Multilingual Christmas

I am lucky to have a pretty multilingual family, so it happened that Christmas carols this year were in German, Spanish and Latin as well as English. There is something really mind-blowing to me about hearing familiar songs in other languages, about all the different ways people have of celebrating the same holiday.

In that vein, here’s a collection of some holiday songs in various languages

Stille Nacht – Silent Night in German

3eid al Leil – Silent Night in Arabic

Sung by the amazing Fairuz (a Lebanese singer famous and well-loved all over the Arab world. In Egypt and the Sham anyways, the tradition is cafe’s play Fairuz in the morning and Oum Kalthoum at night). I hadn’t actually realized she was a Christian, but she is.

Es ist für uns eine Zeit angekommen – Unto Us a Time Has Come

We don’t actually have this song in English, as far as I know, or if we do, it’s not one of the best known ones, but it still sounds vaguely similar. I assume this is because the style of the music comes from a similar place.

Adeste Fideles – O Come All Ye Faithful

My grandmother used to love the Latin version. Like a number of other Christmas carols, O Come all Ye Faithful was actually written and sung originally in Latin and later translated into English and other languages.

Kinna Nizayin Shajra Saghira – God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen in Arabic (sort of)

The interesting thing with Fairuz’s versions is that they’re mostly not translations so much as they are new Christmas songs using the same tunes, so for example, Kinna Nizayin Shajra Saghira means We all Were Decorating a Little Tree, and goes on a bit about the tree and making it pretty, and bells and things, and there’s pretty much no mention of Merry Gentlemen and saving straying sinners from Satan.

El niño del tambor – The Little Drummer Boy in Spanish

This one is American specifically, and was translated into Spanish. A lot of the translated English/European carols are popular in Latin America. But of course the Spanish language also has it’s own carols that originated in Spanish. Por exemplo…

Los Peces En El Rio – The Fishes in the River

This song is a villancico, which is a style of music/poetry that was popular in the Iberian peninsula late 1400’s – late 1700’s. The word apparently now means specifically Christmas carols because the villancico is really a current form for other topics anymore.

If you’re not into the 80’s version, the Gypsy Kings do a pretty cool version too:

Cancion del Adios – Auld Lang Syne in Spanish

Auld Lang Syne is originally in Scots, which is a medieval Scottish language still spoken by some Scottish people, though not so many anymore. As an aside, the Wikipedia article on Scots reminded me of the debate about the influence of English on Arabic and the use of colloquial Arabic, as Scots has been mostly replaced by English. E.g. the Scottish Department of Education’s policy was that “”…it is not the language of ‘educated’ people anywhere, and could not be described as a suitable medium of education or culture”.

Back to the song – it has been translated into a large number of different languages and seems to have taken on different meanings and functions in different places. For example, in Chile the Spanish version is sung at graduations (like this video), funerals and almost anytime someone is leaving and is kind of a farewell song, whereas in the U.S. it’s almost exclusively a New Year’s song. The Wikipedia page for the song has a fascinating rundown of versions of the song sung in 20 different countries and the different contexts in which people sing it. This is one of the reasons I love Wikipedia. It is not entirely reliable, but it has a wealth of information about popular culture around the world and things generally considered insignificant by the makers of formal encyclopedias.

Purano Sei Diner Kotha – Auld Lang Syne in Bengali

Skuld gammel venskab rejn forgo (Auld Lang Syne)

Hotaru no Hikari – Auld Lang Syne in Japanese

I actually think this version is prettier, but the words are hard to distinguish

After spending several glorious hours playing around on YouTube with different versions of songs in various languages (I don’t know why but this game really doesn’t get old for me), a few patterns emerged. It seems like no matter what the culture, there are 3 varieties of versions you can find on youtube: large numbers of children singing with angelic child photos, slick videos of celebrity singers trying to make the song way more complicated than necessary, and you generally get the feeling that deep down, they would much prefer to be singing something else, and fuzzy recordings with more or less the same set of Christmas-themed graphics, or a mixture of all of the above. Clearly the cheesy Christmas special is not just an American phenomenon. Here are some real gems:

Pretty much none of the versions available online sound much like the way I’m used to hearing them, which is also the way I prefer to hear them – sung by a group of friends and family.


5 thoughts on “Multilingual Christmas

  1. regarding Purano Sei Diner Kotha, there’s a bunch of literature talking about how Tagore was deeply influenced by Western music, and how there are a series of songs that he wrote that were on a continuum between straight-up translating a song into Bengali (like this one, that’s Bengali, not Hindi, that’s Uttam Kumar, one of the most famous Bengali singers/actors of his day, and a legend in my home), and progressively more abstract influences. Still tho, it’s weird – I think I heard this song 1000+ times as a kid, and never realized that it was exactly Auld Lang Syne until one of my Dad’s friends made a comment at a party, back in the early 90s…

    • Thanks for the correction! Even though I’ve read elsewhere that India has incredible linguistic diversity, some part of my brain always assumes Hindi is the language when I’m being told the location is India. It’s great to know that it’s a well-known movie – as an outsider you can’t necessarily tell from seeing from the clip whether you’ve dug up something obscure or something famous, well-loved, hated, controversial, etc. How does the Indian film industry deal with the language issue? Is there one language that’s dominant, are there separate film industries for different areas? Or it is easy enough for people to understand the other languages/dialects?

      • The history of Indian cinema sort of echoes India’s own crazy history. For example:
        – that song is by Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali writer who lived from around the 1860s to the 1940s. He was the first Indian author to win the Nobel Prize for literature, way back in 1913 or so; pretty much the first non-European writer to win the prize.
        – the filmmaker is Satyajit Roy, who is also Bengali; he made films almost exclusively in Bengali throughout his career. He was the first Indian filmmaker who was ever noticed by people outside India; his Apu trilogy generated a lot of international buzz, and I think he’s the only Indian filmmaker to ever get an Oscar (an honorary one he got, the year he died, if I remember correctly).
        – mainly because of the above two, Bengalis to this day have this reputation of being the state that produces artists, writers, etc. The stereotypical Bengali is an incurable romantic, head in the clouds, likes to sit in cafes and debate politics and expound endlessly about art, culture, history, … hmm… 🙂 Meanwhile, for mostly political reasons the Bengali film scene more or less died with Satyajit Ray; in fact the movie you link to is one of the last movies of the era (it was made in the mid-70s; most of Ray’s great movies happened between ~’59 and ~’83). By 1980, the Hindi films produced in Bollywood were already orders of magnitude more popular.
        – when India became independent in 1947, Nehru mandated that everyone learn Hindi. All the non-Hindi regions in India rebelled against this mandate, and the result was that none of the kids of that generation learned Hindi well. But then in the 1980s, Indians all started getting TVs; the national TV stations were all based in Delhi, and so there was a lot of Hindi. The by-then huge Bollywood film industry was making movies in Hindi. Bollywood + TV meant that everyone in India started watching Hindi movies at home, and 20 years later everyone (and I mean *everyone*) in India is functionally proficient at understanding Hindi.

    • Well, “mother tongue” is probably a vast overestimation of my current skills in Latin, which have deteriorated to the point of near-nonexistence, but it’s something I studied in high school and college at any rate.

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