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!

ES > EN: Libre soy

As far as the Spanish language goes, Castilian Spanish will always have a special place in my heart. It's what I started learning, and I feel a real affinity for Spain, its cities and its languages.

However, after much remonstration with myself, I have to admit that I think the Latin American Spanish translation of Let It Go is better than the Castilian Spanish one.

Take a look and decide for yourself.

Spanish version

English translation

English version

La nieve pinta la montaña hoy The snow paints the mountain today The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
No hay huellas que seguir There are no footprints to follow Not a footprint to be seen
En la soledad, un reino In the solitude, a kingdom A kingdom of isolation
Y la reina vive en mí And the queen lives in me And it looks like I'm the queen
El viento ruge, hay tormenta en mi interior The wind roars, there's a storm inside me The wind is howling like the swirling storm inside
Una tempestad que de mí salió A tempest that came out of me Couldn't keep it in, heaven knows I tried

I really like the image of snow painting a mountain, and "no footprints to follow" feels more evocative to me than "no footprints left". Everything about this translation feels really alive to me, though I can't say I can pin down what gives me that impression.

Spanish version

English translation

English version

Lo que hay en ti What you have in you Don't let them in
No dejes ver Don't let it be seen Don't let them see
Buena chica A good girl Be the good girl
Tú siempre debes ser You must always be You always had to be
No has de abrir tu corazón You must not open up your heart Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know
Pues ya se abrió Well, now it's open Well, now they know

It's really difficult not to mentally compare two translations of the same language. Here I especially like the relationship between the last two lines, which is missing in the Castilian Spanish version.

Incidentally, I wasn't able to find a reference for this, at least not quickly. I rarely see "haber de" + verb in popular usage, but it's used here presumably because the more natural translation, "tener que" + verb requires too many syllables. What I've just realised I don't know is what it means when negated. "Haber de" usually means "must" or "have to", but does "no haber de" mean "must not" or "don't have to"? In both the Castilian Spanish version and here I've translated it as "must not", because "you don't have to open up your heart" makes zero sense, but I realise I actually don't know for sure.

Tsk, so much for being a Spanish major.

Spanish version

English translation

English version

Libre soy, libre soy I am free, I am free Let it go, let it go
No puedo ocultarlo más I can't hide it any more Can't hold it back any more
Libre soy, libre soy I am free, I am free Let it go, let go
Libertad sin vuelta atrás Freedom with no turning back Turn away and slam the door
Qué más da, no me importa ya It doesn't matter, I don't care any more I don't care what they're going to say
Gran tormenta habrá There will be a great storm Let the storm rage on
El frío es parte también de mí The cold too is a part of me The cold never bothered me anyway

Yes, I translated "qué más da" differently each time. I don't know, Castilian Spanish Elsa sounds more "heck-care", as we say in Singapore, and Latin American Spanish Elsa seems to have more of a coherence about her, so it seemed appropriate to translate them slightly differently even when the words were the same.

I can see a case for choosing "the cold is also a part of me" over "the cold too is a part of me", but I have an inexplicable preference for "too" here, and I also inexplicably want it in a position other than at the end of the sentence. Maybe it reflects my expectation that "también" should have come before the verb? Since I expected "también" elsewhere, maybe that's why I decided to stick "too" in an unexpected position to mirror that unexpected syntax. I need a synonym for "expect" and all its derivative forms.

Spanish version

English translation

English version

Mirando a la distancia Looking into the distance It's funny how some distance
Pequeño todo es Everything is small Makes everything seem small
Y los miedos que me ataban And the fears that used to tie me down And the fears that fears once controlled me
Muy lejos los dejé I've left them far behind Can't get to me at all
Voy a probar qué puedo hacer I'm going to test what I can do It's time to see what I can do
Sin limitar mi proceder Without limiting my behaviour To test the limits and break through
Ni mal ni bien ni obedecer No evil, no good, no obeying No right, no wrong, no rules for me
¡Jamás! Never! I'm free

Two decisions were involved in "I've left them far behind":

  1. Present perfect or simple present?: Latin American Spanish tends to prefer the preterite where Castilian Spanish would use the present perfect. So, when translating a preterite verb form from Latin American Spanish, there's some latitude to choose between the present perfect and the simple present. If one of my students came to me with this question, I'd call "leaving [her fears] far behind" an accomplishment, necessitating the use of the present perfect.
  2. Far behind or far away?: "Lejos" is more accurately "far away", but "to leave something far away" doesn't ring as right as "to leave something far behind". Translator's licence.

I can't say that "sin limitar mi proceder" is my favourite line (litotes!) It feels a bit stiff.

