1. “Ça plane pour moi” (French slang, “This works for me”): Plastic Bertrand, “Ça Plane Pour Moi”
Plastic Bertrand’s 1977 hit “Ça Plane Pour Moi” is almost certainly the only instance of a song cut in English that then became a bigger hit recorded in French. It followed an odd path from one language to another, beginning life as the 1977 Elton Motello song “Jet Boy, Jet Girl.” That song’s frank, homoerotic lyric about sadomasochistic underage sex pretty much assured it wouldn’t get much radio play—“I’d like to hit him on the head until he’s dead / the sight of blood is such a high / Oooooo, he gives me head” etc.—but the beat wouldn’t be denied. “Using the same musicians, Belgian singer Plastic Bertrand re-recorded it as “Ça Plane Pour Moi” with largely nonsensical French lyrics about whiskey-drinking cats and a divan king. Both versions enjoyed second lives: “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” found its way into The Damned’s songbook, while Plastic Bertrand’s version became a staple on ’80s hits collections, providing a classic “Aha!” moment for French 101 students.
2. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” (French, “What is it?”): Talking Heads, “Psycho Killer”
Speaking of rock lyrics that double as French 101 lessons, Talking Heads enjoyed a breakthrough song with this 1977 track that spreads alienation across two languages. David Byrne assumes the persona of a troubled guy who hates people when they aren’t polite, and saves his blunt expressions of confusion for French. Whichever language he’s speaking, the guy’s clearly messed up. Better run run run, run run run away.
3. “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?” (French, “Would you like to sleep with me (tonight)?”): Labelle, “Lady Marmalade”
Disco is pretty unreservedly about getting it on, but this 1974 hit for Labelle (and later Christina Aguilera and friends) is more brazen than most. But really, should a song about a New Orleans prostitute “struttin’ her stuff on the street” and inviting a john into her bed bother with subtlety? Still, why does she hit him up in French? Because as the song makes clear, the girl who asks “You wanna give it a go?” is Creole Lady Marmalade.
4. “Hakuna Matata” (Swahili, “No worries”): The Lion King, “Hakuna Matata”
As the lyrics tell us, “Hakuna Matata,” both the song and the saying, “ain’t no passing craze”: It’s still popping up in pop culture and everyday conversation 15 years after The Lion King hit theaters. A standout of one of the last Disney animation soundtracks to break into the public consciousness—and the last to hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart—“Hakuna Matata” heavily incorporates the Swahili phrase into a catchy, comedic tune sung by a talkative meerkat (Nathan Lane) and a flatulent warthog (Ernie Sabella). The Lion King’s Elton John/Tim Rice-helmed soundtrack incorporates other instances of the Swahili language—which the hit Broadway musical that followed in 1997 did to an even greater degree—but none stuck quite like “Hakuna Matata,” since the translation is right there in the chorus and it’s so damn fun to say. In fact, it begs kids everywhere to repeat it ad nauseum.
5. “Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan” (Spanish, “I’m not a sailor, I’m a captain”): Richie Valens, “La Bamba”
A straight-up translation of the lyrics of Richie Valens’ much-covered Spanish-language hit “La Bamba” makes it sound like just another one of those “how to do the latest dance” songs: “To dance La Bamba, you need a little grace / a little grace for me, for you / Higher, higher…” Who knew it had a complicated backstory as a traditional Mexican wedding folksong? While Richie Valens codified some simple verses and added a rock beat, “La Bamba” was traditionally a mariachi song with improvised-on-the-spot lyrics, which probably don’t normally make much more sense than Valens’ version; the song is really just about providing a fast, repetitive beat for an increasingly complicated rhythmic dance. Oh, and boasting a little—“bambollero” (“flashy”) is slang for a braggart, which partially explains the line “I’m not a sailor, I’m the captain!” Which the song helpfully repeats over and over, as if it was a Spanish 101 lesson.
6. “Bon soir, regret, à demain” (French, “Good evening, regret, at tomorrow”): Fugazi, “Do You Like Me”
The military-industrial complex and unrequited love are ominously correlated in “Do You Like Me,” the high point of Fugazi’s 1995 album Red Medicine. And while Fugazi’s knack for being cryptically poetic is in full force, things are made extra confusing by the line “Bon soir, regret, à demain”—a phrase that, when translated into English, sounds like gibberish. Just to make it nicely ironic, Guy Picciotto instructs listeners to “Say like the French say!” right before delivering this mouthful of mangled français. According to a friend of The A.V. Club who is French and a Fugazi fan, Picciotto “probably meant to say something like ‘Good night, sorry, see you tomorrow.’ But that is really shitty French.”
7. “Domo arigato” (Japanese, “Thank you very much”): Styx, “Mr. Roboto”
How do you properly express your gratitude to the robot laborer whose hollowed-out shell you just used to escape from rock ’n’ roll misfit prison? With a lot of heavy-handed statements about the dehumanizing influence of technology, of course. But you should also do it in Japanese, because “domo arigato” rhymes perfectly with “Mr. Roboto”; otherwise, you’d have to name the mechanical janitors sweeping up your fascistic dystopia “Mr. SpankYou” or something, which would just be silly. While Styx’s overwrought concept album Kilroy Is Here failed to ignite the great Luddite revolution of the latter 20th century, its most famous single did change the world in one significant way: by giving every American a go-to condescending rejoinder to any Japanese phrase they hear.
