"Despacito" transcribed with Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English syllables

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This amazing song from Taiwan seems to have been inspired by some Japanese cultural practices, which we will explore later in this post.

First of all, the guy is singing Spanish, but using Mandarin and Taiwanese words, as well as a few short English words.  Well, he's not really singing, but transcribing with Chinese characters and a few English syllables a very famous Spanish song, "Despacito" ("Slowly"), sung beautifully by a Puerto Rican.  Not only do his transcriptions not make any sense on the whole, they amount to hilarious gibberish.

Second, ㄇㄇ樣, the handle of the artist, looks like a Japanese-style name.  I wouldn't know what ㄇㄇ mean if I interpret them as two Chinese characters, but I do recognize them as the repeated bopomofo symbol for the "m" sound, whose shape is derived from the archaic character and Kangxi radical 14 mì 冖 ("cover").  If we were pronouncing the 樣 à la japonaise, it would be "sama" ("Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms."), hence "Momo sama", but the way he himself pronounces his moniker is "Mōmō yàng".  In Chinese, yàng means "appearance; kind; sample; shape; form; pattern; style".

I can spot at least half a dozen Taiwanese expressions in the transcription, several of them originally from Japanese.

In the title of the YouTube video, after the artist's name comes this:  kōng'ěr gēcí 空耳歌詞, which literally means "empty ear lyrics".  That really looks Japanese — soramimi kashi.  What does it mean?  This is how the word is defined in jisho:  "homophonic translation of song lyrics for comic effect​".

Wikipedia tells us that it is:

a Japanese term for homophonic translation of song lyrics, that is, interpreting lyrics in one language as similar-sounding lyrics in another language. A bilingual soramimi word play contrasts with a monolingual mondegreen or homophonic transformation, and is usually caused by pareidolia. Soramimi transcription is also commonly used in animutations for comic effect.

Although soramimi has been quite popular in Japan for some time (see below), most informants from Taiwan and China that I asked about it had never heard of the word.

A language teacher told me that students often spontaneously use this technique as a mnemonic device for memorizing vocabulary items (e.g., dàogē 道哥 ["way brother"] for "dog"), but it becomes a tour de force when used to transcribe an entire song.  He comments further:

While the music video looks cute and funny, the transcriptions (mostly in Mandarin, with a few words in Taiwanese) are actually random and don't really make any sense. So, from a language teacher's perspective, I would say this is more entertaining than educational. The transcriptions are for the most part combinations of unrelated words and phrases, so translating them would be pointless and even a bit ridiculous. Maybe that's the intention of this kind of work. Nevertheless, I was really impressed with the time and effort that was put into making this work.

One of my correspondents tried to make a go of translating one section of the soramimi transcription.  She says that, although the meaning of the transcription is nothing like that of the original song, the words and expressions used in the transcription must have actual meanings and cannot be just a cluster of unrelated characters.

Starting from 0:41 in the video, the original Spanish lyrics are:

Sí, sabes que ya llevo un rato mirándote
Tengo que bailar contigo hoy

The actual meaning of this sentence is:

Yes, you know that I've been watching you for a while
I have to dance with you today

The Chinese transcription in this video is:

膝,小布希假借嚕馬桶,沒人投他
地公給芭樂跟地溝油

Xī, xiǎo Bùxī jiǎjiè lǔ mǎtǒng, méi rén tóu tā
dì gōng gěi bālè gēn dìgōu yóu

It sounds similar to the original lyrics but means something totally different. With the help of the pictures attached to the lyrics in the video, we may translate these verses as:

Knee, George W. Bush pretends to wash the toilet, but nobody votes for him.
Tudigong (God of Soil and Earth) gives gutter oil (repeatedly cooked oil) to a guava.

The word "despacito" as transcribed in the song is another good example of how soramimi transcription works in the hands of a skilled artist:

diē shì pà xǐtóu 爹是怕洗头 ("dad is afraid of shampooing")

Observations by Nathan Hopson on soramimi in Japan, its birthplace:

This is a great example of the 空耳 (soramimi) "genre," which refers to the phenomenon of hearing something (usually a snippet) as if it was in your native language because you don't understand the language being spoken. It was the subject of a long-running and often very funny TV show in Japan, featuring the famous comedian Tamori. His 空耳アワー (Soramimi awā = "Soramimi Hour") ran at least ten years.

