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Christmas lyrics: putting translation programs to the test

By Josian Phillips, 

While traditions may differ from culture to culture, Christmas is celebrated in more than 160 countries around the world. Wherever you are at this time of year, it’s normal to find food, drink and decorations. In the UK, though, there’s one thing we’re especially fond of: music.

While not all of the songs released at this time of year are lyrically themed around Christmas, the words they contain do tend to get stuck in peoples’ heads pretty easily. Could the same be said if they were translated into other languages, though? How about if they were translated and translated again, using some of the most well-known programs available to web users? We put it to the test…

How does the test work?

We’ve taken verses from five of the most popular Christmas songs of the last 40 years and put them through the internet’s biggest translation services, using different languages as we go. The text will be translated from English to one randomly chosen language using Google Translate, into another using Bing Translator and then back to English through Babylon.

The idea is to see just how accurate these platforms are when forced to deal with the challenges faced by most international businesses – and have a bit of festive fun!

The results

Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas? (ENGLISH > BULGARIAN > KOREAN > ENGLISH)

“It’s Christmas time; there’s no need to be afraid. At Christmas time, we let in light and we banish shade. And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy. Throw your arms around the world at Christmas time.”

Becomes: “It was Christmas time; there’s no need to fear. During Christmas, we saw light and shadow. There are many of us out in the world of the joy of a smile. Spread around the world during Christmas. Your arm throw.”

The verdict: It’s just about recognisable to anyone who knows the lyrics well, but it’s in no way perfect! 5/10

Mariah Carey – All I Want for Christmas is You (ENGLISH > POLISH > HUNGARIAN > ENGLISH)

“I don’t want a lot for Christmas; there’s just one thing I need. I don’t care about presents underneath the Christmas tree. I just want you for my own, more than you could ever know. Make my wish come true; all I want for Christmas is you.”

Becomes: “I don’t want much for Christmas; only one thing that. I don’t care it is the gifts under the Christmas tree. I just want you to know, more than ever, as you want it come true for m, that all I want for Christmas is you.”

The verdict: This one certainly stretches the platforms a little more. Again, it’s possible to put two and two together, but we doubt Ms. Carey will be in a rush to re-write the song. 5/10

The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl – Fairytale of New York (ENGLISH > THAI > ITALIAN > ENGLISH)

“They got cars big as bars, they got rivers of gold; but the wind goes right through you, it’s no place for the old. When you first took my hand on a cold Christmas Eve, you promised me Broadway was waiting for me.”

Becomes: “Have a bar of the country. Have obtained the rivers of gold. But the wind through you. It s ǵ for Old when you took my hand in Christmas email fayen. I you have promised that Broadway I was waiting for us.”

The verdict: This one isn’t even recognisable. Also, while email technology existed in 1987, we doubt it was at the front of Shane MacGowan’s songwriting mind. 4/10

Wham! – Last Christmas (ENGLISH > GREEK > PORTUGUESE > ENGLISH)

“Last Christmas I gave you my heart, but the very next day you gave it away. This year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to someone special.”

Becomes: “Last Christmas I gave you my heart, but the next day you gave it away. This year, to save me from tears, I’ll give to someone special.”

The verdict: The translation services did particularly well with this one, missing just one word from the original line. Good job! 9/10

Elton John – Step into Christmas (ENGLISH > PERSIAN > JAPANESE > ENGLISH)

“Step into Christmas, let’s join together, we can watch the snow fall forever and ever. Eat, drink and be merry, come along with me; step into Christmas, the admission’s free.”

Becomes: “A step to Christmas, I will participate together I can watch snow falling to see immortality. I eat and am happy when I drink. I display it with me. A step to Christmas. Entrance ntoneh.”

The verdict: OK, so we really put the three services to test here, but it’s quite clear that they failed. Immortality isn’t exactly a popular theme in any of the Christmas music we know, although we do tend to be happy when we drink. 2/10

So there you have it – the services available, while useful to some, aren’t quite cut out for translating the UK’s most loved Christmas songs back and forth between various languages. We’re fully aware that very few people will be spending their December days testing Google, Bing and Babylon in such a way, but the linguistic challenges faced by global businesses are just at complex, if not more. This is exactly why the help of a full service translation agency is so important.

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