The Colourful Languages of the Eurovision Song Contest

The Colourful Languages of the Eurovision Song Contest
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The Colourful Languages of the Eurovision Song Contest

Taking singing multilingual

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! That’s right, for one night, people all over the world are annually united in their love for cheesy pop music, highly questionable costume choices and decades-old diplomatic grudges. Of course, it’s none other than the Eurovision Song Contest .

Shooting the likes of Celine Dion and ABBA into the spotlight, Eurovision is a firm favourite all over the globe, boasting a whopping 180 million viewers. This year’s contest comes from Stockholm in Sweden, and will see 26 nations compete on the same stage, all in the hope of getting those coveted 12 points. With so many nations competing, what language rules are there? How do different languages fair in the contest? And how on earth do you know what on earth they’re singing about? We’ve compiled all the facts you’ll ever need to know (and some you probably won’t) about the rich and varied languages of Eurovision.
The Basics
First things first – each song has to have words. Purely instrumental pieces aren’t allowed, but rules surrounding the languages those words have to be sung in have changed a lot over the contest’s 60 years. At Eurovision’s conception in 1956, entrants were allowed to sing in whatever language they wished. After a controversial English-language entry by Sweden in 1965, this rule was changed, and all competitors were required to sing in their national language (or one of them, at least – South Africa has 11 ‘official’ languages!). Since then the rule has been confusingly changed at least three times, with the contest finally settling on the rule they started out with – allowing any language to be used. With many seeing English as the lingua franca of pop music, the language used to represent a nation in the contest can be an important factor in its success. Historically, songs in English have dominated the competition, followed by entries in French and Spanish. English certainly dominates where the winning entries are concerned. The last wholly non-English language winner was in 2007 when Marija Šerifović took the title for Serbia – the first since 1998 when Dana International won with her Hebrew rendition of Diva. After the Serbian win, the contest saw a growth in foreign-language entries, with half of all songs sung in a language other than English. .
Non-existent languages
When the rules stipulate any language, this even applies to ones that are entirely fictional! The first time this happened was in 2003, when Belgium’s Urban Trad performed the song, Sanomi in a language made up purely for the song. ‘They’ve got four languages in Belgium… and they’re singing in an imaginary one. The very essence of the Euro!’ was Terry Wogan’s particularly Wogan-esque response. On the face of it, it sounds ludicrous, but this language gimmick almost won them the title. They lost out to Turkey by a measly two points. Jumping on the bandwagon, two more entries have used ‘fake’ languages since then, but neither with as much success as Urban Trad.
Mixing it up
Many entrants even combine both their national language and English in a bid to get the best of both worlds. Controversially, in 2007, France decided to sing their entry in Franglais – a hybrid mish-mash of French and English, which (unsurprisingly) horrified the French and apparently the rest of the world, and the song bombed in second to last place. Nul points indeed! In some cases, songs are re-written in English after winning the national contest in their own language. In 2005 Macedonia even took a vote on whether to sing at Eurovision in Macedonian or English, and in the end Martin Vučić’s Ti Si Son was translated into Make My Day. His day sadly wasn’t made, however, finishing in a mediocre 17th place.
Translating Lyrics
Eurovision has had entries in dozens of languages and dialects, from Arabic to Creole, and beyond. But take a tip from us this year – switch on the subtitles! Each song is handily translated into English beforehand, so you can finally work out what they’re singing about. Contact us today to talk about your translation needs.