DE > EN: Let It Go

I've looked at six versions of Let It Go in detail: Catalan, Castilian Spanish, Latin American Spanish, Chinese Mandarin, Taiwanese Mandarin and now German. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and I think each language does some really special things: "ice-sky snow-earth" is really hard to top, and I have favourite lines from each of the other versions I've translated so far.

That said, I feel like I've saved the best for last. Just like children, every version is special, but this one is extra special.

German version

English translation

English version

Der Schnee glänzt weiß auf den Bergen heut' Nacht The snow gleams white on the mountains tonight The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Keine Spuren sind zu sehen No tracks are to be seen Not a footprint to be seen
Ein einsames Königreich An lonesome kingdom A kingdom of isolation
Und ich bin die Königin And I am the queen And it looks like I'm the queen
Der Wind, er heult so wie der Sturm ganz tief in mir The wind, it howls like the storm so deep in me The wind is howling like the swirling storm inside
Nicht zu kontrollieren, ich hab' es versucht Not to control [it], I have tried Couldn't keep it in, heaven knows I tried

The first linguistics class I ever took at New York University was Indo-European Syntax. I needed a science class, linguistics counted as a science, and Indo-European Syntax fit in my schedule and had no prerequisites. I was already a declared Spanish major at the time, and I had an O Level in German, but I had zero linguistics background. I switched into Indo-European Syntax in the second week after a half-hearted first-week dip in the Animation department. I showed up in class, got a copy of the syllabus, and saw that across the top it read "Proto-Indo-European Syntax".

My heart sank. Proto-Indo-European?

After class, I met with the professor in the linguistics department, and I told him I had no prior background in linguistics. Not a problem, he said; as a Spanish major with some formal study in German, I was a perfect candidate for a class like Indo-European Syntax, and he would get me up to speed. For the next hour, he weaved together a primer in historical linguistics, morphosyntax and semantics, and I was hooked -- completely taken by the way he connected one dot to another to another, jumped from one language to another, pulled it all together into a coherent big picture, and made it all so exciting. His sense of wonder at language was pure, childlike and contagious, and it made me want to play with language, too.

It turned out he was a specialist in Germanic historical linguistics, and so for the rest of the semester I had a privileged vantage point. When he talked about subordinate word order in German, the entire syntax of German fell into place in my head. Why didn't my language teachers explain it to me like this? When I then asked him why deshalb did not enforce the same word order as the other conjunctions, he paused and thought for a moment, and said, "good question", and then said, "because it's an adverb." Well, damn it, four years of high school German and all my teachers insisted on pretending it was a conjunction. I remember him asking the class what verb was related to the adjective forlorn, and enjoying his surprise when I pulled out lose. "How did you know?" he asked; "verloren," I said. A little pride still creeps in whenever I think about that exchange.

Professor John Costello was many things to many of his students. To me, he was a magician, and he rekindled my interest in a language that I thought I had no affinity for. It's impossible for me to look at a German word and not smile just a little bit, imagining what wonder he would have found in it.

Maybe that's why I find the German version special.

That's also why I rendered einsam as lonesome, instead of isolated, lonely, etc. I wanted to keep the cognate -some ending. For me, it's part of seeing how German comes together, the history that it shares with the English language, where they meet and where they diverge.

Tracing the etymology of heulen leads back to Proto-Germanic *uwwalon-, last mentioned in the Castilian Spanish version in the discussion about aullar.

"There's always a cognate!" said Prof. Costello once, about the relationship between English and German. The English cognate of versucht is forsought: to seek for. I have sought for not controlling it.

German version

English translation

English version

Lass sie nicht rein Don't let them in Don't let them in
Lass sie nicht sehen Don't let them see Don't let them see
Wie du bist, nein How you are, no Be the good girl
Das darf niemals geschehen That must never happen You always had to be
Du darfst nichts fühlen, zeig ihnen nicht You musn't feel anything, don't show them Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know
Dein wahres Ich Your true self Well, now they know

Keep "lass sie nicht rein, lass sie nicht sehen" in mind. "Sie" here is the third person formal plural accusative pronoun. ("Ihnen" is the third person formal plural dative pronoun.) We'll come back to this later.

Dürfen is "to be allowed", and so you can make a case for "das darf niemals geschehen" to be "that is not allowed to happen", and "du darfst nichts fühlen" to be "you are not allowed to feel anything". I took a little liberty here because "to be allowed" is so clunky, I think "musn't" and "must never" parse a lot more cleanly.

I think this is my favourite version of this verse. It's coherent, it's put together well, it has a lot of force from four different types of negation, including the use of negated dürfen. It loses the sentiment of "well, now they know," but I never liked that line anyway, and "dein wahres Ich" is a perfect fit for this song.

