Introduction to Understanding Arabic Song Translations, by Osama El-Gohary
Introduction to Understanding Arabic Song Translations, by Osama El-Gohary

Translating a song from one culture and language to another is not an easy task because you are translating the nuances of feeling, expression and experience, not simply some words in a letter or a story. One thing that makes it difficult to translate song lyrics is that a song is not composed of ordinary words (like words in a conversation or a book.) Instead it's a kind of poem. Otherwise it would not be a moving song.

First, you need to understand what an Egyptian song looks like. Also, you need to understand the idiomatic expressions that you find in the song. This is true for songs from any culture and in any language. The writer may be describing an experience, sending a social or political message, talking directly to somebody else (usually his or her love) or saying something comical. These different experiences could be love, jealousy, romance, pain, loyalty, longing, cheating, heating, hearting, apologizing, or any kind of experience that could touch your heart in the course of a lifetime. This how songwriters work.

The words of any song always have a deep meaning that you should understand first. I read some song translations that I found with some friends and actually they are helpful in letting you know what the song is talking about, but don't describe what the singer is really trying to communicate.

I found some of them funny, not because the translations were bad, but because when you translate the Arabic words in a song into English words, it sounds silly. This conveys an inaccurate meaning and it will not lead to anything useful.

The point is that every word in the song needs an explanation of how the writer intended to use it. Each word in the song has many different uses and even Middle Eastern people sometimes get confused about what the writer was trying to say.

I will try to explain each word in the song, and I will try to find a similar American phrase for the same word.Hopefully this will help you understand exactly what the singer is really singing.

(Editor's note: here Mr. El-Gohary is referring to his translation of "Haad Yensa Alboo -Part I", which can be viewed on this website.)

Also I need a favor from you. Pretend that we are sitting in front of eachother at a table and we are having conversation, not just that you are reading a song translation.

I know that this will require some effort and study on your part, but remember, great art is not "easy". You must work hard to be satisfied.

Additionally I need another favor and this is a very important one. Before reading the song translatation, you MUST listen to the song at least 50 times. I mean it. You can listen to it more often if you want to, and you don't need to concentrate on it every time you listen to it, but at a minimum you need to concentrate 25 times on the song.

Listen to the song at home, in your car, and at work (if possible). The best way to do this is to use headphones. Let the Walkman be your best friend. If you become bored, it's no problem. Just leave the song for a couple of hours and get back to it later. Force yourself. This has many benefits and you can see the results later.

After you listen to the song 50 times, then start to read the translation and go very slowly. It's very important to read the words that I will write and listen to how the singer sings and pronounces them.

Start to repeat the lyrics with him over and over. I know it will be difficult at first but this is just for a little while. It will be much easier later, trust me. :)

You will need to remember the song, and sing it yourself along with the music. You will find it easier when you understand the meaning. Also (and this is very important), you will need to sing the song when you are performing to it.

If you don't understand NOW I promise you will LATER.

Don't expect to understand the meaning of a song in half an hour. This will not happen. The singer spends days with the songwriter, talking about the meaning of each song so he can understand the deep message behind the words, and sing it with true sensitivity.

This way, the audience can feel the song.

The meaning of the words doesn't tell us the whole meaning of the song. There is another important factor, which is the singer's style and personality. This affects the meaning. The same song could be sung by two different singers and you would feel it in two different ways. The words are the same but the singer is different, so we will need to talk a little bit about the singer when we start to translate a song, so we can have a full appreciation of the song's meaning. This way, we can direct our feelings and emotions in the right way.

I know that some of you haven't had the opportunity to understand this art form as deeply as you would like, because of the culture and the background. I will try to give some information during the translation which will open some doors for you to affect yourself more deeply through this art. I will not tell you how to dance, but will give you some ideas and expressions that might help you to feel this dance deeply.

I know this introduction was long, but it's very important (and I mean very important) to respect these steps so you can get the most benefit.

(Editor's note: Osama El-Gohary is an Egyptian musician and composer who lives in Houston, Texas. He plays piano, keyboards, and the accordion. His music is Middle Eastern traditional in a modern style. His CD "Nesma" can be heard at

this webpage

His detailed translation of the song Haad Yensa Alboo (Part I) is available on this website.

To contact Osama El-Gohary click here.