Lost Without Translation

Something rank and insidious has crept onto the world music scene recently and it’s coming from the reputable weekly journal Time Magazine. The foul scat littering Time’s pages is coming from music critic Josh Tyrangiel. In his March 21, 2005 music review, Mr. Tyrangiel titled his piece “Five Great Albums With Foreign Accents.” Not too bad, right? Well, he subtitled the piece, “These women span the globe – but they don’t need subtitles.” Still, not offensive enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But wait. Here’s Mr. Tyrangiel’s opening paragraph:

The problem with world music is that it’s usually impossible to understand the lyrics (although that hasn’t kept Lil Jon from having a successful career). But if you want to enjoy one upside of the global economy, here are five albums by international women with something to say–in English, but with distinctive pronunciation.”

Now I don’t know if Mr. Tyrangiel has become the cultural attaché for the Minutemen Project posted along the Arizona/Mexico border or if he’s sucking up to United Nations ambassador nominee John Bolton, but this isn’t his first stab at cultural inanity. In an August 30, 2002 article in Time Magazine, titled “Top Five Moments at MTV’s VMA” and subtitled “The highlights of a night of self-promotion, weirdness and general stupidity according to music critic Josh Tyrangiel” he wrote of Shakira:

She’s Colombian and her English flows like a Berlitz tape. But no one was looking at Shakira’s mouth last night. With four inches of premium leather stretched magically over the expanse of her backside, Shakira jiggled through the four minutes of her mini-hit Objection like a modern Charo. Jennifer Lopez’s ass had no comment.”


It’s no wonder that Mr. Tyrangiel is part and parcel to the mainstream media with his English obsessive, puerile commentary given the growing trend of fast food style McMusic and McCulture.

I’m not so sure that Mr. Tyrangiel should be taken so seriously as a critic considering he’s the proud owner of Bully Magazine’s Horseshit in Journalism Award, http://www.bullymag.com/3.4.02/horseshit-030402.asp, for an article he wrote for Time Magazine on U2’s Bono or the slam he got in the Harvard Independent for creepy remarks about the university http://www.harvardindependent.com/news/2001/09/04/Backspace/Too-Cool.For.Harvard-87673.shtml.

It isn’t that Mr. Tyrangiel espoused his preference for English lyrics that bothered me. He’s entitled to his own opinions. What offends me is this passes for American opinion abroad. I’m not a subscriber to Time Magazine, so I had to search online for the entire article, which I found in the European version of the online magazine. There it was, free for all to see. People around the world reading that article must have sighed and rolled their eyes, thinking here’s another American who can’t speak another language or can’t be bothered to read the English translation of the lyrics in the liner notes.

I looked up Shakira’s website http://www.shakira.com/ and discovered her thoughts about her bilingual lyrics. Her comments:

I did not set out to make two albums when I began the writing process but suddenly I realized I had written sixty songs, some in English and some in Spanish. Twenty of these songs were selected and divided up by language to make two different albums.” As Shakira lives a bilingual life, it is no surprise that the songs were written in two languages. She explains, “As I write songs, some times they come to me in English and some times they will come to me in Spanish. Many times I let the melody suggest which language the song should be.”


I don’t know if Mr. Tyrangiel is one of those paranoid Americans afraid of untranslated lyrics like “kill the white man,” or is one of those tyrannical hotheads who thinks that English and America is good enough for them and good enough for everybody else, but I do know that to force the world’s music to be compatible to American ears is just plain idiotic.

What Mr. Tyrangiel and others like him don’t understand is singers, dancers, musicians, writers and other artists exist in their own countries all around the world and sometimes they sing just for themselves. They sing their own songs in their language, not for Americans, but for their own people. The polite Americans, and they do exist, will listen to a song and revel in the joy, sorrow and love expressed in a language that isn’t theirs and enjoy it just the same. This exchange is meant to be a cross-cultural sharing and it will never work as long as there is a Mr. Tyrangiel out there whining and stomping his foot like a two-year-old and his English only ears.

[Shakira’s photo courtesy of Sony Music].

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