A completely unsolicited look into the way my brain works:

Hmm, there's a random [t] between "wahres" and "Ich" in the recording.

Is it supposed to be there?

Is there some connected speech process that causes [t] to occur in that position?

Well, "Ich" begins with a glottal stop.

Wait, do glottal stops have an audible release?

*searches Wikipedia*

I'm still not sure...

30 minutes later, trying to replicate abovementioned unidentified connected speech process on the train for the first time

Wait a second, [s] doesn't stop airflow at the alveolar ridge, and [ʔ] stops airflow only in the glottis.

So there's no process that could cause a [t], which requires airflow to stop at the alveolar ridge.

It's just a mistake that she made during recording.

If you'd tried this out half an hour ago, instead of messing around on Wikipedia, you'd have figured it out at once.

But wait: do glottal stops have an audible release?

German version

English translation

English version

Ich lass' los, lass jetzt los I'm letting go, let go now Let it go, let it go
Die Kraft, sie ist grenzenlos The power, it is limitless Can't hold it back any more
Ich lass' los, lass jetzt los I'm letting go, let go now Let it go, let go
Und ich schlag' die Türen zu And I slam the doors shut Turn away and slam the door
Es ist Zeit, nun bin ich bereit It is time, now I am ready I don't care what they're going to say
Und ein Sturm zieht auf And a storm is gathering Let the storm rage on
Die Kälte, sie ist nun ein Teil von mir The cold, it is now a part of me The cold never bothered me anyway

The present progressive "I'm letting go" appears here for the same reason it appeared in the Catalan version: "ich lass' los" is an action that is about to happen, which in English is better represented by the present progressive than the simple present. In this case it's even clearer because the second half of the line moves into the imperative mood so it's definitely an impending action, not an ongoing one.

The same logic lies behind "a storm is gathering", rather than "a storm gathers".

German version

English translation

English version

Es ist schon eigenartig It's indeed strange It's funny how some distance
Wie klein jetzt alles scheint How small everything now seems Makes everything seem small
Und die Ängste die in mir waren And the fears that were in me And the fears that fears once controlled me
Kommen nicht mehr an mich ran No longer come near me Can't get to me at all
Was ich wohl alles machen kann Can I perhaps do it all? It's time to see what I can do
Die Kraft in mir treibt mich voran The power in me drives me foward To test the limits and break through
Was hinter mir liegt ist vorbei What lies behind me is past No right, no wrong, no rules for me
Endlich frei! Finally free! I'm free

White flag moment: "was ich wohl alles machen kann" tripped me up. It has subordinate word order, where's the main clause? I went with what made the most sense to me, but you're welcome to disagree with a good explanation.

I do really like the German version but the tautology from the Castilian Spanish version appears in this translation, twice. The first time it shows up is here with "what lies behind me is past" -- sure, Sherlock.

German version

English translation

English version

Ich lass' los, lass jetzt los I'm letting go, let go now Let it go, let it go
Nun bin ich endlich so weit Now I'm finally so free I'm one with the wind and sky
Ich lass' los, lass jetzt los I'm letting go, let go now Let it go, let go
Doch Tränen seht ihr nicht [And] tears you will see no more You'll never see me cry
Hier bin ich, und bleibe hier Here I am, and here I stay Here I stand and here I'm staying
Und ein Sturm zieht auf And a storm is gathering Let the storm rage on

Okay, I sat on "so weit" for a while.

The "ihr" in "seht ihr" is a second-person plural informal subject pronoun. Basically, she's gone from "Sir, I would like to be left alone" three verses ago to "You schmucks suck!" here.

German version

English translation

English version

Ich spüre diese Kraft, sie ist ein Teil von mir I feel this power, it is a part of me My power flurries through the air into the ground
Sie fließt in meine Seele und in all die Schönheit hier It flows in my soul and in all the beauty here My soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around
Nur ein Gedanke und die Welt wird ganz aus Eis Just one thought and the world becomes completely of ice And one thought crystallises like an icy blast
Ich geh' nie mehr zurück I'm never going back I'm never going back
Das ist Vergangenheit That is history The past is in the past

My favourite verse in any language (at least the ones I can understand).

I'm not too happy about the repetition of "sie ist ein Teil von mir" but I will trade it off for everything else here. It's a lot less imagery-driven than the Mandarin versions, but most languages have such a problem with the whole thing about spiralling ice, German just got rid of it altogether. I love the oneness that the second line implies: the power that flows through my soul also flows through everything that is beautiful around here.

