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Translating the World: Q&A With Robert Singerman about World Music Lyric Translations, Live and Recorded

Always on the lookout for what can help expand the presence of global music in North America, DubMC interviewed Robert Singerman who has a personal mission to break down language barriers between global musicians and their potential audiences who speak different languages. Singerman, who works for  French Music Export Office and the European Music Office US, believes that breaking down language barriers -- whether in audio, video, or live performance -- can give this music an advantage in reaching new audiences. Find out why in this exclusive Q & A:

1. How important is understanding lyrics and language in the appreciation of global music forms in English-speaking territories?

It is obvious that one can well appreciate non-English global music forms. However, my strong belief, supported anecdotally and by one notable market research study conducted in France, by Text-Up, is that many English and even many more non-English speaking people would more greatly appreciate being able to understand the lyrics (and all that implies: stories, history, culture, emotions, poetic beauty, politics, inspiration, spirituality, jokes and ridiculous banality, etc....), even in their own language(s). The fact that lyrics are in the top ten search functions on the internet demonstrates this interpretation. "How important" is a question that only time will tell if we are successful in our mission, but my estimate is that translations by new means could eventually double sales figures (and for some artists multiply by 100-10,000 or more) of non-English speaking music in English speaking territories and English speaking music to non-English speaking people. How important would that be? How important is the understanding of lyrics, "the book", and the story in Opera?

2. Paint a picture for us of what music/language translation would look and feel like to the end user in an ideal world?

It would feel great, we can finally understand all of what we have consciously or unconsciously given up on; we can break our own internal barriers of indolence, fear, language, social network consciousness—solely focus on "the music" and hear, listen, understand, enjoy, empathize, act, play, dance and celebrate the knowledge of what someone from another culture is communicating. There may be some painful lessons of difference, of antipathy, of hatred, ethnocentrism, confusion, of what we might consider stupidity, bad taste, or even "evil" as they say in politics and the NY Times today, about a Norwegian "extreme" metal band. However, there will be plenty of "light bulbs" going off in English speaking minds, "a-ha's" when we finally realize outside of our own experience and language comprehension what others are singing to us (and perhaps why.) We can appreciate or overcome perceived differences with our country's political "friends and enemies,” we can learn from ancient and new cultural movements, we can grow through the understanding, through the chaos and profundity of new ideas, through the change of the status quo and I hope that we therefore can and will make better choices in our musical (and other) life. It's the same picture but only much grander and more conscious of what music looks and feels like to us now.

Practically, it could be various means and solutions, like exist already in various places around the world. It could include subtitles in original and local languages, meta tag data served digitally in real time as we listen/watch on all our digital devices (mobile phones, computers, car stereos, home stereos, TV's...), with lyrics streamed or available in whatever language you request, on videos and internet and TV, with subtitles again by request. Liner notes, books, online communities, social network sites contribute to the worldwide fan base, and these fans share the words of their most inspiring songwriters and memorable songs. It could also look like Voxonic, with the "original voices" replacing translators dubs, so we can hear whichever artist we love, be it Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg, Manu Chao or Bob Marley, Elvis Presley in our own language, translated either by publishers, expert translators, other artists in collaboration, even duets or mashes, or by a group of dedicated multi-lingual fans. There will also be live solutions, like (or maybe unlike) those used in theater and Opera now, with LED or video projections, or "living" translations (don't know what that means, but just saw it advertised by a French artist playing Joe's Pub soon). Also, we will begin to be more educated/ripe for learning languages, understanding cultures, with a sense of traveling that's not only by ship, air, car, train, walking or astral means. With closed captioning in the U.S. now required on television, it's not a long path to subtitles in translations.

3. What are the projects/solutions/services/companies that are attempting to tackle the language barrier in global music? Name, description of service/approach, website?

The following are only the ones I have discovered in the past months, so by no means should this be taken as a complete answer, as I know there are many companies in the world with various solutions that might even be working now in countries like China, India, Eastern Europe and Russia. Information from readers about other means and efforts are greatly appreciated and will be followed up!

Voxonic: Working with artists and labels (started own label) with patented processes to replace a translated dub with the original artist’s voice. First commercial release was Ky-Mani Marley, where on the #1, #2 Reggae album (in these BB chart positions since release 6 weeks ago), one powerful song, “The March”, is on the album in English and Spanish (Ky-Mani doesn't speak Spanish). Both versions are available on iTunes, and an El Mundo article--mostly on Voxonic and Ky-Mani Marley-- plus lots of discussions inspired this blog invitation. Ky-Mani's songs, at least one, will be available in other languages (Voxed), and the second artist they signed, Prodigy (of Mobb Deep), also totally believes in the concept and opportunity of rapping to others in his voice, but their own language. There are very advanced conversations with Voxonic and many potential partners of Voxing other major superstars and worldwide icons in the coming weeks and months. Once any significant success is generated with this technique (hits), it could become ubiquitous or de rigueur and lots of fun, in terms of artistic and lingual collaborations.

Yabla: Yabla is mostly an incredible language learning tool, available by subscription (with some free, low amount of content), on sites and in schools which utilize compelling video with double subtitles (original language and English, for now), with some beta for ESL in English and many other languages. Yabla is now used in many schools, including the NYC Alliance Francaise and has a very active subscription base for Spanish language learning here. The ways of integrating aural, visual, musical, kinetic (on computer keyboards) and seeing the lips moving in TV and video clips make the pneumonic devices function like a 3D chess game and accelerate the learning process. When you see music video clips on Yabla, previously unknown and uninteresting songs come to life, with the additional lyrical understanding, provocation, and depth clearly evident.

