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Lounge Lizard foreign language speaking exercises…

It is probably because I am a bit obsessive compulsive that I still spend some time every day studying Thai. But that means that I have to constantly find new and interesting ways to work on my language studies. Writing these posts on WLT forces me to think about Thai, and a new blog I have been working on, Thai Vocabulary in the News, is also a great exercise for me. Now I think I have found a new learning method.

To the chagrin of my neighbors and my long suffering wife, I have been learning to play the piano and fantasize about becoming a lounge-lizard singer of popular songs. The other day, while banging away and belting out a new song I had one of those “Ah ha” moments. Why not try translating this song into Thai as a language learning exercise?

The more I thought about it the more I realized that every time we attempt to speak a foreign language we are usually translating into it. And usually when we are listening to a foreign language we are translating back.

Except for the advanced language learner most people don’t have that switch in our heads that allows us to start thinking in the target language until it just flows, without having to translate first. So learning all the ins and outs of translating into a foreign language would be great meaningful practice. And songs are fun to work with.

When I sat down to do my first song translation I realized how fascinating and multi-faceted translating into a foreign language can be. You don’t have to be an advanced student of Thai to try this method. Just choose a song that corresponds to your language level.

Songs are a really good challenge for a translator. They are quite often idiomatic. In our native language we often think idiomatically. This becomes a problem when we try to render what is in our heads in our native language into a target language since one thing we should never do is try to translate an idiom word-for-word.

Taking a song and trying to render it into a foreign language is great training for us because it forces us to break down our native language idioms into what they really mean in normal standardized language. If we are lucky sometimes there is even a corresponding idiom in the target language. This makes translating songs really good training for real world foreign language speaking.

Below I have some examples of songs I have attempted to translate, and the challenges we face when we try this.

Note to native Thai speakers: I’ll be trying my translations here. If you come up with something different please share it with us. It would be great to see how you would say it.

Let’s start with an easy song.

Mary Had a Little Lamb…

Mary Had a Little Lamb, little lamb, little lamb
Mary Had a Little Lamb
His fleece was white as snow.

First things first. Translate the title “Mary had a little lamb”.

Mary is “Mary”. That was easy.

We can translate the verb “had” as มี /mee/ or for the past tense เคยมี /koie-​mee/. A lamb is a baby sheep. Sheep is แกะ ​/gàe/; lamb ลูกแกะ /lôok-​gàe/. One word for “little” is น้อย /nói/ but since this is an animal we can use ตัวน้อย /dtua nói/.

“Mary had a little lamb” = Mary เคยมีลูกแกะตัวน้อย

But there is something missing here. Really the English word “had” in this case has a little more meaning behind it. It really means that Mary was “raising” the little fella. She was feeding him and taking care of him.

Let’s translate “had” to contain these subtleties. I think it should be เลี้ยง /líang/ “to raise”. A “domesticated animal”, or a “pet” of which this little lamb is one, is สัตว์เลี้ยง /sàt líang/ “animal that we raise”. Note: it sounds better without the past indicator of เคย /koie/, so we’ll just drop the past tense which isn’t required in Thai.

Putting all that together the title becomes Mary เลี้ยงลูกแกะตัวน้อย “Mary raised a little lamb”.

The rest of the song repeats the title and then adds:

“His fleece was white as snow.”

“Fleece” is ขนแกะ /kŏn-gàe/, or the hair or fur of a sheep. Since we know we are talking about a sheep let’s just drop แกะ /gàe/ and just keep ขน /kŏn/. “White” is ขาว /kăao/. “Snow” is หิมะ /hì-​má/. “As” really means “to be like” or “the same as” which in Thai would be เหมือน /mĕuan/.

“His fleece was white as snow” = ขนขาวเหมือนหิมะ

But this sort of lacks a certain flow. Let’s add a few words to make it flow better.

Instead of “his” fleece, Thai needs to use “its” fleece. That would be ขนมัน /kŏn man/. And although it isn’t required we really could use a “be” verb somewhere, like คือ /keu/.

And since the term “white as snow” means “really white”, and the term “as snow” is an English intensifier of the word white, we can use the Thai intensifier จ๊วก juak (specific for the word ขาว /kăao/) as in ขาวจวก /kăao jùak/ “really white”. This puts a little more emphasis on the word “white”. That gives us ขนมันคือขาวจวกเหมือนหิมะ “Its fleece was very white, like snow” which flows much better.

Here is my translation of “Mary had a Little Lamb”:

Mary เลี้ยงลูกแกะตัวน้อย

Mary เลี้ยงลูกแกะตัวน้อย ตัวน้อย ตัวน้อย
Mary เลี้ยงลูกแกะตัวน้อย
ขนมันคือขาวจวกเหมือนหิมะ


Now for the song that I was belting away when I had the “Ah ha” moment. It’s one of the shortest, and one of my favorite Beatles’ songs.

I Will…

Who knows how long I’ve loved you
You know I love you still.
Will I wait a lonely lifetime
If you want me to I will.

The title “I Will”.