Collections of "greatest hits" can be found here and here.

One of the more famous early soramimi YouTube videos was this one.

The song, which has lyrics in Romanian, was animated by a Japanese YouTuber according to what she heard. I recall that this was "viral" before we called videos "viral."

For the video at the top of this post, apparently a Taiwanese YouTuber is doing the same thing with the song "Despacito", which was a massive hit last year. It was everywhere, no matter how I tried to avoid it, having "topped the charts of 47 countries and reached the top 10 of ten others." (Wikipedia)

So the Taiwanese YouTuber is "hearing" the Spanish lyrics of "Despacito" in his/her native/familiar languages.

Here's the video of the original "Despacito" by Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee, with more than five billion (!) views:

And here are the lyrics to the Spanish song, if you want to try to match them to the Taiwan Mandarin version:

Ay
Fonsi
DY
Oh
Oh no, oh no
Oh yeah
Diridiri, dirididi Daddy
Go

Sí, sabes que ya llevo un rato mirándote
Tengo que bailar contigo hoy (DY)
Vi que tu mirada ya estaba llamándome
Muéstrame el camino que yo voy (Oh)

Tú, tú eres el imán y yo soy el metal
Me voy acercando y voy armando el plan
Solo con pensarlo se acelera el pulso (Oh yeah)

Ya, ya me está gustando más de lo normal
Todos mis sentidos van pidiendo más
Esto hay que tomarlo sin ningún apuro

Despacito
Quiero respirar tu cuello despacito
Deja que te diga cosas al oído
Para que te acuerdes si no estás conmigo

Despacito
Quiero desnudarte a besos despacito
Firmo en las paredes de tu laberinto
Y hacer de tu cuerpo todo un manuscrito (sube, sube, sube)
(Sube, sube)

Quiero ver bailar tu pelo
Quiero ser tu ritmo
Que le enseñes a mi boca
Tus lugares favoritos (favoritos, favoritos baby)

Déjame sobrepasar tus zonas de peligro
Hasta provocar tus gritos
Y que olvides tu apellido (Diridiri, dirididi Daddy)

Si te pido un beso ven dámelo
Yo sé que estás pensándolo
Llevo tiempo intentándolo
Mami, esto es dando y dándolo
Sabes que tu corazón conmigo te hace bom, bom
Sabes que esa beba está buscando de mi bom, bom
Ven prueba de mi boca para ver cómo te sabe
Quiero, quiero, quiero ver cuánto amor a ti te cabe
Yo no tengo prisa, yo me quiero dar el viaje
Empecemos lento, después salvaje

Pasito a pasito, suave suavecito
Nos vamos pegando poquito a poquito
Cuando tú me besas con esa destreza
Veo que eres malicia con delicadeza

Pasito a pasito, suave suavecito
Nos vamos pegando, poquito a poquito
Y es que esa belleza es un rompecabezas
Pero pa montarlo aquí tengo la pieza

Despacito
Quiero respirar tu cuello despacito
Deja que te diga cosas al oído
Para que te acuerdes si no estás conmigo

Despacito
Quiero desnudarte a besos despacito
Firmo en las paredes de tu laberinto
Y hacer de tu cuerpo todo un manuscrito (sube, sube, sube)
(Sube, sube)

Quiero ver bailar tu pelo
Quiero ser tu ritmo
Que le enseñes a mi boca
Tus lugares favoritos (favoritos, favoritos baby)

Déjame sobrepasar tus zonas de peligro
Hasta provocar tus gritos
Y que olvides tu apellido

Despacito
Vamos a hacerlo en una playa en Puerto Rico
Hasta que las olas griten "¡ay, bendito!"
Para que mi sello se quede contigo

Pasito a pasito, suave suavecito
Nos vamos pegando, poquito a poquito
Que le enseñes a mi boca
Tus lugares favoritos (favoritos, favoritos baby)

