Language Rules … Eurovision!


Article written by Claus Skovbjerg, MA, stagiaire communicateur at TermCoord

Alongside business and the politics of the European Union, it is clear that pop music is just another area in which English is taking over Europe. The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) used to be about celebrating Europe’s diversity, but in today’s globalised world it seems to be more and more about appearing international, cool and trendy rather than presenting quality music. However, considering the results of recent years in the ESC, it is no wonder if broadcasters or artists decide to go for an English language song.

Much has been written already about the increasing ‘anglophonization’ of the ESC. However, while singing in English may well boost the chances of upbeat pop or folk tunes on the actual night, the question is whether it might in fact be a disadvantage for more emotionally complex ballads.

Music is a world within itself
In fact, a Danish poet once claimed that the actual lyrics for a song in the Eurovision Song Contest are irrelevant. The lyrics should be considered as part of the music, since large parts of the audience don’t really understand them – or even care about them; they go by the sounds, and how they integrate in the song as a whole. Thus, in principle, a winning entry might as well be in either Esperanto or Volapük.

The poetic and musical aspects of lyrics are always language specific; excellent writing is not translatable, but often requires reimagining in another language. Songs that do translate easily are either about the message, or the ‘sing-along-ability’, rather than the art. They might be liked well enough, but probably won’t go as deep.

Songs often handle the parts that verbal description is unable to convey, and translation can simply miss the point – it’s not even the thing that really matters. Of course it helps to know what a song is about, but that is very different from changing the whole song into a description of what the words mean.

There is also a unique pleasure to be had in hearing human speech as music, which can be done much more readily when you don’t understand the language. Like Stevie Wonder sings in ‘Sir Duke’: “Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand”.

Lost in ‘anglophonization’
Both writing and delivery require intimate familiarity with the language to be truly effective. Sometimes the ideas are evocative enough to work regardless, but more often artless translation merely spoils the illusion.

For instance, there are countries that choose to translate their national winner songs into English for the Eurovision itself. However, sometimes English meets its Waterloo as the language of global generica when the lyrics don’t always quite fit or things are somewhat lost in translation.

Croatia’s entry in 2011 is one example; translated into ‘Break a Leg’ before changing to ‘Celebrate’. The former being notable for the lyrics “break a leg, every step you take” whilst the latter stood out for the singer, Daria’s diction; [“Salebrate”]. Such are the perils of performing in a language other than your native tongue. Another unfortunate example is the lyrics of the Slovenian entry in 1999, “harass you with my arse and love you with my hands”. Isn’t the Eurovision supposed to be a family show?

Perhaps more difficult is when entrants struggle with the pronunciation; for instance when the Belarussian singer Angelica Agurbash in 2005 sang: “So take your chance and fill [=feel!] me, I’m ready now”; or when her compatriot Koldun in 2007 sang “yes I’m wheeling” [= willing!]

So if a country chooses to sing in English, it is probably best off originally being written in English. The Swiss entry of 2009, “The Highest Heights”, is one of the more successful examples. Other dialects of English (such as Scottish, Welsh or Irish English), however, might well be best on their own terms. However, it is a shame that so many countries are losing their identity by singing in English.

How about some regional flavour again?
The only country still proud enough to never have presented a song outside their musical and linguistic tradition is Portugal. Although never very successful in terms of ‘sexy’ or ‘exciting’, they are songs that come from within — written and performed by their own people – getting back to the ‘regional cuisine’ so to speak! What’s the point of pinning cultural identity to language if you don’t let culture speak through it?

Perhaps the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) ought to reintroduce the so-called language rule. For some years (1966-1972, 1978-1998) Eurovision rules stated that a song must be performed in one of the official languages of the participating country. This somewhat artificially increased the linguistic diversity of the competition.

Artists could of course be free to record an English version of their songs to be promoted via the internet quite easily; still they should perform in the language of the country they represent during the three minutes of competition. And for the argument that the Eurovision audience don’t understand lyrics in other languages than English, what’s wrong with adding subtitles?

The fact that some small countries whose languages are not widespread beyond their national borders, such as Greece and Iceland, in 2013 chose to present songs in their own languages was a sign of courage. It is probably no coincidence that Greece’s entry “Alcohol is Free” was one of the funniest and most original this year (despite the catchy English title!). If you do not rely on English to be successful you have to find other ways to impress the audience, and being creative is the best alternative. Be brave, have fun – JoinUs in Copenhagen!



Eurovision Song Contest translation and terminology ressources:

A quick run-down of some of terms that can be used to pepper your conversations on Eurovision punditry can be found in this ESC Insight’s Glossary of the Eurovision World.

The Hungarian Eurovision entry Kedvesem has become quite popular. Now the team behind ByeAlex asks you to spread the message and translate the Hungarian entry into your own language here!

EBU Multilingual Glossary of terms and phrases used in broadcasting (EN, FR, DE, RU)

Articles and blogs on the Eurovision Song Contest language issue/controversy:

Wikipedia has a full list of languages and their appearance, winners by language and the name of the Eurovision Song Contest in national languages, (+ a few entries in artificial languages).

The Polyglut: Language and Eurovision

The Eurovision Times: Editorial: The Language Issue

The Economist: English atop the Eurovision pile, yet again

ESCInsight: Double Dutch? Choosing the Right Language for Eurovision

Language on the Move: Eurovision