If we translate this we get ฉันจะ /chăn jà/. But you can’t do that in Thai. The word จะ /jà/, which translates to “will” or “shall” isn’t a stand-alone word. It is simply a future indicator. It needs to be followed by a verb. So we need to think about what Paul is going to do.

And from the song it is obvious that he is going to “wait for” the person he is singing to. We can then add the words คอย /koi/ “wait for” and คุณ /kun/ “you”. And “I Will” becomes ฉันจะ(คอย คุณ) “I will (Wait for You)”, parentheses added to keep the original in mind.

“Who knows how long I’ve loved you”

“Who” would be ใคร /krai/ but I don’t really feel that in the song this is a question. I think it is more like “No one knows” so I came up with ไม่มีใครรู้ /mâi mee krai róo/. “How long” = นานแค่ไหน /naan kâe năi/. “I’ve love you” = ฉันรักคุณ /chăn rák kun/. No need for the present perfect to be translated. Giving us ไม่มีใครรู้ฉันรักคุณนานแค่ไหน “No one knows how long I have loved you”.

You know I love you still.

“Know” is รู้ /rúu/ or ทราบ /sâap/. ทราบ seems more formal so I’ll stick with รู้. But คุณรู้ /kun róo/ by itself sounds a little hard so I like คุณรู้แล้ว /kun róo láew/ which means “you already know” and doesn’t change the meaning but softens it a bit. “I love you still” in normal speak is “I still love you” which would be ฉันยังรักคุณ /chăn yang rák kun/. “You know I love you still” becomes คุณรู้แล้วฉันยังรักคุณ “You already know that I still love you”

“Will I wait a lonely lifetime”

“Will”. From my thinking about this song I don’t think this is a simple future tense word. It seems to have the meaning that he is asking if she is going to make him wait for a lifetime before she responds to him. That would be something like “Are you going to make me …?” which would be คุณจะทำให้ฉันต้อง… /Kun jà tam hâi chăn dtông …/

“Wait is รอ /ror/ or คอย /koi/ even better to use the Thai double verb of รอคอย /ror-​koi/. “Lifetime” is made up of “life” ชีวิต /chee-wít/ and “all of” ตลอด /dtà-lòt/ as in “all of my life” ตลอดชีวิต /dtà-lòt chee-wít/

“Lonely” is เหงา /ngăo/ And instead of describing “lifetime” as being lonely we describe our “waiting” as being lonely. So we need to put this after the verb รอคอย /ror-​koi/ as in รอคอยเหงา /ror-​koi /ngăo/ “wait alone”. And this is a question so we tag on the question word หรือ /rĕu/ at the end. Giving us “Will I wait a lonely lifetime” = คุณจะทำให้ฉันต้องรอคอยเหงาตลอดชีวิตหรือ “Are you going to make me wait lonely for my whole life?”

“If you want me to I will”

If = หาก /hàak/
“Want me to”, “Want” = ต้องการ /dtông-​gaan/. When you are using this in the case of she wanting me to do something you get ต้องการให้ฉัน /dtông-​gaan hâi chăn/. The song just says “want me to …” and leaves the verb unspoken. But in the translation into Thai we kind of need to say it. What is it she wants him to do? “Wait”. So we get คุณต้องการให้ฉันรอคอย. And then we are back to “I will” but that would be repetitive. How about we say something like “Well. If you want me to wait I’ll go along with that.” So we can say something like ฉันก็ยอม /chăn gôr yom/. The word ยอม /yom/ meaning “to be compliant”.

“If you want me to I will” becomes หากคุณต้องการให้ฉันรอคอยฉันก็ยอม “If you want me to wait then I’ll go along with that.”

And my complete translation of the first verse is:

ฉันจะ(คอย คุณ)

ไม่มีใครรู้ฉันรักคุณนานแค่ไหน
คุณรู้แล้วฉันยังรักคุณ
คุณจะทำให้ฉันต้องรอคอยเหงาตลอดชีวิตหรือ
หากคุณต้องการให้ฉันรอคอยฉันก็ยอม


You can see that when translating a song we first have to think about what the song means, what all the idioms and left-out-words are trying to say. Then we can render it into the target language. This is why I like the term “interpret” rather than “translate” since we really can’t do a word-for-word code switch. The mental exercise becomes more like Step 1, “native language words”; Step 2, “meaning of the native language words”; Step 3, “target language words”.

And in fact, these are the same steps we need to take whenever we attempt communicating in a foreign language – that is until we get to the level where we can eliminate the first 2 steps and simply think in the target language.

Hopefully, we are all on the road to getting there.

Try interpreting your own favorite song. You can just start with song titles. How about this one from Jackson Browne for a starter, “Running on Empty”? or how about this from the Eagles, “I’m going down the road trying to loosen my load I got seven women on my mind.” I have my answers and will share them with you but want to hear what you come up with first. Drop us a comment with your answers. I’m looking forward to reading them. I’ll bet we get lots of different ones.

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Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
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Hugh Leong loves explaining things. And during his 40 plus years of trying to learn Thai and its culture, he learned to love the cross-cultural aspect of living in a foreign country and speaking its language. His series, Thai Language Thai Culture, covers various aspects of learning Thai, and how the Thai culture influences how we say things.

