The Universal Language? Writing & Translating Lyrics as a Bilingual Artist

This column originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.

By Trevor Murphy

I’m bilingual. I grew up on the South Shore of Nova Scotia in a small Acadian community where I went to a French school, spoke the language with my family and my friends, and – like any assimilated kid – failed to understand how knowing a second language could be useful in my future. I fell in love with music from an early age and by the time I was 16, I was writing my own songs. I moved away, joined bands, and toured the country. Music was my life, and it all happened in English.

In 2010, my best friend and I launched a record label called Acadian Embassy. Taking the nickname we gave to our house (three quarters of the roommates were Acadians), the label quickly became much more than a record of the art that was happening under that roof. For me, it became a whole new way to explore my Acadian identity, allowing me to re-connect with the French language and to find renewed pride in my accent and dialect.

Five years later, in an effort to get my French feet wet, my band Quiet Parade was tasked with covering a traditional Acadian song for a compilation. Soon after, I undertook the process of translating four songs from our self-titled album from English to French.

Translating Is Hard
On the best of days, translation is a difficult task. Economy of words is not the French language’s strong suit. A three-word English phrase can turn into an eight-word diatribe in la belle langue. When you’ve already got an established rhyme scheme and cadence, adding a few extra words to a line can be trying. (Luckily, in Acadian dialects, we often default to smashing words together anyway.)

French is also a gendered language, assigning male and female attributes to every single noun. This has always been the most difficult part of the language for me – how am I “just supposed to know” that it’s “la porte” as opposed to “le porte”? That meant I had my dictionary close by during the whole process.

Oh, and did I mention that nobody else in my band speaks French? I had to teach them the backup vocals syllabically.

Code Switching Your Headspace
For me, writing songs is a cerebral endeavour. I rarely come to the table with fully-formed lyrics or a complete musical composition. I write them in tandem, and both are usually informed by my headspace. Despite being bilingual, I predominately think in English, so when it came time for me to take the jump and write songs completely in French, I found myself locked in an exercise of code switching my headspace.

And while my universe is quite vast when I write in English, I quickly noticed that all my French songs were honing in on a very particular geography. I was anchored in these small Acadian villages where I grew up and this geography, those characters, that time, and those hyper-regional touchstones informed every word.

Embrace Your Identity & Its Nuances
It took me a long time to get comfortable singing and writing in French. As is common with many Acadians, I was instilled with a feeling that the way I spoke wasn’t “good enough” or “proper French.” In the face of this, I have used music as a way to embrace my version of the language. Yes, the way I speak is a bit weird, but that’s what makes me – and the music I’m now writing in French – unique.

Harnessing this has allowed me to develop a particular voice to tell stories I don’t think I ever could in English.

Trevor Murphy is an award-winning musician, industry professional, and radio host based in Halifax, NS. He fronts the award-winning fog-rock band Quiet Parade and has recently unveiled his new Francophone power pop project, Sluice. Learn more and find the music at:

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Michael Raine is the Editor-in-Chief at Canadian Musician and Canadian Music Trade magazines. He also hosts the Canadian Musician Podcast.
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