The word Vergangenheit makes me happy. -heit converts an adjective into a noun, or a concrete noun into an abstract noun. Although the English cognate is -hood, -hood doesn't turn adjectives into nouns, so the closest thing English now has is -ness.

Probably the most famous example of this ending comes not from -heit or -hood but from Afrikaans -heid: apartheid, apartness.

Vergangen is the past participle of vergehen, which is made up of ver- "for-" and gehen "go". Vergehen, however, does not mean "forego", because "forego" actually has a different etymology and is cognate with vorgehen, to proceed, to go forward. Vergehen instead means to go away, to disappear, to pass, to elapse.

In my head I like to parse Vergangenheit as "gone-away-ness".

German version

English translation

English version

Ich bin frei, endlich frei I am free, finally free Let it go, let it go
Und ich fühl' mich wie neu geboren And I feel like I'm reborn And I'll rise like the break of dawn
Ich bin frei, endlich frei I am free, finally free Let it go, let go
Was war ist jetzt vorbei What was is now the past That perfect girl is gone
Hier bin ich in dem hellen Licht Here I am in the bright light Here I stand in the light of day
Und ein Sturm zieht auf And a storm is gathering Let the storm rage on
Die Kälte, sie ist nun ein Teil von mir The cold, it is now a part of me The cold never bothered me anyway

Tautology number two: "was war ist jetzt vorbei". No, really?!

I really hate the trailing syllable at the end of the second line here, ge-BOR-en. It feels so anticlimactic.

I know I said I loved the German version, and I do, and I seem to have spent a lot of time talking about things I don't like about it! I have a huge amount of respect for the art and craft of translation, and I think it's super important to stress that while I may nitpick at certain things, these little things are really insignificant in the big picture. It's also much easier to talk about things you don't like than about things you do.

The point of a translation of a creative work such as this is how it makes you feel, and I must admit that in this respect I am a partisan of the German language, for reasons already mentioned above.

This post is part of the Parallel Translation series, where I translate things that have been translated from English into other languages back into English. It's my idea of fun. Yes, I'm a riot at parties.

The TestDaF Quest: Learning to Listen

What have I gotten myself into?

I’ve definitely overcommitted, I think. I recorded two German songs last week because I missed a song in week one, and I’m going to miss it again this week. Doing the recording is a time investment of several hours, and it’s clear to me at this point that this is not the speaking practice I need. I find myself far more concerned with things like rhythm, pitch, and harmony, and a lot less with the pronunciation of words, which frankly is a much simpler thing to deal with! I’m going to have to sleep on the speaking exercises for a while.

The German podcast listening project has also foundered. After a strong start when I listened to German public radio obsessively for one and a half days, I realised it wasn’t working for me, and I knew why: I wasn’t working at figuring out what was being said. The kind of casual listening that you can do in your first language is much more difficult in a second language. Listening might be considered a “passive” skill, but unless you’re listening actively, no information is being processed at all.


In August 2008, I decided I was going to try to learn Spanish, and I was going to do it out of a book.’

How I did it and what I learnt from doing it that way is perhaps a story for another time, but I decided to set myself a very ambitious target. I knew I was going to be a film major in college, but I decided that I wanted to double major in Spanish, too. I did some digging into the major requirements and course catalogues of both departments, and I realised that I would need to place into at least Spanish 4 in my first semester.

That became my target: to teach myself enough Spanish to land in Spanish 4 within a year. (As things turned out, I didn’t get to college until Fall 2010, which probably helped.)

I had plenty of reading material, and I could teach myself to write. Finding appropriately-pitched listening material was a challenge, though, and I ended up mostly neglecting that part. And as for speaking, well, there wasn’t anyone to speak Spanish to, and I didn’t go out of my way to find a conversation partner.

The placement test did not include a speaking or listening component. I made it and placed into Spanish 4, which turned out to be the first class of my college career.

Until 7:59am on that first Tuesday morning, I was under the impression that the class would be taught in a mixture of English and Spanish, and so when the professor started class at 8am by spewing out a stream of Spanish, I panicked.

To this date, I do not think my brain has ever worked as hard as it did those first 75 minutes of college. Every last iota of my attention and energy went into parsing the sounds and sentences swirling around the classroom. Many of these words I had only ever seen in print. Everyone introduced themselves, and when it came to my turn, that was the first time I had ever spoken in Spanish to another person.

This listening and speaking stuff - I was going to have to learn how to do it, fast.

About halfway through that first semester of my freshman year of college, sitting in my dorm room, I found myself looking at Eurovision videos. As a Spanish major wannabe, I naturally searched out Spain’s Eurovision entry.