5 Comments

  1. “The more I thought about it the more I realized that every time we attempt to speak a foreign language we are usually translating into it. And usually when we are listening to a foreign language we are translating back.”

    I don’t think that this is true, and it also makes no sense. When we have a conversation in a foreign language we’re proficient in, or even when we’re listening to something which is spoken at normal speed, we simply don’t have time to translate back and forth.

    It is true that beginners often rely on translation, but that’s a crutch to be disposed of as soon as possible (and it’s also not the only approach to language learning, but that’s a different topic). As soon as the language learner engages in real communication, translation is a huge impediment and usually breaks the flow of the conversation.

    Translation as a skill can be very valuable, but is neither required when learning a second language nor does it follow automatically from bi- or multilingual proficiency. That’s why professional translators need to study their subject, and normal multilingual people (I’m from Europe and we basically are all multilingual to some extent) often have a hard time to translate back and forth when asked to do so.

  2. Hi Andrej,

    It would be wonderful if we all had that code switch in our heads that would allow us to automatically think in a target language. I know some people who are born with “perfect pitch” in music. Ask them to sing an “A” and they can. But they are few and far between, as is people with the code switch button. It is something to strive for of course and some of us get there. I have to admit, I do have the code switch button and when I speak in Thai I am thinking in Thai. It only took me 45 years to get there. Hope it is sooner for most.

    Immersion in the language, go for a few hours, days, weeks, without hearing or speaking your native language and immersed in Thai and that will bring on the code switch button a bit faster. But most of us do not have that opportunity. Good luck.

  3. Hi Andrej again,

    I was just rereading your comment and wondered, if your Thai is good enough that you don’t need to translate what did you come up with for “Running on Empty”? or “I’m going down the road trying to loosen my load I got seven women on my mind.” Should be fun to see.

    It took me a bit of work to come up with my answers. Had to go through all three steps mentioned above. I show you my answers in a bit.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to reply, your example is well chosen (… to demonstrate my point 55+). As I said earlier*, translation doesn’t follow automatically from bi- or multilingual proficiency. It is a separate skill. “Running on empty” and “I’m going down the road trying to loosen my load I got seven women on my mind” are excellent examples because I can’t even translate them back into my native German. I think I get the meaning more or less, but no good German equivalent comes to my mind; any attempt to translate that back would be a cumbersome paraphrase. That is not to say that someone who studied (or practices) translation wouldn’t be able to come up with a good and idiomatic translation for your example sentences, but I can’t do that at the top of my hat. Now that doesn’t say anything about my German language skills, after all I’m a native speaker who uses the language on a regular basis. Do you see what I mean? The skill to translate is not a good indicator of language proficiency. What is a good indicator, however, is being able to skillfully and efficiently use the language to communicate or when listening to or watching media.

    *This is obviously only based on personal observation of myself and others. I’ve seen it countless times that somebody would ask ‘Hey, how would you say that in German/English/X’ and a group of native speakers debate that for quite some time, sometimes coming up with a good translation, and sometimes failing to do so.

  5. This is what I came up with in translating the above songs. How did you interpret them?

    Jackson Browne

    Running on Empty (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJYRtOPUonA)

    This is an idiom indicating that the person is out of energy, wasted, exhausted. We could use the Thai term หมดแรง /mòt-raeng/ (หมด = used up; แรง = strength). That is probably enough for the title but there is also a feeling that even though the singer is out of energy he won’t give up. ไม่ยอมแพ้ (ยอม = to submit; แพ้ = to be defeated).

    Running on empty (Exhausted but not giving up)
    หมดแรงแล้วแต่ไม่ยอมแพ้ /mòt-raeng láew dtàe mâi yom-páe/

    The Eagles

    Take it Easy (ใจเย็นๆ jai-yen-yen) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhH3mRkKDX8

    I’m going down the road trying to loosen my load /
    I got seven women on my mind:

    “Going down the road” seems to me to be idiomatic for just trying to live one’s life. There is a neat Thai phrase for this ดำเนินชีวิต /dam-nern-chee-wít/, ดำเนิน = to proceed, ชีวิต = life.

    “Trying to loosen my load”, trying to stay sane, unstressed, cool. The Thai word for stressed is เครียด /krîiat/. So this phrase could be พยายามไม่เครียด /pá~yaa-yaam mâi krîiat/, “Trying not to be stressed out”

    “Seven Women”, instead of women let’s use the Thai form for “girl” which is also used for “woman” สาว /sǎao/ (sounds better in Thai) which gives us สาวเจ็ดคน /sǎao jèt kon/

    “On my mind” is “thinking about” which is กำลัง คิดถึง / gam-lang kít-těung/.

    I’m going down the road trying to loosen my load I got seven women on my mind (Trying to live my life unstressed, thinking about 7 women)
    ดำเนินชีวิต พยายามไม่เครียด กำลัง คิดถึง สาวเจ็ดคน

    And BTW, after watching these videos I realize how lucky I was to be born early enough that this was my music. Pity the people of the generations after.

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