An Old Song, A New Translation

A direct translation from one language to another isn’t necessarily the best translation. The words may make sense in the new language, but really only touch the surface of what’s being said, missing a deeper meaning embedded in the original.

Back in 1963, a Japanese song, “Sukiyaki,” became #1 in the United States, the only Japanese song to ever break into the Billboard 100, let alone make it to #1. The song’s real name is Ue o muite arukou (“I look up when I walk”); it was given the name ‘sukiyaki’ because it was a Japanese word foreigners could easily pronounce. Sukiyaki/Ue o muite arukou remains one of the best-selling singles of all time, with over 13 million copies sold world-wide. The radio couldn’t play it enough back then to satisfy me, and it remains one of my all-time favorite songs. Although I didn’t understand a word of it in 1963, today it’s the only Japanese song I can sing along with and actually understand.

Here’s the original 1963 version by Kyu Sakamoto, with the lyrics translated into English:

I didn’t think there was any way Ue o muite arukou could be improved upon, and was sure I fully understood its meaning and message. However, yesterday an old friend from Japan sent me a new version of the beloved song. Last year Yoko Ono rewrote the lyrics into English and the new song, “Look At the Sky,” was recorded by Olly Murs. Instead of relying on a direct translation, Ono’s new words instead evoke a “truer” version of the Japanese in translation. The video is beautifully done as well. It’s very Japanese, and yet fits perfectly with the new English lyrics. (Apologies for any ads that might show up in the beginning.)

Sometimes when a classic undergoes a re-make or a makeover the newer version can end up something of a disappointment, and something less than the original. But, “Look At the Sky” is anything but a disappointment, and if anything is just as good the original, maybe better. I will always love the Ue o muite arukou I first heard in 1963, but “Look At the Sky” will have a place right next to it. Although it seems a such sad song, hearing “Sukiyaki” has always made me feel happy for some reason. “Look At the Sky” brings tears to my eyes each time I hear it, but in a very happy way.

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