September 02, 2015

Lost in Translation: Cilla Black, Carl Sigman and the "Translational Fallacy" in Lyric Writing

By Michael Sigman



In the aftermath of Britpop icon Cilla Black’s recent death, some observers committed what I call the “Translational Fallacy” when they asserted that the lyrics to “You’re My World,” Black’s 1964 No. 1 UK smash (and her only Top 40 U.S. hit) were translated from an original Italian lyric.

I know this to be false. I was in the living room when my father, Carl Sigman, wrote the words to “You’re My World.” Inspired by Umberto Bindi’s haunting melody, Carl evoked Gino Paoli’s Italian title (“Il Mio Mondo” or “My World.”) But he created a wholly original English lyric -- as you can see in the side-by-side comparison below.

John Shepard, paying tribute to Black in The Independent, went so far as to claim that George Martin, who produced “You’re My World,” personally performed the translation! Shepard changed his tune after I gave him the facts, but his new language -- “Martin commissioned a translation of the song to English” -- perpetuated the basic error. (Carl spoke no language other than English and would have been a decidedly poor choice for anyone looking to “commission a translation.”) Shepard ignored a follow-up plea for accuracy; his error will echo throughout eternity on the Internet.

Carl’s lyrics are a frequent target for the translational fallacy. That’s because when the rock ’n’ roll revolution and then the British Invasion threatened the careers of the Great American Songbook writers, he stayed relevant in the pop game by becoming a go-to guy for writing English lyrics -- never translations -- to melodies that originated abroad.

In 1953, at the dawn of the rock era, Carl was asked by Bourne Music to write a lyric to “Mutterlein,” a stunning tune by German composer Gerhard Winkler. Though a confirmed agnostic, Carl felt the melody's simple opening motif demanded the English words, "Answer Me, Lord Above." (“Mutterlein,” lyricist Fred Rauch’s title, means “matriarch”; Carl, who had a tough mother, had no interest in writing about that.)

"Answer Me" overcame a BBC ban -- the stodgy network objected to the religious overtones -- to become the only song in British chart history to reach No. 1 by two different artists simultaneously, David Whitfield and Frankie Laine. For the U.S. market, Carl, at the behest of the publisher, nixed the higher power and substituted “Oh, My Love” for “Lord Above.” Nat King Cole had a Top 10 hit with "Answer Me, My Love" and a standard was born.

Sometimes Carl kept a foreign-language title intact. He’d fallen in love with the sounds of the Italian language while serving in Sicily during World War II and was delighted when the opportunity arose to write a song featuring the word, “Arrivederci.” "Arrivederci, Roma" -- composed by Renato Rascel with Italian lyrics by Pietro Garinei and Sandro Giovannini -- was published in 1955 as part of the soundtrack of the eponymous film. Carl’s romantic ballad has been sung by virtually every Italian American crooner from Vic Damone (“Victor Moan” to my pre-teen ears) to Jerry Vale and Dean Martin.

In 1958, Carl contributed an English lyric to a verdant French tune by Gilbert Becaud. Pierre Delanoe’s French lyric, "Le Jour où la Pluie Viendra," inspired Carl to use the title, The Day the Rains Came.” Dave Kapp came up with a unique formula for a hit single on his namesake label: Jane Morgan sang Carl’s lyric on the A-side and Becaud’s tune with Delanoe’s French words on the B-side.

Three years later, Carl scored one of his greatest international successes with another Becaud/Delanoe number, “Et Maintenant.” Carl quickly came up the English words What Now My Love (a nod to the French title “And Now”) to go with the opening melodic phrase. A very young Shirley Bassey led the way and the song has since been covered by thousands of artists including Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Willie Nelson, Sarah Vaughn, Bobby Darin, Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra, the Temptations, the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and Roy Orbison. Several years ago French chanteuse Patricia Kass recorded “What Now, My Love” -- in English!

In the mid-sixties Carl wrote an English lyric he titled A Day In The Life Of A Fool to Luis Bonfa’s groundbreaking bossa nova tune “Manha de Carnival,” the theme from the classic Portuguese-language film “Black Orpheus.” Jack Jones hit the charts with his rendition, but Frank Sinatra’s 1969 reading for his own Reprise label remains definitive. Mysteriously, Rosemary Clooney’s cover evokes Carnival with a coda that Carl never dreamed of: “Will romance fly away/On this Carnival day/Or will love come to stay in my heart?”

Translating lyrics can be a noble calling. It’s simply not what Carl did. When writing a lyric -- whether or not there was an already existing foreign-language one -- he focused on one thing and one thing alone: creating the perfect “wedding” of words and music.

That’s not to say Carl wasn’t pleased when his songs were translated. In 1967, French singer/songwriter Charles Aznavour adapted (not quite translating) Carl’s lyric to “The World We Knew (Over And Over),” a collaboration with German composer Bert Kaempfert. French superstar Mireille Mathieu recorded a near identical arrangement to Frank Sinatra’s English version.

A few years later, Carl was thrilled when his biggest song -- “(Where Do I Begin) Love Story,” French composer Francis Lai’s theme from Love Story, the 1971 blockbuster film starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw -- was translated (yes, translated) into various languages all over the world.


“You're My World”

You're my world, you're every breath I take
You're my world, you’re every move I make
Other eyes see the stars up in the skies
But for me they shine within your eyes

As the trees reach for the sun above
So my arms reach out to you for love
With your hand resting in mine
I feel a power so divine

You're my world, you are my night and day
You're my world, you're every prayer I pray
If our love ceases to be
Then it's the end of my world for me

With your hand resting in mine
I feel a power so divine
You're my world, you are my night and day
You're my world, you're every prayer I pray

If our love ceases to be
Then it's the end of my world for me

“Il Mio Mondo” literal translation: My World

My day started from you.
My night will come to me from you.
You smile,
and I smile, too.
You make a gesture,
and I cry.
I got my energy thanks to you,
whenever you believed in me.
You gave me
what
the world never did!
My world started from you.
My world will end with you.
And if you
leave me,
I will die in a moment.

You gave me
what
the world never did!
My world started from you.
My world will end with you.
And if you
leave me,
in a moment,
everything will end
with you, for me!