Spanish version

English translation

English version

Libre soy, libre soy I am free, I am free Let it go, let it go
El viento me abrazará The wind will embrace me I'm one with the wind and sky
Libre soy, libre soy I am free, I am free Let it go, let go
No me verán llorar They'll never see me cry You'll never see me cry
Firme así, me quedo ahí [Standing] strong, I'm staying there Here I stand and here I'm staying
Gran tormenta habrá There will be a great storm Let the storm rage on

I mulled over "firme así" for a long time. I feel like the expression that corresponds most closely is "to hold fast", but I wanted an adjective, and "fast" by itself doesn't quite cut it. "Firme así" is perhaps closer to "strong like this". I'm not happy with this translation, but at some point you have to put some words down on paper and move on.

It's a bit of a mystery to me why it's "me quedo ahí", "I'm staying there", instead of "me quedo aquí", "I'm staying here".

Spanish version

English translation

English version

Por viento y tierra mi poder florecerá Through wind and earth my power will flourish My power flurries through the air into the ground
Mi alma congelada en fragmentos romperá My frozen soul will shatter into fragments My soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around
Ideas nuevas pronto cristalizaré Soon I will crystallise new ideas And one thought crystallises like an icy blast
No volveré jamás I will never go back I'm never going back
No queda nada atrás There's nothing left back there The past is in the past

Here's where I think this translation really distinguishes itself from the Castilian Spanish one. I find those first two lines so much more potent. "Through wind and earth" feels a lot more all-encompassing than "the bowels of the earth", and the image of a shattering soul, somehow, feels a lot more powerful than a growing one. Just me? Okay, just me then.

That third line, "ideas nuevas", has got to be just about the only time in Spanish a clause begins with a noun without an article. Strictly speaking, it shouldn't happen, but I guess when you have a strict form that's not designed for your language, you do what you have to do to make the words fit (c.f. siempre with the imperfect).

I far prefer "no queda nada atrás" to the Castilian Spanish version's "el pasado ya pasó" (the past has already passed). I know it's trying to stick close to the English version, but the latter is a bit too much of a tautology for my liking.

Spanish version

English translation

English version

Libre soy, libre soy I am free, I am free Let it go, let it go
Surgiré como el despertar I will rise like the awakening And I'll rise like the break of dawn
Libre soy, libre soy I am free, I am free Let it go, let go
Se fue la chica ideal The ideal girl is gone That perfect girl is gone
Firme así a la luz del sol [Standing] strong in the light of the sun Here I stand in the light of day
Gran tormenta habrá There will be a great storm Let the storm rage on
El frío es parte también de mí The cold too is a part of me The cold never bothered me anyway

When I look at "se fue la chica ideal", the comparison that jumps to mind is the Catalan "ja no em portaré bé" (I won't behave well any more). There's a pretty big difference between "the ideal girl is gone" and "I'm going to behave badly!!!"

Overall, I think this is a really solid translation that keeps its eye on the big picture and tries to make the song make sense as a whole.


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.

ES > EN: Suéltalo

Following my parallel translation of the Catalan version of Let It Go, I bring you the Castilian Spanish version, also performed by Gisela.

(I feel it is necessary to point out here that Gisela, besides being the Spanish and Catalan voices of Disney, also did this in Eurovision. Enjoy!!!)

Spanish version

English translation

English version

La nieve brilla esta noche aquí más The snow shines here tonight once more The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Ni una huella queda ya Not a footstep remains now Not a footprint to be seen
Soy la reina en un reino I'm the queen in a kingdom A kingdom of isolation
De aislamiento y soledad Of isolation and solitude And it looks like I'm the queen
El viento aúlla y se cuela en mi interior The wind howls and seeps into me The wind is howling like the swirling storm inside
Lo quise contener, pero se escapó I tried to contain it, but it escaped Couldn't keep it in, heaven knows I tried

I'd love to say something here about Spanish "aullar" being related to English "owl", but the truth is, the relationship isn't entirely clear to me. What does seem indisputable is that "aullar" and "ululation" share an etymology. "Owl" may have derived from a similar Proto-Germanic imitative word with the same meaning, but that doesn't mean they came from the same root. I haven't seen anything to definitively link Proto-Germanic *uwwalon- with Latin ululō.

Spanish version

English translation

English version

No dejes que Don't you let Don't let them in
Sepan de ti Them know of you Don't let them see
Que no entren Don't let them in Be the good girl
Siempre me dijo a mí [He] always said to me You always had to be
No has de sentir, no han de saber You must not feel, they must not know Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know
Ya qué más da It doesn't matter now Well, now they know

Fascinating that the Catalan version uses "sempre em deia a mi", the imperfect, while the Castilian Spanish version uses the preterite. As any student of Spanish knows, "siempre" is supposed to be used with the imperfect, not the preterite!

Well, to tell you the truth, it's probably not that fascinating. I'm thinking it's probably because of stress patterns. Translating a song imposes a certain stress pattern on your lines:

[beat] | Sem- | -pre em | dei- | -a a | mi (Catalan, imperfect)
Siem- | -pre | me | di- | -jo a | (Spanish, preterite)
You | al- | -ways | had | to | be

Below, I've typed up the Catalan periphrastic preterite and the Spanish imperfect forms. Bold indicates where the stress needs to fall to work with the song, italic indicates where the stress would naturally fall when spoken.

