When the Anglo-Irish pop band Bananarama recorded their debut single in 1981, they had to learn the lyrics — which were in Swahili — phonetically.
The gambit worked. The single was an underground success, leading to a bigger record deal and guest vocals on the distinctly English-language chart hit “It Ain't What You Do (It's The Way That You Do It).”
Luckily, the words to Aie a Mwana translate as a wholesome song about a father returning home to his family for bedtime. But if you’ve ever found yourself grooving to a song with lyrics in an unfamiliar language, you’ll know how strange it feels to be emotionally connected to a voice and a melody without having any idea what the sentiment is behind it.
You’re not alone. And neither are English lyricists immune from being misunderstood. When you consider that over half of all international hits tend to be from the U.S. and that three-quarters of the world population — including 25 million Americans — don’t speak English, it’s no wonder that the community of music fans at Lyrics Translate have interpreted over 1.5 million songs.
But which songs, artists and languages are translated the most? WordFinderX analyzed data from Lyrics Translate to find out. Tunapenda we, akisante sana!*
WordFinderX analyzed data on over 627,000 translations of 277,000 songs from more than 11,700 musical artists from LyricsTranslate.com. We ranked the songs by the number of times they have been translated from their original language and ranked the artists based on how many times their songs have been translated. We also ranked non-English speaking artists separately and the most translated artists from each country.
What characteristics might drive a song to become the most-translated? You might expect a combination of a track’s international popularity and perhaps a niche original language. Well, the songs at the top end of our most-translated list put a dent in the language theory: five of the 11 top songs, by country, originate in the English language. However, these songs have a distinctly karaoke feel to them. The Sound of Silence (U.S.), My Heart Will Go On (Canada) and Yesterday (UK) appeal to amateur crooners the world over. “Really the key to ‘The Sound of Silence’ is the simplicity of the melody and the words, which are youthful alienation,” explains Paul Simon, the song’s writer.
The most-translated song in the world was first recorded in Portuguese, which is the world’s ninth most-spoken language — only around 257 million people ‘get’ Ai Se Eu Te Pego in the original. The song was an internet phenomenon, launching Brazilian singer Michel Teló to stardom and reaching iTunes number one around Latin America and Europe. Despite an uninspiring melody, it’s a song that folk love to sing along with. As a party playlist mainstay throughout the 20-teens, it attracted 131 translations in languages, including Dutch, Persian and Uzbek.
Our map of the world reveals a unique cross-section of the most popular-ish stars from each country. Sure, the Beatles make sense for the UK, ABBA for Sweden, Björk for Iceland and maybe even Rammstein for Germany. Other countries have a more generational emphasis: Poland’s Sylwia Grzeszczak is hardly the country’s most famous star, but her rise was concurrent with the Web 2.0 era of international social networks and user-generated content (i.e., fan translations).
Bosnia’s Dino Merlin has been around long enough to record 135 songs deemed worthy of translation 986 times into 37 languages. These include the first national anthem of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And then there’s Merlin’s karaoke hit potential, which may have inspired still further translations.
Taylor Swift is the most-translated artist in the U.S. and the world. As the “world’s biggest pop star,” with a huge back catalog of songs to translate, the numbers alone do the talking: fans have translated 365 of Swift’s songs across 57 languages, adding up to nearly 5,000 translations in total. Still, she has far more translations than second-placed BTS, despite the latter’s popularity and Korean lyrics, and the Beatles, in third place, who may have more fans, if fewer songs, than Swift.
Why? Swift’s songwriting style and finesse: her storytelling ability, literary references and Easter eggs invite closer inspection by those who don’t have English as a first language. Swiftish is itself a pseudo-language of quoted lyrics, spoken by Swifties and senators the world over.
South Korean boy band BTS is about as internationally successful as you can get when singing in a language understood by just 77 million or so people. There is even a dedicated team of fan translators who’ve helped broaden the band’s appeal along the way to appearing on the cover of American Billboard magazine and playing Times Square. But words alone are not enough, as one translator reminds us: “The main factor and importance of BTS is their genuine personality, quality content and sincere music. As a translator, I cannot create something that isn’t [from] the original context,” Myungji Chae told Billboard.
While English is the most common language for songs to be translated into from most of the most commonly translated languages, it’s not always the case. Korean is translated into Russian more than any language. One K-pop fan explained that Russian fans see Korean stars as a more open and accessible alternative to the aloofness of American pop idols. “[W]e become attracted to not only their singing, but also their attitudes and personalities,” says Irina Belyakova.
And English itself is most commonly translated into Turkish. More than one in ten English-language translations on Lyrics Translate end up in Turkish. There are around 88.1 million Turkish speakers in the world, far fewer than those who speak Russian, Spanish and French — which are the next most popular, with Turkish neighbor Greek also in the mix. In turn, Turkish songs are most commonly translated into English. But here’s a curiosity: “arguably the world’s most prominent Turkish-language rock band,” Altın Gün, was started by a Dutchman in the Netherlands who didn’t speak a word of the language but thought a covers band of Turkish folk songs would be a good idea. It was. Altın Gün are now a massive, GRAMMY Award-nominated band — though they stuck to Turkish rather than Dutch.
In the post-Despacito era, it makes more and more sense for non-English language artists to record in their native language, even if they’re hoping for international success. Thanks to communities like Lyrics Translate and services such as YouTube auto-translate, a catchy tune and a charismatic artist can be enough.
If you should happen to fall in obsession with a foreign-language tune, you can delve as far as you like into its literal meaning and deeper TaylorSwiftian interconnections — just be aware, as the unwitting singer of “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” discovered, what you find you’ve been singing might shock you.
To determine the most translated artist and song from every country, we reviewed data on over 627,000 translations of 277,000 songs from more than 11,700 musical artists from LyricsTranslate.com. Songs were ranked based on the number of times they have been translated from their original language into a foreign language on LyricsTranslate, while artists were ranked based on the number of times their songs — as main recording artists or featured acts, in both live or studio recordings — have been translated into different languages on the site.
We also separately ranked the non-English songs of non-English speaking artists, who were defined as artists born outside of primarily English-speaking countries and who release music sung by them in languages other than or as well as English. Major composers who could not be credited with lyric writing were removed from our dataset.
We also isolated the most translated artist in each country, determined by the artist’s country of birth or the country of origin of a collective or band. When ranking the most translated song in each country, we considered the country of origin of the artist or the country of origin of a folk song whose original composer is anonymous.
We also retrieved supplementary information on how many languages an artist’s credited songs have been translated into and how many of their songs have been translated in total.
The analysis of this data is correct as of October 2023.