What is he saying?! Arabic Song Translations for Dancers:: A Guide (With Commentary)

arabiclanguage
The above (al 3rabiya) means ‘Arabic’ (as in the language) in standard Arabic…and it also means car/moving vehicle in Egyptian. Yup. Ahlan wa Sahlan (Welcome!) to Arabic!

Belly dancers use Arabic, Turkish and North African music and songs to dance to—-at least they do in my world—-and that means an extra step for the second language practitioner and those of us working from outside source cultures to figure out what a song is about. I will share some predominantly Arabic lyric translation sites I like, though this whole post is presented with a huge disclaimer—-language is always about more than the words! Think of all the idioms, euphemisms, and slang you know in your first language and imagine having to explain them to a language learner (I teach ESL and get to explain things like that for a living—-trust me when I say it is a never-ending part of the job!). Sometimes we can easily learn the ‘superficial’ or dictionary meaning of a song, but that is not always telling us the idiomatic, cultural, or second level meaning. And wherever you are in your language journey, please remember there is nothing like working with a native speaker when it comes to translations.

But we have to start somewhere. Here are some sites that are consistently useful:

itsallgreektome

All the Lyrics (Arabic Section–they have many languages represented over there, though)
You can find so much here—-use the search button, but bring a little patience, and multiple spellings, as well!

Arabic Music Translation
Chris Gratien put together an amazing resource as part of his own Arabic language studies. Sadly no longer updated, but worth bookmarking.

Shira
Shira has compiled a large collection of translated lyrics specifically for belly dancers.

Golden Arabic Lyrics
A nice collection, though many songs are just transliterations. If you are on facebook you should join their group as well.

Egyptian Arabic Dialect Course
This is also a site by Chris Gratien, and is useful for folks who want to learn Egyptian Arabic. He does a lot of the lessons through songs.

Orientaldancer.net
There are some great translations here, also with the belly dancer in mind.

I have a few songs over at my site.

Amina has some at her site as well.

It is always worth doing a lyric and song search at the belly dance discussion forums at both Bhuz.com and Bellydance Forums.

La Reine
Mostly poetry and stories, but some nice translations.

Take advantage of buying music from producers who include booklets or lyrics in the liner notes. If you mainly download music, check to make sure you won’t get the benefit of lyrics if you buy the physical CD—-many CDs produced by dancers include lyrics as they know their consumer base wants the knowledge. You can also write musicians, producers and singers and let them know you want lyrics. I have had artists and musicians themselves kindly send me lyrics over the years, and it is good for them to know they have an international audience that wants this knowledge of their work.

I also think it is fine to ask your teachers in class, and if they don’t know, it is okay for them to find out that their students want to know.

Arabic_Alphabet

I can read Arabic which makes a big difference, and I also work with musicians who are used to my asking ‘hey what does that word mean’ every time I see them. But even without that knowledge or access to knowledge, there are a lot of resources out there! As dancers learning and in many cases performing (and therefore representing) dances from another culture, it is paramount we take the extra steps to know what we are dancing to. I would say a majority of dancers do their due diligence, and as a community I hope we continue to keep that up. Our dance mothers and grandmothers had a harder time getting information—-even I remember the days before the internet, when waiting for the annual convention or the Habibi magazine to arrive was the only way to find out what folks in other parts of the country and world were up to—-but with the resources available to us today, I dare say there is little excuse for performers of all levels not to at least get a sense of what a song is about.

italianforpizza

A few final tips and some personal anecdotes from my own experiences. If you hear the word ‘allah’ (‘god’) in a song, it does not mean it is automatically a religious song. Just like in English non-religious folks can say ‘oh my god’ or god willing’ as an exclamation, or religious folks can say similar things in a non-spiritual context. However, please feel free to let it give you pause, or at least make you dig up more information. If the song is a religious song—-please do not belly dance or perform to it as part of your public show. As a young dancer still in my teens, and just a few months in to working my first restaurant job, I saw another performer dance to a religious song, and the staff of the restaurant—-Palestinian, Moroccan, Pakistani by nationality, and a mix of practicing and ex-Muslims—-seemed to be amused (luckily) and offended (particularly in one guy’s case) at the same time. The owner faded out her music and she was left on the dance floor confused as to why she had been stopped in the middle of her show. It was painful to watch, but a great early lesson about what not to do.

