Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Misheard translated lyrics are a global phenomenon—there’s even a Japanese word for it

Karaoke screen in Tokyo, Japan
Karaoke screen in Tokyo, Japan
Photo: Patrick GUEDJ/Gamma-Rapho (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,146,484-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

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This week’s entry: Soramimi

What it’s about: From a Japanese word that translates to “air ear,” Soramimi is the phenomenon of mishearing lyrics in a foreign language that sound like different lyrics in your own language. [Given that we speak basically none of the languages that are translated below, we are trusting Wikipedia. Yes, we know that’s precarious.—Ed.] For example, “What about it Daddy Cool?” (the chorus of Boney M’s 1976 song “Daddy Cool”) sounds like the Russian phrase “varvara zharit kur,” which translates to “Barbara is frying chicken,” which is how Russians now sing the chorus of that song. While Americans who grew up speaking English rarely listen to non-English music, the Soramimi phenomenon exists all over the rest of the world.

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Biggest controversy: Brazilian gospel singer Aline Barros’ children’s song “Pula Pula” means “Skip Skip” in Portuguese. But Romanians enjoyed the song on a whole different level, as “Pula” in Romanian means “penis.” Along similar lines, K-pop group Super Junior had a hit with “Sorry Sorry,” that Taiwanese listeners dubbed with their own misheard lyrics—“Sorry, I have fallen in love with you,” in Korean apparently sounds like “The banana in my hand has exploded” in Chinese.

The Chinese can even find dirty translations in prose, as the North Korean announcement of “December 12th, Juche 101, or year 2012, Pyongyang” in Korean somehow sounds like “Buttocks up, a village of vagina-washing women forgot to wash their anuses after finishing washing their vaginas; their buttocks became itchy.” Chinese Soramimi also includes a North Korean news announcement of a satellite launch that sounds like an announcement that computer-generated singer Hatsune killed South Korean TV star Jang Keun-suk with a scallion. And “Comrade Ki Jong Il” sounds like “Kim Jong Il steal chickens.”

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Strangest fact: Appropriately enough, many different countries have their own term for Soramimi. In Germany, misheard songs are called Agathe Bauer songs, as to German listeners, Snap’s cry of “I’ve got the power!” sounds like someone shouting that name. Swedes call the phenomenon “Turkhits,” as an early-2000s meme involved adding phonetic Swedish subtitles to Turkish music videos (easy to do, as the two languages have similar vowel sounds)

Thing we were happiest to learn: China has tons of these. Besides the Soramimis already mentioned, “Oppa Gangnam Style” sounds like, “My father just murdered him”; “Beat It” sounds like “Got a pen?”; Punjai hit “Tunak Tunka Tun”’s chorus translates to “Oh the freezing cold of winter, how pale it feels,” but in Mandarin sounds like, “It’s freezing cold, I’m playing with dirt in the Northeast.” Even the Downfall meme—in which users pair comedic subtitles with footage from the 2004 film about the fall of Nazi Germany—has a Chinese Soramimi version, as an enraged Adolf Hilter’s (Bruno Ganz) declaration that, “and yet I did it alone,” sounds like, “I come to Hebei Province.”

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Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Soramimi has been used to promote nationalist hate. Russians turned Palestinian anthem “Blādi, blādi” (“Motherland, Motherland”) into “Blyadi, Blyadi,” (“Whores, whores,”) to mock Palestinians. Russia’s on the receiving end as well, as in Denmark, the final line of the USSR anthem, “Nas k torzhestvu kommunizma vedyot” (“It leads us to the triumph of communism”), sounds like the Danish for “Pasta with booze. So, could we kick an ass?”

Also noteworthy: Like professional soccer, Soramimi hasn’t quite caught on in America, but it’s making some inroads. YouTuber Buffalax has run a Soramimi-themed channel for years, and his video of “Kalluri Vaanil” from Tamil-language Indian film Pennin Manathai Thottu subtitled as “Benny Lava” became a viral hit. His account was closed in 2011 for copyright violations, but he remade the videos and relaunched the channel. (Wikipedia says “citation needed,” but you can go to YouTube and see his channel, so there’s your citation.)

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Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Wikipedia’s page on translation has a section on translating song lyrics, largely concerned with the difficulty of doing that, as a translation has to consider not only meaning, but follow a melody and often maintain a fixed number of syllables per line. This often leads to contrafactum, writing a new set of lyrics to existing music. This covers very loose translations, but the contrafactum page is more concerned with writing entirely new lyrics, like Sinatra classic “My Way” (written by Paul Anka), and David Bowie’s “Even A Fool Learns To Love” both using (with permission) the melody of earlier French song “Comme D’Habitude,” or the Beach Boys lifting the melody of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” for their own “Surfin’ U.S.A.”

Further Down the Wormhole: Soramimi came to prominence in the mid-2000s (a decade still on our minds after the recent Y2K Week at The A.V. Club). During that decade, crime declined steadily in the U.S. and the U.K., but both countries responded to this by increasing police presence. In 2008, British weekly newspaper The Socialist Worker warned, “Calling for police crackdowns… [and] the criminalisation of a generation of Black youth will undoubtedly lead to explosions of anger in the future.” Their prediction came true three years later with the 2011 England Riots, when the police shooting of Black Londoner Mark Duggan led to widespread protest all over the country, including riots that resulted in five deaths.

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Wikipedia covers centuries of riots in England (including the 1355 St. Scholastica Day riot, covered in an earlier Wormhole), including a shameful incident during WWII in which American soldiers deliberately fired on fellow American soldiers for drinking in pubs while Black. We’ll examine the Battle Of Bamber Bridge next week.

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.

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