It was Algo pequenito, sung by Daniel Diges:

Listening to it, I noticed something - I understood it. Not all of it, but enough that I could probably fill in the blanks quite easily. To test this, I put the song on repeat and transcribed it - and I managed to get 80% of it just by listening. A dictionary and some guessing took care of the last 20%.

This was a first for me - I had gotten used to merely treading water in a sea of unfamiliar sounds, and occasionally thrashing madly to stay afloat. Now, I was discovering that I had somehow learnt to swim.


I’m modifying my German podcast listening exercise. Instead of simply “listening”, the task will be to choose a podcast episode and transcribe some portion of it. For now, for now I’m not going to set


Duolingo Progress Report

According to Duolingo, I am now 39% fluent in German, compared to 26% last week. I’m still sticking by my goal of completing the entire Duolingo German course by next Wednesday, 21 September 2016.

Everything before this point is complete, nothing after this point is complete:

I have 74 skills left to go in Duolingo, and just five days. Including strengthening skills as they decay, this means I have to be working through about 20 skills a day.

You could say that I made it much harder than it had to be. Here’s how much I’ve practised over the last week:

Well, I’m going to go for it, and I’ll let you know how it goes. Tschüss!

"Want" as Future Auxiliary in Singlish

Here's a little something I noticed a while ago. Singlish allows you to do something interesting with the verb "want", but only under certain circumstances.

For those who are familiar with German or with the history of the English language, you will notice that what I am about to outline in Singlish is a parallel phenomenon to what happened in English. German "will" means English "want" (verb). Formerly, in English, "will" did use to mean "want", and you can see this sense of the word in "last will and testament", or "I willed it into existence", or "where there's a will, there's a way." Now, of course, we primarily use "will" in English as a future auxiliary, to indicate that an action will be happening in the future.

This particular semantic drift most likely occurred because if you want something, it is in the future, not in the present. (As for why something similar didn't happen in German: language change is explainable but not predictable.)

I confess, the first time I was given this explanation, part of me refused to accept it. Of course my brain understood why it was likely, but the fact that "will" is already grammaticalised as a future auxiliary blinded me to the process - I could not conceive of making that leap from "will" as in "want" to "will" as in future tense. I took the explanation at face value but didn't like it.

So imagine how intrigued I was when, while working on a documentary, this gem of a Singlish sentence showed up in the Singaporean musical I was following:

"I eat until I want to bao zha (explode) already!"

Any Singlish speaker will recognise this as a valid construction. "Want" here, however, does not indicate volition. You cannot substitute "would like" in the sentence: "I would like to explode." Neither can you substitute "will": "I eat until I will explode." The only acceptable substitution is the "going to" future: "I eat until I [am] going to explode already."

The first explanation is that Singlish acquired this construction from Chinese, and you can see it in a direct translation:

"I eat until I want to explode already!"
我吃到我要爆炸了!

The question, then, is whether Chinese uses this construction to mark the future. The answer is: it does. Sort of.

As with many things in Chinese, the exact meaning is context-dependent, but take me at my word for now:

我要上学了。
Lit: I want to go to school already.
Meaning: I'm going to go to school now.

我们要吃饭了。
Lit: We want to eat already.
Meaning: We are going to eat now.

他们要走了。
Lit: They want to go already.
Meaning: They are going to go now.

Other meanings are possible, but I don't want to get too much into the complexities here. The important thing is, in all three cases, a Singlish speaker can hear the literal translation and accept the dynamic translation as meaning the same thing.

Without actually conducting full-scale research on this, my guess is that it is the "already" inchoative aspect marker that does the trick - when used together with "already", "want" is focused from a generalised volition down to a specific, immediate-future time frame. Take away the "already" or the 了, and suddenly volition becomes the preferred interpretation in almost any context:

我要上学。
Lit: I want to go to school.
Meaning: I want to go to school.

我们要吃饭。
Lit: We want to eat.
Meaning: We want to eat.

他们要走。
Lit: They want to go.
Meaning: They want to go.

Curiously, not all verbs can be used in all meanings with this construction. Not to be deliberately crude or morbid, but I think Singlish speakers will recognise these:

"I work until I want to die already."
"I want to vomit blood already."

The volition interpretation is not possible in the above sentences, in the same way it is not possible to willingly want or choose to explode.

The thing is, of course, when the verb has a neutral or positive connotation it is much easier to assume that volition is intended. For example, you would have no issues with the usual English definition of "want" in these sentences:

"I want to sleep already."
"I tired until I want to sleep already."

In fact, in the second sentence above, it is not possible to substitute "want" with the "going to" future. Volition is pretty much the only interpretation that makes sense.

The answer to untangling this construction lies somewhere in Chinese grammar. That's as far as I've worked it out in my head.