Modern song lyrics can be hard sometimes even for native speakers to figure out. I used to meet my Egyptian Arabic language tutor every week at a cafe, and often I would have songs I wanted to translate (or songs I had attempted to translate that I wanted checked). There were a few times that he would laugh at the slang or terminology, and often it was new slang, slang from a class of people he felt were not doing justice to his country or culture, or just funny things he could figure out, but would never say himself. Other times there were political overtones to a song that were really good for me to know about. I have witnessed a few uncomfortable moments when American dancers performed with big toothy smiles to songs about being an immigrant in a strange land and feeling lonely and persecuted. While artists can transport us to other places, in those situations the disconnect was often too wide to bridge, and I was left wondering if the dancers were doing it on purpose, or just had not done their homework.

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I have had dancers talk about purposely choosing music without lyrics, so they are “safe” from having to figure out what the song is about. I can definitely understand this impetus, though it does mean closing oneself off to amazing songs. It is also not a foolproof plan. This strategy can work fine for instrumental songs—-but be aware that a lot of songs are in fact just instrumental versions of songs with lyrics, and anyone who knows the melody will know the words as well. That path won’t always get you off the hook.

This leads me to my next point: Not all music that has an Arabic rhythm is made for belly dancing! There is nothing wrong with being conservative in your choices and choosing songs that were written for dancers or that have become associated with dancing over time. I will never forget seeing someone belly dance to a national anthem. Beautiful dancing that was overshadowed by a bizarre music choice. As an outsider to a culture who wants to learn a social and professional art form, there is great power in dancing socially with folks and following their lead to learn social dance ‘etiquette’. For readers who have a similar cultural background to me—-hello 1980s and 90s America—-think about how you might dance differently at a party if ‘Stayin’ Alive’ came on, compared to ‘Baby Got Back’ compared to ‘Sexual Healing’. Think about how you would feel if a hired entertainer at your wedding danced to, say, ‘Billie Jean’—-even an instrumental version. While raqs sharqi/belly dance is not a ‘miming’ style dance—-we aren’t expected to act out the songs or tell a linear lyrical story with our dance—-the cultural knowledge of the moves you might do (or if you might choose to sit down) and emotional and facial expressions you might convey is important, as is larger cultural knowledge of songs you choose. Is it funny? Sad? Happy? Political? Suggestive? Corny? From a famous film everyone knows? Played at weddings? Funerals? Arab League meetings? Is it a bit dated, maybe something grandma would have danced to? Modern, maybe something older folks might not even call music? Was it used in a commercial for a cleaning product, or sung by a respected artist (or both?!)?

arabic-clock

I have had dance colleagues say to me ‘Eh, I always dance for people who don’t know Arabic or anything, it is all just gibberish to them.’ I find this problematic on several levels, not the least of which is that it completely underestimates an audience as well as the expected knowledge base of the pro or semi-pro dancer. If we are representing a dance form as professionals, we need to have done our homework—-and then some. I also think it is patently untrue—-you never, ever know who is going to be in your audience, and why take the chance of looking foolish (at best)? I have told my students about a time I participated in a dance variety show at a very large and upscale senior living home in the Western Addition/Japantown neighborhood of San Francisco. As I performed, I noticed a few staff members of the place hanging out in the back of the theater watching the show. When the chorus to my song came on, over half of them started singing along. It was great—-just the energy I needed to get more into it, just what the audience needed to see the connection between raqs sharqi and the music as well as between dancer and audience, and apparently just what these audience members/workers—-all Arab, Arab-American or of Middle Eastern/North African descent—-needed that day. We all had a blast. They stayed after the show to compliment me and say hello, and from that interaction I ultimately wound up being hired to dance at one of their cousin’s weddings a year later! Had I decided it didn’t matter and chosen a song that was not appropriate for belly dance, or for an afternoon show at a fancy schmancy place, or for my elders, or for my own self-respect—-I would have looked foolish, would have never met some nice people, would not have had as good of a show, and would have missed out on a future gig.

Be smart and knowledgeable in in your choices, enjoy the ongoing journey and process of learning, don’t be afraid to make mistakes as you go, never be afraid to ask for help and to ask questions, and may you always aim for joyful, meaningful dancing for yourself and your audiences!

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I would love it if you shared your own lyric resources in the comments–or even any of your own experiences of why knowing the words is a good idea. Dancers who focus on Turkish styles, any tips for great translation sites? If you need specific translations I have a few friends who will translate songs from Turkish and Arabic (most dialects) for reasonable prices—-I’m happy to make connections for folks, and get nothing out of the transaction.

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Published by

Monica Bee

I like crossword puzzles.

4 thoughts on “What is he saying?! Arabic Song Translations for Dancers:: A Guide (With Commentary)”

  1. Hi Monica – that’s a wonderfully useful post and I think you’re absolutely right about taking the trouble to really understand as much as possible about the words, the music and the culture that informed those words and that music; that inspired their existence.

