If you were in the land of the living in ’93, you’ll remember a song called “All That She Wants,” by the Swedish band Ace of Base. I don’t know anybody who resisted that song. I, who usually hate songs like that (porny-poppy, slick, computer-generated), bought the CD and sang along with it happily. I can still play it on the guitar twenty-five years later.
I’m about to say something that has been said many times. The power of that song resides in a mistranslation. Not a mistranslation—better say a slippage. The chorus of the song goes (and I’m doing this from memory):
All that she wants
is another baby
she’s gone tomorrow, boy
a-a-all that she wants
is another baby
The intended meaning was “All that she wants is another lover” (so watch out, you sensitive boy who might foolishly fall for her). But of course, no native speaker of English understood it that way. We all thought the song was taking this really surprising angle: “All that she wants is to get pregnant. She’s done this many times, and it’s what she’s doing now … ”
It was a long time (long, long time) before it occurred to anybody that those lyrics were simply a choice example of botched English idiom. Baby can indeed be used to mean “lover,” but not here.
Wait, why? These are song lyrics. Doesn’t baby mean “lover” in song lyrics?
Ever since my baby left me
I found a new place to dwell
I love rock ’n’ roll!
so put another dime in the jukebox, baby!
Baby’s good to me, you know
she’s happy as can be, you know
she said so
And so on and so forth. Yes: it usually means lover, but not when you say, “All that she wants is another baby.” It doesn’t work like that. If you say, “All that she wants is another baby,” the meaning is she wants to get pregnant.
This is the sorrow of idiom. This is why I keep saying nobody speaks more than one language. The only way someone speaks more than one language is if that person’s parents speak different languages. Then maybe. My parents spoke different languages; yet when I speak Spanish, I constantly say things exactly like “All that she wants is to get pregnant.” (It’s very impregnating. I mean embarrassing.)
Now I don’t know what they do to teach English to Swedish children, but whatever it is, anybody can see they do an excellent job. Part of the reason nobody spotted the boo-boo is that everything else in the song seemed like pure USA pop. I would have never guessed the band was Swedish. Somebody had to tell me.
Or look at ABBA. All the lyrics to all their songs were written by non-English speakers. Björn wrote most of the stuff. Early on, Stig, their producer (with his blond biker mustache like something out of Motörhead) collaborated. Look, I have my ABBA book right here—541 pages, excluding the index. You wanna know where ABBA learned their English? High school. That and Beatles records.
You have to take a moment to grasp the craziness of this. Probably their principal access to living, real-time English was song English. They were very, very fluent in that. Indeed, they were much better at song English than most native speakers could ever hope to be. Think about the cleverness of the rhyme here: “Waterloo! / I couldn’t escape if I wanted to.” You wouldn’t think foreigners would be able to come up with that. Or look closely at something like this:
If you change your mind
I’m the first in line
honey, I’m still free
take a chance on me
If you need me
let me know
gonna be around
if you’ve got no
place to go
if you’re feeling down
That’s expert stuff. It doesn’t mean much, fine—that’s not important. The genius is in the management of the vowel quantities and the way the lyrics work as an exquisite medium for those two female voices. Here’s how it actually rolls out:
Listening to the song develop is like watching the soft-serve ice cream come out of the machine: it’s not just vanilla ice cream; it’s sculpted into that pleasing whatever-it-is, and when you shut off that lever, the end just naturally takes this tiny, teasing curl.
Look, that’s a good metaphor. If that doesn’t do it for you, I give up. Or how ’bout listening to the song itself (lip-synched on Swiss TV in 1979). Then you won’t need any metaphors. You won’t need anything.
Anyway, for all their genius, they weren’t native speakers, so there were going to be idiomatic boo-boos. There’s a delicious mistake in the bridge of “Take a Chance on Me,” where the song slows down and the words are just “Take a chance on meeee,” and Agnetha breathes into the mic: “That’s all I ask of you, honey.” That’s what she says the first time. The second time, she goes: “Gimme a break, will ya?”
Now that is definitely not what ABBA meant. They meant “Give me an opportunity to prove myself” (which is what the whole song means). And you can see how they would think “gimme a break” means “gimme an opportunity.” (Wait, doesn’t it mean that? No.) But see, like with the Ace of Base thing above, the song is actually enriched by the error. Suddenly, in this song full of pleading goo, you get this aside in the tone of oh-for-fuck’s-sake—as if to say, with a weary eye roll, I can’t buh-lieve you’re making me beg like this.
Couple other specimens. From the very beginning of “The Name of the Game”:
I’ve seen you twice
in a short time
only a week since we started
It seems to me
for every time
I’m getting more open-hearted
“For every time” is not correct English, but don’t look at that. Look at “I’m getting more open-hearted.” Björn and Benny and Stig thought that meant “I’m exposing my heart more, becoming more candid, more vulnerable.” The context makes that intention clear. But the sentence in fact (or in English anyway) means something more like “I’m becoming more kind and warm and generous,” which is not the same thing. “I’m becoming more vulnerable” versus “I’m becoming more generous”—it’s different. Yet no one cares; it’s at the beginning of the song; it runs right by you.
The following case is more complex (from the last verse in “Fernando”): “Now we’re old and gray, Fernando / since many years I haven’t seen a rifle in your hand.” Here I pause. Is it possible they were deliberately channeling foreigner English there to fit the atmosphere of the song? I searched the rest of the lyrics to find anything else like that, and maybe (?) there’s a little Spanglish here in the chorus:
There was something in the air that night
the stars were bright, Fernando
they were shining there for you and me
for liberty, Fernando
Though we never thought that we could lose
there’s no regret
if I had to do the same again
I would, my friend, Fernando
“There’s no regret” is not what an English speaker would say there, but the speaker of the poem is not supposed to be an English speaker. I’m sitting here translating it back into Spanish: no hay pesar. But is that what people would say in Spanish? Is that what my father would say? I’m out of my depth.
Now if there are any major ABBA psychopaths reading this, I know what you’re thinking: They recorded the song in Spanish, too, y’know. They were huge in Latin America. So what do the lyrics say in the Spanish version?
Way ahead o’ ya, Marge. Here’s what they say:
Algo había alrededor quizá
de claridad, Fernando
que brillaba por nosotros dos
en protección, Fernando
No pensábamos jamás perder
ni echar atrás
si tuviera que volverlo a hacer,
lo haría ya, Fernando
Nothing there about regret at all. “We never thought we’d lose or back out.” And anyhow, the Spanish lyrics don’t have any authority! Who knows who wrote that stuff.
But it’s getting late. Before I wrap this up, I want to note that there are millions of videos on YouTube of the people from ABBA being interviewed in English. If you look at ones from the last, say, ten or fifteen years, it’s delightful to check out the more or less current state of Björn’s English in particular. He sounds—and even looks!—like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. That’s right: the guy who wrote the words to “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” has become Professor Higgins. Oh, and another thing: as of this year, apparently ABBA’s back together, and they’re going on tour as holograms or something. Higgins and Pickering and the two Elizas …
End times a-comin’. Horsemen, saddle up. The rest of y’all, take care of yourselves.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.