A Note About Notes


No, I don’t “write the songs that make the whole world sing.” I don’t even LIKE Barry Manilow, as a matter of fact. I don’t even “write” the songs, I’ll confess. But…

“I translate the songs that make the Palawano church sing,” and that’s a blessing, and a fun evening hobby. Did you ever wonder what we missionaries do in the tribe without cable TV in the evenings? Well, there’s one answer. Actually some missionaries HAVE cable TV. We don’t (thank goodness!)
Translating worship music, or any songs, is an interesting challenge. For one thing, songs often contain very deep concepts expressed in a poetic way. (Uh… that’s why the touch our hearts and lift our spirits as we sing!) This is not easy to carry over to another language.

But most people don’t realize some of the specific issues.

The first issue in translating English worship songs into Palawano is syllables. Yep. Betcha never even think about syllables while you sing. But while our tongue has a lot of long words, we speak with lots of small words, words that do not have more than one syllable (for example that last sentence with 26 words, where “syllable” is the only multi-syllabic word!)

It’s not just prepositions and such that are monosyllabic. English has a lot of short words that have real content. Think about these: God, grace, praise, love, save, pray…. etc. In Palawano, there is no such thing as a verb with one syllable. Here’s a short list for you as a comparison….

God (1) Empo (2)
faith (1) pengumana (4)
hope (1) peg-erapen (4)
grace (1) kenunganan (4)

See the problem? There is just no way to make the translation of the song fit the tune without serious adjustment. I have to wind up “saying something nice” that as closely approximates the original as possible. It’s a puzzle, a challenge… it’s fun, but sometimes really hard. Surprisingly, though, often the general sense and mood of the song can be brought over.

There’s more. It’s not enough to get a phrase with the same number of syllables as the tune (that actually says something!). The accented syllables have to fall on the accented notes in the melody.

For example, you have:
a-MAZ-ing GRACE how SWEET the SOUND.

But it would not work so well, as:
dai-LY bread IS real-LY need-ED

But even that, if sung with a jaunty, off-beat form, is acceptable in English. But Palawano will not allow syllables to be wrongly accented just to fit a tune.

So a little more tweaking is required to get a final result that really works.

But praise is sweet to the ear of God. And nothing lifts our spirits and unites a congregation like singing. When meaningful words, poetry, singing out loud, rhythm, melody and harmony converge, the whole person is involved in a way that no other activity can even approximate.

The Palawanos love to sing. They call out the numbers for song after song each time we meet, often singing dozens in one service. Different individuals have their favorites. Ula always calls #55 from her wheelchair. Every week. Teresa and her giggly 12-year-old friends want #19. The believers here get really excited to learn new songs, which often become the latest crowd-pleasers.

So it’s worth the effort. Plus it’s a fun hobby, like I said. Even better than having cable TV.

About billdavisthoughts

From San Diego, CA. I've been a missionary and Bible translator in the Philippines for over 30 years and have travelled as a language learning consultant to 15 countries. I play piano and guitar. I write, read voraciously and love to work on word puzzles. Married for 35 years, we have two daughters and two grandchildren.
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