8. “Combien, combien, combien de temps,” (French, “How long?”): R.E.M., “Talk About The Passion”
Fans of R.E.M.’s early albums were practically forced to make up their own lyrics, since Michael Stipe tended to murmur (allusion intended) his words, which were oblique to begin with. (For many years, he also refused to share what he was actually singing, via printed lyrics.) What sounds a little bit like “Pull me in to talk” on 1983’s “Talk About The Passion” actually turned out to be “Combien de temps,” which translates as “How long?” or “How much time?” If you watch the video, which depicts homeless people and ends with a statement about the cost of an American warship, it’s easy to extrapolate his question to something like, “How long will we let this suffering continue while we waste our money on war?” Food for thought, to be sure, but the song also taught R.E.M. fans a great phrase to use while impatiently tapping their watches in France.
9. “Eep opp ork ah-ah” (Martian, “I love you”): Jet Screamer, “Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah”
In an early episode of The Jetsons, Judy has a crush on pop singer Jet Screamer. In order to get close to him, she enters a songwriting contest, but her pop-music-hating father George Jetson tries to sabotage her by replacing her entry with her brother Elroy’s “Martian talk,” a gibberish code he uses to pass secret messages to his friends. Her entry wins the contest; cue George making mildly-relevant-at-the-time cracks about that horrible, crazy rock music. Surprisingly, the song also became a minor hit, and from there, a cultural obscurity that generations of kids raised on cartoons could toss out over 2 a.m. bong sessions. More than 30 years later, the Violent Femmes recorded a rollicking cover of “Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah” for the Saturday Morning Cartoons tribute album, making it the world’s first multi-generational Martian-language rockabilly hit. (Incidentally, while the song translates the title phrase as “I love you,” Elroy—who apparently wasn’t declaring his forbidden passion for his school buddies—insists that it just means “meet me tonight.” Possibly for forbidden passion.)
10. “Quien es esa niña?” (Spanish, “Who’s that girl?”) Madonna, “Who’s That Girl”
Madonna taught the world plenty of lessons, most of them about sex and strange accents, but she also offered quickie Spanish lessons on occasion. The most direct is from “Who’s That Girl,” whose chorus plays out like a Rosetta Stone instructional tape: “Quien es esa niña?” she asks en Español, then repeats herself in English, “Who’s that girl?” Those interested in a second semester can continue to the song’s next line, “Señorita mas fina,” which isn’t followed by a translation. (It means, roughly, “the finest lady.”) If that’s too tough, though, check out “La Isla Bonita,” which sounds way cooler in Spanish than it does in English.
11. “Neunundneunzig luftballons” (German, “99 balloons”), Nena, “99 luftballons”
German outfit Nena scored a worldwide smash with “99 Luftballons,” inadvertently teaching non-Germans the wrong lesson: Ethnocentrist English speakers wrongly assumed that “luftballon” translated as “red balloon,” when in fact it simply means “balloon.” (The original German-language version doesn’t mention the word “red” at all; it was added to make the English cadence work.) But because so many people made their own translation leap, word quickly got out that it was wrong. And now, 20 years later, American tourists can go into any German restaurant and order a balloon, but they can’t specify the color.
12. “Que será, será” (Spanish and/or Portugese, “Whatever will be, will be”): Doris Day, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”
Back in 1956, this monster hit for Doris Day—who sang it in Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much—was big enough to win a Best Original Song Oscar for lyricist Jay Livingston. His fatalistic but cheery little number hit number two on the charts, became Day’s unofficial theme song, and taught a whole generation the meaning of a foreign phrase. The only trouble is, most of the people who made it a hit didn’t know what language it’s from—and neither did Livingston. He’d heard the phrase a few years before in The Barefoot Contessa (though it dated to centuries before, even appearing in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus); but he mistook it for Latin, when it’s really Spanish, or, if you prefer, Portuguese, at least the way Livingston spelled it. The title proved to be prophetic, though; regardless of its accuracy, it became a classic and a big hit in a dozen foreign countries.
13. “Jeux sans frontières” (“Games without frontiers”): Peter Gabriel, “Games Without Frontiers”)
From the ’60s through the end of the ’90s, Jeux Sans Frontières was a popular European TV game show that pitted a variety of countries against each other in ridiculous contests involving ridiculous costumes. (It’s well worth checking out the clips on YouTube—they feature, for instance, people dressed as penguins trying to fill and transfer buckets of water while running on a rapidly rotating stage, or women in frilly frocks trying to plant gigantic faux flowers while being chased by a giant Frankenstein. The announcers can barely stop laughing long enough for color commentary.) Peter Gabriel’s first Top 10 UK hit repeatedly evoked the title of the show—and its British spin-off, It’s A Knockout—while evoking their ideals, the idea of countries coming together for competition without pain, “war without tears.” Granted, Kate Bush warbling “jeux sans frontières” over and over in the background really sounds like she’s singing “She’s so popular,” or possibly “She’s so fucking large”; it’s one of the most commonly misinterpreted lyrics on the Internet. Gabriel maybe takes the whole thing a bit too seriously; his morose video, which heavily features his maniacal leering, footage of weapon testing, and war scenes, could really use more Jeux Sans Frontières contestants stumbling through an obstacle course while dressed as gigantic Russian nesting dolls.