Pasito a pasito, suave suavecito
Nos vamos pegando, poquito a poquito
Hasta provocar tus gritos
Y que olvides tu apellido (DY)

Despacito

Songwriters: Erika Ender / Luis Fonsi / Ramon Ayala

[h.t. Grace Wu; thanks to Melvin Lee, Zeyao Wu, Xinchang Li, and Yixue Yang]



24 Comments

  1. Kevin Yeung said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 8:09 am

    Ha, I'm surprised it took the Language Log so long to discover this. :-) The transcription is genius. While it's true there's little connection between phrases, each phrase makes sense. The crude imagery adds to the appeal.

  2. Dliessmgg said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 8:26 am

    This kind of reminds me of those "misheard lyrics" videos that were quite popular in early youtube, including the way the video is edited.

  3. Mark Hansell said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 8:49 am

    For an English version of the same process applied to a Bollywood song, check out Benny Lava: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdyC1BrQd6g

  4. Vance Maverick said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 9:06 am

    Also check out Louis Zukofsky's quasi-homophonic translations of Catullus into English: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/library/Zukofsky-Catullus-excerpt.html.

  5. Ben Olson said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 9:31 am

    Isn't it pretty incorrect to translate the Japanese 樣 as "Mr. or Mrs."? 樣 is an honorific that's used for people who are considered very important, so using it for yourself would be cocky.

    From Wikipedia:

    "When used to refer to oneself, sama expresses extreme arrogance (or self-effacing irony), as in praising one's self to be of a higher rank, as with ore-sama (俺様, "my esteemed self")."

  6. david said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 9:32 am

    In the video, Despacito is not sung by a Spaniard but rather by a Puerto Rican. [VHM: thanks, fixed now]

  7. cameron said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 10:30 am

    The first example of this kind of inter-language lyrics reinterpretation that I remember going viral was back in 2003 – it was an animated video inspired by the nonsense Japanese lyrics that were a sound-for-sound approximation of the lyrics from a Russian pop song called "Nas Ne Dogonyat".

    I found a link to the video in an old email of mine, but it's no good anymore. I did find a reference to it in a blogger's archive, however. At this link – http://rungu.blogspot.com/2003_09_01_rungu_archive.html#106364876278497471 if you scroll down to the post of Monday, September 15, 2003 you'll find a discussion of the Russian lyrics and some notes on the Japanese nonsense derived from it.

  8. jpeah said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 11:04 am

    As others have mentioned, the name for this in English is "misheard lyrics". That can apply to interpretations of English lyrics as well, but I've mostly seen it applied to "translations" like this.

    My first introduction was this, from 2007: http://www.japaneatahand.com/ I'm sure there's earlier versions in English, but any pre-YouTube?

  9. Bruce Rusk said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 11:09 am

    For an even older version of this practice, there's Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames, a book of English nursery rhymes transcribed into French by the same principles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mots_d%27Heures

  10. ~flow said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRTdga-7_Bg is what brought this genre to Germany, for me at least. The most famous part of that song is Keks Alter Keks, ist der mit Ohrsand? (Cookie old cookie (or, cookie dude cookie), is it made with ear sand?); I'd really like to understand the Turkish original.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 12:14 pm

    Here's a less-upbeat story bringing together two of VHM's ongoing interests, misadventures with hanzi and the toxic impact of extreme PRC nationalism. https://nypost.com/2018/05/28/man-savagely-beaten-over-forehead-tattoo-he-got-while-drunk/

  12. Victor Mair said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 2:16 pm

    Thank you very much, J. W. Brewer. Highly topical.

  13. John Swindle said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

    For a variation, revisit the other day's "North Korean English" post:
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=38190
    Play the video and turn on closed captions in English. About halfway through, around 3:32, you'll start seeing English captions for the Korean. I could probably learn Korean that way. Don't get on an octagon so me soon Aaron!

  14. Terry Hunt said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 4:04 pm

    Per Bruce Rusk, it happens that my copy of Mörder Guss Reims, selected poems of Gustav Leberwurst is literally within arm's length as I type.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 4:43 pm

    Unrelatedly, a beautifully performed actual translation of Despacito – into Udmurt. (With a few seconds of Russian for effect.)

