighter, more upbeat rhythm – went gold in 1963. Given this success, European producers were eager to offer the hit to the indigenous youth of Europe.

In France, it was Claude François who took the plunge. French songwriter Vline Buggy’s version is devoid of any hint of protest: May ’68 was still far off for the French and Claude François (affectionately known as Cloclo) decided to use this song to celebrate family life, believing he would sell more records with a consensual ditty than with the original’s refractory lyrics. The ‘pop’ youth of the Sixties enjoyed the swinging melody of this typically French-styled hymn to family gatherings… the record sold well.

All sung scrupulously dressed in suit and tie:

Si j’avais une cloche
Je sonnerais le jour
Je sonnerais la nuit
J’y mettrais tout mon cœur,
Pour le travail à l’aube
Et le soir pour la soupe
J’appellerais mon père
Ma mère, mes frères et mes sœurs
Oh oh, ce serait le bonheur

If I had a bell
I would ring during the day
I would ring during the night
I would ring with all my heart
For the early morning work
And for the dinner
I would call my father
My mother, my brothers and my sisters
We would be happy altogether

One might think it was a mistake to overlook the original message. Yet, in this specific case, we are not transmitting a vision or value, but a melody adapted to the tastes and values of the target audience. In Italy, for example, the protest aspect was no longer political, but personal. The hammer, symbol of fraternity for Seeger, is brandished with belligerent intent by Rita Pavone, seeking revenge on her rival by striking a blow to her head. In 1964, young people in Italy, as in France, were more interested in dancing than anything else!

The success of this version, written by Sergio Bardotti, was so complete that even today, generations born well after ’64 are able to hum the first verse at the very least.

Un colpo sulla testa
A chi non è dei nostri
E così la nostra festa
Più bella sarà.
Saremo noi soli
E saremo tutti amici:
Faremo insieme i nostri balli
Il surf il hully gully
Che forza sarà…

A strike to the head
To all those who are not one of us
So our party
Will be all the better
We’ll be amongst ourselves friends one and all:
We’ll dance together
The surf and the hully gully
It’ll be great…

The main point to remember is that when you entrust the localisation of your website to a professional, you’re not just asking that person to simply translate the text word for word, but to adapt it to the foreign user’s perception. This not only requires in-depth knowledge of the culture addressed, but also prior semantic research and a tailored strategy for each country, even if it means making drastic changes to what’s on offer for certain markets.

I’ll leave you with some of the other international versions of If I had a Hammer for your enjoyment. Let me know which your favourite is!

El Martillo (Espagnol)
Se eu tivesse um martelo (Portugais)
Hätt’ ich einen Hammer (Allemand)