Gracenote: Gracenote is by far the most important company in meta-data, owning an archive of some 75 million songs in all genres, even classical music, with agreements, applications and immediate digital servicing all over the world (mobile, car, ISP, portals, digital stores (iTunes...), Pro-tools, etc. and they have launched a "legal lyrics" program, initially with Yahoo. They have licensed the rights to post some 450,000 original song lyrics, which are available for free now on Yahoo and on some other partner sites (almost all in English). Gracenote is in the position to do the most to accelerate the model of lyric translations, transforming original lyrics to translations and we have been in serious conversations about doing just this for well over a year, during which time they launched the legal lyrics program. They introduced me to another company, eMotion Studios, below:

eMotion Studios: A full service interactive communications agency for whom communication (across languages, bridging cultures) is a serious (and still playful) mission. Believing in collaboration, they have built and are launching a multi-lingual system that, in my opinion, will evolutionize cross-language communication. Quite amazing and mobile, it will be presented for launch on a new Adobe mobile platform in February and includes in beta, among other applications, lyrical transcriptions and translations along with videos.

Text-Up (no website yet) This is a company that offers a software solution for labels and artists of double, or up to 8, language translations on CDs, (actually CDRs), which has been well researched and will launch in 2008 with the participation of French major labels and will also be used by Voxonic Music Group artist Prodigy in early February. There is also a digital solution for Text-Up, but on the demo CDs both exact (word for word) and adaptations are shown, in conjunction with the music, with a background of images from the artist. The software presents extremely well and their research shows that not only would new audiences perceive this as added value, but they would also (in big numbers) be willing to buy favorite CDs they already own, again!, with this addition. Their agreements can be structured as a fabrication cost, payable only at origination, or they could negotiate a lower fee plus royalty.

There are other companies preparing CDs with booklets with translations, contextual information, and even teacher lessons, like Sublingual Music, or the series done by the French Ministry of Education, Generation Francaise 1-6, and I'm certain others internationally (I'm sure I've seen some with specific Putumayo releases, mostly for children).

4. In what areas have you seen the most progress?

The Gracenote legal lyrics program and lyricfind.com agreement with publishers to make available PDF files are a good start for original lyrics, but the most innovative progress in releasing translations so far in the US (besides books/liner notes translations), was on the Ky-Mani Marley Voxonic album release of “The March” in Spanish, but that is just a small beginning step and not yet proven in the Spanish market. The real progress has come in the education process in the music industry with many artists, professionals, label executives, managers, new media companies and other potential allies (including superstar artists and icons), actually understanding the concept and the need/opportunity for translations going forward. There will be some major breakthroughs in 2008.

5. Which areas of music/language translation still have a long way to go, or have the most opportunity for growth/improvement?

All areas have a huge room for improvement; it's basically at .000001%, with the exception of opera and the very few liner note translations.

6. Why did you get involved in lyric translation projects?

I've worked with some extremely successful "world music" artists for over 25 years and represented many international pop or rock artists, including touring many American artists in France, throughout Europe and much further afield, but generally, like all my professional colleagues, ignored language differences, though I was always personally frustrated by this and actually "passed" on many vital international (non-English speaking) superstars.  When I took the position of starting the European Union supported European Music Office pilot program in the US and directing the French Music Export Office North America in Jan. 2004, it was extremely obvious to me that the biggest challenge of international music was language. As we worked to build, repair and honor bridges in all business areas with North Americans, increase label relations, licensing and distribution, improve booking, festival and touring issues, synch placement, digital representation, media awareness, rebuild and expand our database and relationships, create and contribute to newsletters, business groups, artistic, business and production collaborations, French and European music export relations, local North American Embassy and other ex-pat networks, attend conferences, distribute promotional tools, etc, amid many thousands of aid requests and other "normal" import, export development business, the language issue has remained the foremost challenge. Only in the last six months have I been able to focus on this effort, though we did assist Yabla over the course of these years as we could (So French Y So Chic and Generation Francais), since that was the first company, besides Gracenote, that I saw with one real, although still small, solution.

I also had the personal luck of growing up in a family which listened to (and sometimes sang badly) international music, along with blues, jazz, folk, "protest" music and some classical music and grew up reading the backs of albums.

7. How can musicians, labels, venues, managers, and other music industry professionals get involved?

Understand the importance and opportunity first, then if you have ideas, additional information to impart (even criticisms), or business propositions, contact me, or contact the relevant companies, directly. Translate your artist or label songs, or have your multi-lingual friends, publishers and labels translate and publish/exhibit your lyrics. I was heartened to read today in this blog the Kimmel Center

programmer who said they would put up lyrics (and I hope translations) on their site, let's hope the stage in 2008. Programmers, promoters, managers, artists and agents, please help all your artists and your audience find/create effective solutions for the stage, through your contacts, lighting and stage designers, either video, LED or some other means, even programs with translations will help. Think about the next Womex being able to finally understand international artists' lyrics—that would be a sea change. 

Remember the thrill of learning your first song lyrics, reading your first books and knowing, singing, or thinking your most precious lyrics (however childlike or embarrassing they may be). Remember the first time you tried to and maybe succeeded in communicating with someone with whom you did not have a common "language". Remember the times you were moved by some incredible artist singing in a language you did not understand and think of what it might have meant if you did actually go further with translations. Imagine (as Lennon sings), what will be different if the big "we" communicate consciously through songs across languages. This is no panacea, just one way of having musicians, songwriters and music fans lead the way towards comprehension and communication, which has to be one purpose of music.

DubMC.com is the brainchild of Dmitri Vietze and is sponsored by rock paper scissors, inc., global music publicity firm.