  16. Shihchuan said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

    Ah, yes the fond memory from a few months ago……:) Like Kevin Yeung said, I think the reason this video went so viral is partly because of the existing popularity of the song, partly because of the goofy images that go with it.

    I'm surprised that the informants from Taiwan have never heard of 空耳 (kōng'ěr): I think the majority of my friends, at least those in the younger generation (~20-30 yrs old), all know of this practice. And it has been around quite a while: the most famous one that I remember is is this video of the viral song in 2003 "Dragonstea Din Tei": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHMwKd0DzjY
    And the arrival of the most recent wave of K-Pop around ten years ago, with hits such as Super Junior's "Sorry Sorry", spurred another wave of this kind of videos.

    The word does come from Japanese, but I'm unaware if the practice came from Japan as well: I looked up some Japanese soramimi before, and it's done quite differently, the song is played with a seemingly unrelated video, and only the keyword/keyphrase was "misheard" (much like the buildup to a punchline).

    Also, I'm not sure if the "樣" in "ㄇㄇ樣" is really to be interpreted as the Japanese honorifics……it's not impossible, but it's an idea that didn't even cross my mind at all before now. Apparently he's an internet artist/youtuber, but he didn't specify the inspiration for his name anywhere obvious on his page.

    Another grand classic 空耳 that I remember is the one done on this *Mexican telenovela*, by the talented 柏慎 (Bó Shèn) (seriously ,his song covers in Taiwanese are amazing):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yl-yWV3Mg2o

    By the way, in French this practice is called "hallucination auditive"……I never would have guessed the name for it.

  17. Vance Maverick said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 8:16 pm

    Thanks to Bruce Rusk for the pointer to "N'Heures"….which I didn't realize was so old. In fact it probably antedates the Zukofsky. He wasn't averse to picking up miscellaneous items for his purposes (I'm thinking of one of those lists of "an exaltation of larks", etc.), so that might actually be where he got the idea.

  18. Biscia said,

    June 1, 2018 @ 4:52 am

    Although it's not nearly as ambitious, subtitling snippets of videos this way has been a popular joke in Italy for the last few years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7D37zESQeU

  19. Ben Orsatti said,

    June 1, 2018 @ 7:49 am

    Sorry to clog up the feed, but no discussion of this nature can be complete without the prime exemplar of this genre, "Hatten är din"!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgdfcKtRQW8

  20. Jichang Lulu said,

    June 2, 2018 @ 7:16 am

    A song from the Marathi film Aika Dajiba was Sinified as 一个大鸡巴 yīge dà jība 'a big cock' (also 爱个 ài ge 'love/like a'—) many years ago, to some acclaim. The relevant video seems no longer available. (Victor has previously discussed jība 鸡巴 in a Bieberian connection.)

    Further in this ubi sunt, penile vein: Messrs Jiba, travel agents in the Netherlands, have now rebranded as 'Sunweb'.

    Bit rot has so far spared this 2006 Golimaar / 干你妈的.

    All is not JB lost.

  21. Rob Solheim said,

    June 2, 2018 @ 4:51 pm

    This was doing the rounds on the Russian web some years ago. The same idea, although rather crude https://youtu.be/dnOnQ5GSd-g

  22. E said,

    June 2, 2018 @ 5:18 pm

    Language Log covered this 11/10/2007.

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/2007_11.html

    (post title: "Autour-du-mondegreens: bunkum unbound", 11/10/2007)

  23. Christopher said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 6:51 am

    An interesting example where a Cantopop song was covered by a Vietnamese artist, and then the lyrics are transcribed by soramimi back to Cantonese: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xwr1CBslmac

  24. Adrian Morgan said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 7:38 am

    Language Log is such a prolific blog. I take a little time off blog-reading to concentrate on other things and come back to find pages of backlog…

    My 2014 blog post where I attribute English lyrics to an Irish Gaelic song https://outerhoard.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/a-cruel-coloured-scathed-crow/

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