Sukiyaki Westernised

Have you ever heard the song “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto? It’s a terrible name for what is one of the most beautiful, bittersweet and touching songs I’ve ever heard:

Originally called “Ue o Muite Arukou” (I Look Up As I Walk), This song’s claim to fame is reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts in the United States back in 1963. Fifty years on and it’s still the only Japanese-language song that can boast this.

It was given the less-than-dignified name “Sukiyaki” during the transition to an American audience, as at the time it was one of he only non-WWII related Japanese words that Americans were familiar with. And so it was.

It’s not really obvious from the upbeat, cheerful music and melody, but the general story of the song is the protagonist trying their best to stem the deep sadness in their heart. It’s a mixture of wistful nostalgia, heartbreak and resilience.

There are several English-language versions of the song, some of the more prominent ones being Jewel Akens’ slightly racially appropriative “My First Lonely Night” in 1966, and A Touch of Honey’s “Sukiyaki” in 1980. Sadly, none of the English language versions or translations of the song that I have seen or heard quite do this amazing piece of work justice, in my opinion. Whenever I tell this to people and try to explain what makes the original song so great, I don’t think I do it justice either. So I decided that the only way I could really get that across would be by translating the lyrics myself, my way.

It’s been a a while since I’ve written song lyrics, and I have never really translated them before, but working on this piece I recalled a lecture I attended once about the translation of musicals, held by one of the main people responsible for translating pretty much all English broadway musicals into Japanese.

He explained to us that translating music is so much more than translating just the words. You need to keep in mind the flow of the melody, the meter, etc. Not only that, but even if the word that you use is the best translation, if it sounds awkward when sung you may as well have translated it wrong. Keep in mind the pitch of the notes matching the shape of the mouth and the energy required to say certain words. Don’t make things hard on the singer.

This was all so true, I saw as I worked on this translation. I got the words and the meaning, but capturing the FEEL and MECHANICS of the song was another challenge altogether. But my, it was fun! I’m also pretty pleased with the results and feel confident now in showing others how beautifully bittersweet the lyrics are, especially juxtaposed with the cheerful-sounding melody. Read the lyrics while listening to the song to get a feel for what it would sound like sung:

I hold my head up high/As I’m walking by

So all the tears/That I cry/Might stop falling

I recall/Those happier spring days

In this, the night of the lonely

 

I hold my head up high/As I’m walking by

I count the stars/Though it’s hard/Through my bleary eyes

I recall/Those happier summer days

In this, the night of the lonely

 

Far beyond the clouds/Lies happiness, you’ll see

Far beyond the sky/Lies happiness, you’ll see

 

I hold my head up high/As I’m walking by

So all the tears/That I cry/Might stop falling

I walk and try to smile/Weeping all the while

In this, the night of the lonely

 

I recall/Those happier autumn days

In this, the night of the lonely

 

The shadows of the stars/Hide sadness far from me

The shadow of the moon/Hides sadness far from me

 

I hold my head up high/As I’m walking by

So all the tears/That I cry/Might stop falling

I walk and try to smile/Weeping all the while

In this, the night of the lonely

In this, the night of the lonely

上を向いて歩こう

涙がこぼれないように

思い出す春の日

一人ぼっちの夜

 

上を向いて歩こう

にじんだ星を数えて

思い出す夏の日

一人ぼっちの夜

 

幸せは雲の上に

幸せは空の上に

 

上を向いて歩こう

涙がこぼれないように

泣きながら歩く

一人ぼっちの夜

 

思い出す秋の日

一人ぼっちの夜

 

悲しみは星の影に

悲しみは月の影に

 

上を向いて歩こう

涙がこぼれないように

泣きながら歩く

一人ぼっちの夜

一人ぼっちの夜

Perhaps one day I’ll consider making my own recording of this version for people to really be the judge…

Having had so much fun with this song, I’ve started thinking that maybe there is another, entire genre of music that I could bring to others that they know why I love it so much: Japanese enka music (ie. depressing, melodramatic drinking songs best sung at karaoke with a bottle of sake by your side). Be sure to let me know if this it a reality you would like to see and maybe I’ll actually go through with it!

4 thoughts on “Sukiyaki Westernised

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