    I remember, when we lived in Spain and the village school had their end of year party. It was open to the whole village. Every class had practised something to perform. It began at 9pm for the 3 year olds’ performance and went on until the early hours. The 9 year olds’ teacher had decided to set them to dance to an Eminem song. I don’t remember which song it was, but it was full of motherf***** this and that. Only 4 of us in the audience spoke English, so the local grannies were smiling and clapping along, the 9 year olds were smiling and dancing sevillanas on stage (and all the plosives of all the swear words were just punctuation for the stamping of their feet). For us it was surreal. For them and for the audience it was a catchy foreign song. And so it was. But it was so much more.

    Now, if it had been an adult dance troupe, they would have looked like puppets, rather than dancers who were moving to the music. They weren’t moving to all of the music. I’d expect the dancers in the US who don’t bother to find out about the context or the language of the music they dance to are similarly separate from the whole deep meaning of the songs themselves. They’re dancing on the surface – like those twirling dancers in music boxes. It’s a shame. For them and for their audience.

    1. Great–and painful–story!

      About 10 or 12 years ago I had an Egyptian friend staying at my house while she was in town. She is an amazing woman, a professor as well as an actress, artist, and singer—-she is not in the dance arts, though. She has ribbed me occasionally about dancing, all in good fun (I think! 😉 ). We talked about dancing a bit, maybe even watched a video together, and she made an off the cuff comment that struck me like a lightning bolt and has never, ever, left my mind. She said that sometimes foreign belly dancers look like they are doing aerobics to the music. It was the kind of honesty I could never pay for in a lesson, and it has influenced my thinking on counting to music, repetition, song choice, relaxing, choreography, and all sorts of other things. I don’t know if she knows how much I learned from that one small statement so many years ago, but S, if you are ever reading this —- متشكر قوي!!

      1. Hi Monica – She put it perfectly, didn’t she? Here in the UK, belly dance has morphed into a woman-of-all-sizes-friendly exercise class with a jingly scarf tied round your hips. It’s oddly Orientalist and it has affected people’s expectations when they see a performance – I’d guess it also affects professional dancers who give belly dance classes. It must blur the edges of their own practice.

        It’s strange how there’s a wish among students for ballet and tango to be taught ‘properly’ and the discipline is an accepted and welcomed part of the class. Tango, especially, attracts a one-upmanship of authenticity here. (Whether an Argentine would find any of it authentic is another matter!) With belly dance, it’s fighting against this kind of thing http://bit.ly/15CDuEY

        Your students and your audience are lucky that you’re making the effort to consciously acquire all the details that would have been second nature to you if you’d grown up in Egypt. It reminds me of the way native English speakers drop phrasal verbs into their conversation without thinking – we breathed them in as children and they’ve woven themselves into our speech, even though most people, unless they’ve taught English as a Foreign/Second language would have no idea that Phrasal Verbs are a special thing. But then you see ESL/EFL students trying to make sense of them, and learning great lists of them, and you realise how painlessly we acquired them and how intrinsic they are to our language.

        I remember, when we lived in Andalucia, our son went on a school trip up to the Sierra Nevada in ‘Snow Week’. At the back of the bus, the kids entertained themselves for hours with clapping rhythms – flamenco-style clapping rhythms. None of them were flamenco aficionados, they didn’t come from flamenco families and nobody had officially taught them to clap like that. But it was in their blood, or in the air they breathed somehow. A British school trip would never involve 9 year olds creating clapping rhythms at the back of the bus. But then, the Andalucian children will have struggled with phrasal verbs when they got to grips with English.

  2. I often compare learning and teaching a cultural dance with learning and teaching a second language! Vocabulary (movements), grammar (rules), sentences (combinations), putting in your own personality, making mistakes in order to grow…there are lots of correlations.

    There are many wonderful, thoughtful people in the global belly dance world doing amazing work, and I’d say there is more of a conversation around Orientalism than I have ever seen before (after being in the biz for over 20 years). I am a proponent of health at every size, and have no issue at all with folks who choose dance as a hobby, exercise, or just for fun. I am very happy when my dance teacher colleagues contextualize what is happening in the studio, even if only for an hour each week, in real life terms rather than all the fantasy and wishtory that is floating around. I do know I can only do the work I want to do and see out there, and have no control over others. But the conversations about everything from cultural appropriation, stage names, Orientalism, attempts at codification of the dance form from outside source cultures, and all sorts of other interesting things are definitely happening!

    On the one hand it seems straightforward, but oh how deceptive that can be–ultimately it is complicated to the point that we as a (again, global) community can’t even always agree on what the current incarnations of the dance form should be called.

    It’s rarely boring, though, I’ll tell you that! And I find that as long as I keep going back to the music, I tend to find answers I can live with.

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