Miscellaneous Translations: Space Oddity

David Bowie has some truly great songs, and few have made as lasting an impression on me as “Space Oddity”. A song that makes you feel both the excitement and angst of space travel, and a metaphor that makes you think hard about life and the choices you make. Coupled with the beautiful music the lyrics are set to, the song becomes a very memorable one, and a real earworm. It was only natural, then, that I would want to try my hand at making a translation.

It turned out to be far from trivial, for a couple of reasons:

  • Space vocabulary. The space-related vocabulary in Russian is quite different from English, which made it difficult to preserve the rhythm in places it’s used—the first verse was especially difficult, and it turned out to be the one with the highest density of paraphrasing.
  • The name. The words “Major Tom” are an important part of the song as the friendly, simple and approachable name of the character at its heart. However, it’s not easy to translate into Russian—neither military tradition nor the everyday vernacular use rank names with first names. However, the lyrics would lose a lot of their soul if the name were replaced, as I did in the first revision—Major Tom was translated as the call sign “Ястреб” (Hawk), which both fit rhythmically and had the light ironic undertones of being a bird that soars high, yet true to the song’s metaphor, goes through constant dives and climbs, highs and lows. That revision had merit and didn’t sound much different; in fact, it preserved the brilliant wordplay in the last verse (hear/here in “Can you hear… am I floating in a tin can”):

    Ястреб, я Земля, приём
    Ястреб, я… всё кручусь в консервной банке

    In the end, I decided against the call sign revision, although I was sad to see the wordplay go—it’s still somewhat there in the я at the end of Земля, but isn’t as clear anymore.

This final publishable revision is one I’m happy with, as it preserves the name Tom and keeps as true to the source material as I could make it—although I’d still like to be able to stick a майор in there somewhere. Some other translator’s notes:

  • The entire first verse. It was the one that started the translation, and I’m very happy with the technical space vocabulary that fit in perfectly. The first revision had as its penultimate line “Ключ на старт, все цифры в ряд”, but I opted for a more literal and technical turn of phrase that also had the advantage of rhyming better.
  • Tom’s response to Ground Control in the second verse. It was probably the part of the song I changed most compared to the source material, but I’m very happy with the cosmic imagery it evokes, as well as with the clean rhyme it offers.
  • “Floating in a tin can”. The four-line refrain is something that came very naturally, and ended up being very easy to adapt to the Earth/Moon change without any word order trickery, sounding exactly the same save one word just like in the original. The last line is also phrased in a very Russian way, which is something else I’m quite happy with.
  • “One hundred thousand miles”. This one was initially the victim of my desire to adapt the original as much as possible. An adaptation would involve changing miles to kilometres—and километр is a difficult word to fit in rhythmically. I had come up with “И хоть я взмыл за сотый километр”, and I was too busy being dissatisfied with the -тр syllable magic and how it was, rhythmically speaking, a cheat to even consider that a hundred kilometres is barely space, let alone anywhere close to Low Earth Orbit. The direct approach ended up working best—”сто тысяч миль” is a much easier set of syllables to work with.
  • “Tell my wife I love her very much”. The лететь/ответь part came to me very late in the revision process, but it was one of those lightbulb changes that immediately improve the sound. The стряслась/оборвалась part, however, was the opposite of the “tin can” refrain, in that it was a very technical process of finding the right rhyme and building the lines around it. It was difficult to find the right words that would convey the original’s message in just as few syllables, but in the end I decided to forego yet another “Ground Control to…” line to make the whole thing sound better. In the end I was very satisfied with the result, and I felt this was the best version I would come up with.

Below is the final publishable revision of the translation for your enjoyment:

Том, как слышно, я Земля
Том, как слышно, я Земля
Мы закончили проверку корабля
Том, как слышно, я Земля
Ключ на старт, табло в нулях
Зажигание, храни тебя Господь


Том, как слышно, говорит Земля
Ты Родины герой
Пресса хочет знать что ты на завтрак ел
И пора бы выйти в космос, коль ты смел
Том — Земле, как слышно, как сигнал?
Я покидаю шлюз
И средь странных звёзд я без забот парю
И встречаю столь же странную зарю
А я всё кручусь в консервной банке
Подо мной весь мир
Шарик голубой
Что же делать мне с тобой?


И хоть мне до Земли сто тысяч миль
Всё будто замерло
Мой корабль знает сам, куда лететь
Вы жене скажите, что люблю
Что там за беда стряслась?
Как слышно? Связь оборвалась
Я Земля, как слышно, Том?
Я Земля, как слышно, Том?
Я Земля… всё кручусь в консервной банке
Подо мной Луна
Шарик голубой
Что же делать мне с тобой?

The image in this post uses art by DrFaustusAU.

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Developer, linguistics enthusiast, amateur teacher. All opinions are my own.

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