14. “Quando, quando, quando?” (Italian, “When, when, when?”): Englebert Humperdinck, “Quando, Quando, Quando”
Penned in 1961 by Italian pop singer Tony Renis, this bouncy little longing-for-love number got translated to English a year later by Pat Boone, who was the first person but not the last to make it a hit in America. The most famous version is by crooner Englebert Humperdinck, who, like Boone, retained only the longing chorus in the original language. While it went on to be a hit for everyone from Nelly Furtado to Michael Bublé, and in every country from Australia to Vietnam, two of the most memorable uses of “Quando, Quando, Quando” appear in popular movies: The gold-suited Murph And The Magic-Tones sing a cheeseball lounge version (with all the lyrics in Italian!) in The Blues Brothers, and in Stripes, Bill Murray belts it out to save his skin. Ah, the healing power of music.
15. “Ich liebe dich nicht, du liebst mich nicht” (German, “I don’t love you, you don’t love me”): Trio, “Da Da Da”
No, the title (which, technically, is the ridiculously overlong “Da Da Da I Don’t Love You You Don’t Love Me Aha Aha Aha”) doesn’t mean “yes yes yes” in Russian. Well, it does, but the authors—a moderately popular German minimalist rock outfit called Trio—intended it only as a bit of nonsense vocalization. The hook of the mixed German/English lyrics is the “Ich liebe dich nicht, du liebst mich nicht” bit, which nicely mirror the blasé, almost whimsical lost-love narrative and helped turn the song into an extremely unlikely hit. The song became a huge success in America in 1982, and spread across the world by 1983—just in time for Trio to break up in 1984. The band is long gone, but the cynical lyrics and unforgettable hook live on in commercials and the collections of ’80s nostalgia hounds.
16. “Soy un perdedor” (Spanish, “I’m a loser”): Beck, “Loser”
Beck’s first big hit was a song filled with nonsense lyrics, typically jumbled surrealistic nonsense that developed from his freestyling gibberish in front of café crowds. But the chorus, with its wicked sliding guitar hook and its memorable vocal (“Soy un perdedor / I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?”) perfectly captured the self-loathing slacker vibe of 1993 and turned its author into a star. It also taught a generation of Anglo hipsters how to be self-deprecating while traveling south of the border. The mixture of the bizarre Spanish mope, the bluesy guitar riff, and the solid hip-hop beat became the archetype for the crazed eclecticism of Beck’s early period; even “Weird Al” Yankovic knew “Loser” was a winner and led off his 1996 “Alternative Polka” with a parody version of it.
17. “Yo te quiera infinito, yo te queira, oh mi corazón” (Spanish, “I want you forever, I want you, oh my heart”): The Clash, “Spanish Bombs”
This track, a celebration of the struggle against Franco in the Spanish Civil War from the legendary London Calling album, is usually translated badly, but don’t blame the transcribers: Joe Strummer’s thick working-class British accent rendered the Spanish lyrics nearly incomprehensible. A similar problem turns up in the band’s biggest hit, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”: Strummer’s accent is so heavy that it takes a lot of listeners many spins to realize that the call-and-response in the second verse is actually him translating the English lyrics into Spanish (“¿Me debo ir o que dame?”). The same problem crops up in the Pogues’ 1988 single “Fiesta,” whose last verse—a drunken narrative about the marriage of former bassist Cait O’Riordan and Elvis Costello—is scuttled by the difficulty of making out the Spanish through Shane MacGowan’s Anglo-Irish accent. It doesn’t help that some of the “Spanish” is actually Italian, either.
18. “Jai guru deva om” (Sanskrit, “Hail to the divine teacher”): The Beatles, “Across The Universe”
The Beatles absconded to India in early 1968 to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at a time when they badly needed stability: Manager Brian Epstein had recently died, and the Liverpool quartet wanted clarity and focus. While the short trip obviously influenced the group deeply by widening their sonic palette to include even more sitar, there was also a bigger, more philosophical impact on the band. Though John Lennon later penned “Sexy Sadie” out of anger over the Maharishi’s alleged flirting with female members of his workshops, his teachings stuck: The above Sanskrit mantra kicks off the chorus in “Across The Universe,” a soothing, climbing moment breaking up the sigh-inducing sadness in the verses.
19. “Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble” (French, “These are words that go together well”): The Beatles, “Michelle”
Sanskrit wasn’t the only language The Beatles co-opted for a hit. Paul McCartney breaks into French throughout “Michelle” to express his love in the only French words he knows. Curiously enough, that’s the simple “Michelle, my beauty” and then the more complicated phrase above. But it scarcely matters: At heart the song hopes that love and music can find ways to transcend language and all the divisions that come with it.