[beat] | Sem- | -pre em | va | dir | -me (Catalan, periphrastic preterite)
Siem- | -pre | me | de- | -cí- | -a a | (Spanish, imperfect -- behold, an extra syllable!)
You | al- | -ways | had | to | be

(Yes, the stress should fall on "siem-" and not "-pre", but given how quick that note is, I guess we can let it go.)

The above is brought to you by the Department of Fuzzy Logic, also known as the Ministry of Making Stuff Up. I really have no idea why "siempre" is used here with the imperfect, and how grammatical it is.

Spanish version

English translation

English version

Suéltalo, suéltalo Let it go, let it go Let it go, let it go
No lo puedo ya retener I can't keep it in any more Can't hold it back any more
Suéltalo, suéltalo Let it go, let it go Let it go, let go
Ya no hay nada que perder There is nothing left to lose now Turn away and slam the door
Qué más da, ya se descubrió What does it matter, it's been discovered I don't care what they're going to say
Déjalo escapar Let it escape Let the storm rage on
El frío a mí nunca me molestó The cold never bothered me The cold never bothered me anyway

I persist in translating "ya" as "now" in some places, even though it's rather unnecessary: what's the difference between "there's nothing left to lose" and "there's nothing left to lose now"? I guess I translate it because I like to account for as many words as possible from the original, and also because, as I mentioned in the Catalan translation, "ya" reminds me of Singlish "already".

Spanish version

English translation

English version

Desde la distancia From the distance It's funny how some distance
Qué pequeño todo es How small everything is Makes everything seem small
El temor que me aferraba The fear that used to grip me And the fears that fears once controlled me
No me va a hacer volver Is not going to come back Can't get to me at all
Soy libre y ahora intentaré I'm free and now I'll try It's time to see what I can do
Sobrepasar los límites To overcome the limits To test the limits and break through
Ya no hay más reglas para mí There are no rules now for me No right, no wrong, no rules for me
¡Por fin! At last! I'm free

There's that imperfect again, which I've again rendered as "used to" + verb.

I think what's most striking about this passage is how little information is conveyed in Spanish compared to English. Spanish seems to require about twice as many syllables to say the same thing as English, so Spanish translations sometimes have just half the information of the English original.

You see that a little bit here: the first line loses "it's funny how", and the second loses "makes". Catalan, which unlike Spanish has many lexical monosyllabic words, matches English's transmission of meaning practically syllable for syllable in these two lines.

Spanish version

English translation

English version

Suéltalo, suéltalo Let it go, let it go Let it go, let it go
Que el frío reine ya Let the cold reign now I'm one with the wind and sky
Suéltalo, suéltalo Let it go, let it go Let it go, let go
No volveré a llorar I'll never cry again You'll never see me cry
Aquí estoy y aquí estaré Here I am and here I'll be Here I stand and here I'm staying
Déjalo escapar Let it escape Let the storm rage on

Eh, I don't have much to say about the above. Moving on.

Spanish version

English translation

English version

En las entrañas de la tierra puedo entrar In the bowels of the earth I can enter My power flurries through the air into the ground
Mi alma crece y hace espirales sin parar My soul grows and makes spirals endlessly My soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around
Y un pensamiento en mí surgió y cristalizó And a thought surges and crystallises in me And one thought crystallises like an icy blast
Ya no regresaré I'll never go back now I'm never going back
El pasado ya pasó The past has already passed The past is in the past

This part is really fun to translate in any language, because there's a lot of room for imagery. Unfortunately I feel this Spanish translation falls a bit flat here. Flurries and spiralling are two really strong, movement-oriented verbs. The Spanish version trades the verbs for powerful nouns: entrañas and espirales, but nouns can't drive a sentence like verbs can.

I so, so wanted to stick "endless" before "spirals", for "[my soul] makes endless spirals", but "sin" + noun and "con" + noun phrases generally correspond to adverbs in English, so again, to expose the nuts and bolts of the language, "makes spirals endlessly" it is. It does sound much better in Spanish than it does in English, I promise.

Spanish version

English translation

English version

Suéltalo, suéltalo Let it go, let it go Let it go, let it go
Subiré con el amanecer I will rise with the dawn And I'll rise like the break of dawn
Suéltalo, suéltalo Let it go, let it go Let it go, let go
La farsa se acabó The farce is over That perfect girl is gone
Que la luz salga otra vez Let the light come out again Here I stand in the light of day
Déjalo escapar Let it escape Let the storm rage on
El frío a mí nunca me molestó The cold never bothered me The cold never bothered me anyway

The purist in me wanted to translate "se acabó" in the same tense as it is in Spanish: "[it] ended", "[it] finished". That's not realistic, though -- "se acabó" really means something more akin to "that's it", "that's all". So, "the farce is over" it is.


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.