The last year has seen Psy explode on to the music scene, first with Gangnam Style and then with Gentlemen. The Korean pop phenomenon has scored number ones all over the world, and gained millions of fans – despite relatively few of them speaking the same language as him. Indeed, the fact his most popular hit – Gangnam Style – is sung almost entirely in Korean has done little to deter people from singing along to it. They may not know what they’re singing, but that’s beside the point. However, Psy is not the first pop star to become a worldwide superstar on the back of a non-English language song. From Édith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose to Nena’s 99 Luftballons, foreign language classics have been entertaining us for decades. Here is a selection of our favourites and their translations.

La Vie en Rose

Edith Piaf’s signature song, and the one that would go on to inspire the title of the 2007 film of her life, was La Vie en Rose. Although the literal translation of the title is ‘Life in Pink’, the meaning is more akin to ‘Life viewed through rose-coloured glasses’.

Piaf was inspired to write the song after standing in front of an American man she had met, and the lyrics describe a man who enables her to see life in rosy shades. The official English translation of the song was written by American lyricist Mack David, but the lyrics provide far from a literal translation. His version is simpler and does away with Piaf’s lavish descriptions of the man she is in love with and the effect he has on her. Instead, the first verse reads simply:

Hold me close and hold me fast

The magic spell you cast

This is La Vie En Rose

Far more goes into translating songs than simply changing each word from one language to another. Rather, the original sentiment needs to be captured, the verses need to flow and, where possible, it should rhyme. The English language version of the French classic was made famous by American jazz singer Louis Armstrong.

La Bamba

This rock and roll classic sung by Ritchie Valens has the rare accolade of being the only non-English language song on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In fact, Valens covered the track, which was originally a Mexican folk song.

The phrase La Bamba has no translation but is the name of the dance traditionally done to the song. Similarly, translating the lyrics is tricky as they often change depending on who is singing it or what version you’re listening to. The main essence of the words is a description of the dance itself.

Like many of the Son Jarocho-style songs of which La Bamba is one, the lyrics reflect the place it originated from. Veracruz, home of Son Jarocho, has a famous harbour, which may explain the lyric: “Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan.” The literal translation of this line is: “I am not a sailor, I am a captain.”

99 Luftballons

Nena’s 99 Luftballons, released in 1983, is a protest song that became a worldwide hit after being translated and rerecorded in English. Interestingly, the original German version charted at number 2 on the American Billboard charts.

As with La Vie en Rose, the translated version of 99 Luftballons is rather different to the original. What few people are aware of is that the English lyrics were written by Irish musician Kevin McAlea after several attempts had been made to translate them. Speaking to Eighty-EightyNine, he explained that he worked from a summary of the original lyrics and used these as his base, but made his priority maintaining the poppy rhythm of the words.

7 Seconds

This 1994 classic is unusual in that it is sung in not one, but three languages. The duet was performed by the English-speaking Neneh Cherry and Youssou N’Dour – who sings in both French and Wolof, a language of Senegal. The track made the top three in many countries in Europe and Youssou N’Dour performed it again at 2005’s Live 8, this time with Dido.

According to Neneh Cherry, the song is about the first seven seconds of a child’s life when it knows nothing of the world or the problems in it. “They told us to translate it to English so that everybody can understand what it is about. But not everybody speaks English and why does it always have to be the dominant language? People should just learn to listen and see whether they like it and feel what it is about,” Cherry explains. Certainly, in 1994 countless people could be heard signing along to the track, whether they spoke French, English, Wolof or none of these languages.

Gangnam Style

No article about song lyric translations would be complete without mentioning Gangnam Style by Psy. This global smash topped the charts all over the world, thanks as much to its quirky video and Psy’s unusual dance moves as the song itself.

Gangnam Style is a parody about South Korea’s wealthy inhabitants, many of whom live in the Seoul district Gangnam. Psy attempts to woo one of the ladies who lives there (“girl who is warm and humanly during the day”) by boasting he is “a guy who one-shots his coffee before it even cools down”. Finally, he lets the object of his affection know: “On top of the running man is the flying man, baby baby. I’m a man who knows a thing or two.”

Perhaps, sometimes, it’s better not to find out what the lyrics to your favourite songs say after all. If you require translation services for the media and entertainment industry, see what Language Insight can do for you here.