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Knowing your Jack Sprat from your Frère Jacques – Ding, dang, DOH!

Updated: Sep 21, 2018

"Translation is not only changing one language to other languages" – Ikke Dewi Pratama

Can you remember the last time you heard a nursery rhyme? Now… try thinking how it would sound in another language. This week, WIT is bringing you a blast from the past.

While it might not be immediately obvious, nursery rhymes and children’s songs make up a huge chunk of our audio-visual culture. After all, before the era of mass media, these catchy sing-song melodies were their own musical form of storytelling. On a personal level, especially, a simple nursery rhyme can take us on a trip down memory lane. For that reason, the cultural connection bound up in these educational, and often political, ditties can serve as a ready-made package for modern day radio, television and video.

An incy-wincy reference can go a long way

One particular example of the use of nursery rhymes in an ad campaign comes from St John Ambulance, who used them to teach parents how to perform life-saving CPR on babies. The playful characters are soothing and familiar, helping the audience connect with them on an emotional level, despite the serious, somewhat uncomfortable content.

It’s all a bit Humpty Dumpty

It’s clear that these references are often the richest and most evocative. Naturally then, this same combination of language, culture and rhyme can be a real stumbling block when it comes to translation. Just think how the characters in the St John Ambulance ad struggled to think of a word that rhymed with ambulance… It really can take all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to put a catchy translation together again.

The ip-dip-dos and don’ts – what are your options?

Some might say you could lose the nursery rhyme reference altogether and simply translate the words. But, here at WIT, we don’t shy away from a challenge. We know you work hard on your copy, so if you’ve used something as complex as a nursery rhyme, it’s for a very good reason.

Instead, we adapt the use of songs and sounds to the target audience and their culture. The idea is for someone in France to feel the same connection to a song or rhyme as someone in China or the UK would. We call this transcreation.

And to show we mean business, we put this tactic to the test with one of our clients’ promotional “ip dip” campaigns, with children choosing from a selection of mini games to play in the car.

Here, our “translation trip down memory lane” takes the form of a long car drive. People from many different cultures can relate to those hours spent in the back of a car on a family holiday. We wanted to recreate that feeling in our target language – and we did just that, adapting carefully selected (and well-known) French nursery rhymes based on their use of syllables and melody. We won't spill the beans... but to give you an idea, think of the British song "Ten Green Bottles". Now, head over to Italy and, in the exact same car, you'd be singing about an elephant swinging on a spider web! Not as simple as you think...

Don’t be a baa baa black sheep, get in touch with WIT via email or give us a call. We’ll help you stand out from the crowd.


By Amy Reid - WIT Account Manager


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