Lost in translation? Here’s what some of your favourite foreign-language songs are actually about

You’d struggle to find someone who hasn’t heard Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s ‘Despacito’. 2017’s song of the summer, it’s also the most streamed song of all time, racking up 4.6 billion plays. But not even Justin Bieber himself, whose guest verses turned this into a monster hit, knows the lyrics.

Translated into English, ‘Despacito’’s lyrics are surprisingly steamy. Obviously this is a love song – it doesn’t take a linguist to work that out. But reinterpreted into English, the most streamed song ever asks: “Let me trespass your danger zones,” and claims: “I want to breathe in your neck slowly.”

Foreign-language crossover hits are great – there’s nothing quite like falling in love with a song in which you know absolutely none of the words. But ‘Despacito’ isn’t the only smash hit to pack surprises when translated.

1
Psy – ‘Gangnam Style’

Psy, Gangnam Style

It was a weird moment. A phase. When the world fell in love with South Korean superstar Psy’s sassy, pelvis-thrusting, absurd music video for ‘Gangnam Style’. Most of us were into the dancing, not giving a second thought to the lyrics. But it turns out Psy is a big caffeine-addicted softie.

What he sings:
“I’m a guy
 / A guy who is as warm as you during the day / 
A guy who one-shots his coffee before it even cools down
/ A guy whose heart bursts when night comes 
That kind of guy.”

2
Las Ketchup – ‘The Ketchup Song’

Las Ketchup

Not about ketchup, as it happens. Everyone who bought the 2002 chart-topper at the time didn’t care, joyously singing along to the “Aserejé, ja de jé debe tu de jebere seibiunouva” chorus with 0% accuracy. But ‘The Ketchup Song’ packs a surprising story, about a bloke called Diego, with questionable race undertones.

What they sing:
“Diego has natural charm / and that Rastafarian Afrogypsy happiness spot.”

3
Sigur Ròs – ‘Hoppípolla’

Icelandic giants Sigur Ròs are a tricky band to translate, but that’s part of the magic – they’re more about feeling than meaning. They don’t always sing in their native tongue, instead referring to their own Hopelandic language. Luckily, they explained what they sing in everyone’s favourite David Attenborough nature documentary-soundtracking epic. Turns out, it’s basically a cover of Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’.

What they sing:
“And I get a nosebleed / But I always stand up”

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4
Serge Gainsbourg ft. Jane Birkin – ‘Non non plus (Je t’aime… Moi non plus)’

‘Non non plus…’ isn’t a song about having nice quiet night in on your own. We know that much. But when translated into English, the steamed-up French classic goes the extra mile in its sexual conquest.

What they sing:
“I go, I go and I come / Between your back / I go and I come.”

Blimey.

5
Babymetal – ‘Gimme Chocolate!’

Fusing metal and Japanese culture, teen trio Babymetal don’t have any contemporaries. There’s nothing else quite like them, and they’ve wound up on the Reading & Leeds stage and in arenas worldwide through sheer ecstatic, air-punching force. But instead of being a simple demand for sweets, biggest hit ‘Gimme Chocolate!’ experiences a complex of emotions, eventually summing up everyone’s thought process when they reach for the snacks cupboard after midnight.

What they sing:
“Check-it-out chocolate. I can have a bit of chocolate, can’t I? /
But my weight worries me a bit these days / However, chocolate. I can have a bit of chocolate, can’t I?
/ But wait a while! Wait a while! Wait! Wait! Wait!”

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