Lost in the Woods / j’ai perdu le nord / 森林迷路

To my little sister’s chagrin, I have had “Lost in the Woods” from Frozen II stuck in my head since I watched the film on Saturday. Sung by Kristoff, who is voiced by the amazing Jonathan Groff, “Lost in the Woods” is the movie’s scene-stealer. In a sequel that ventures mostly into familiar territory, despite the titular song (“Into the Unknown”), “Lost in the Woods” is a surprising, charming, and hilarious tangent—one that showcases Groff’s impeccable vocals, is animated like an 80s’ boyband music video, and brings the usually-reticent reindeers to life as background singers. In a movie musical that seems built for the stage, “Lost in the Woods” is a refreshingly relatable ballad that is closer to Queen and Air Supply than Broadway. The song does for Frozen II what “I’ll be Back” did for Hamilton: surprise us with a musical number that isn’t like what we’re hearing in the rest of the musical (note: Groff plays both Kristoff and King George). So: the sweet boyband spot that the song hits, coupled with Groff/Kristoff’s undeniable charm, make “Lost in the Woods” my song of December 2019. And let’s face it: I am certainly feeling a little “lost in the woods” at the end of the decade!

I could go on about other reasons why this song rocks. The electric guitar twang, the multiple chordal shifts, the piano, etc. But what I really want to talk about today is “Lost in the Woods” in translation.

As a global monopoly/enterprise, Disney relies on translation to reach its international audience. It is no surprise that, when Frozen first came out, the 25-language version of “Let It Go” went viral on Youtube. I am a massive fan of “Libérée, délivrée” (the French version), and I find “随它吧” (the Chinese version) hilarious. So, I decided it would be fun to also look up the French and Chinese versions of “Lost in the Woods.” I’ve included all three versions below. The point of this post is to 1) have some fun, 2) discuss music in translation 3) and get to the bottom of what makes me like “Lost in the Woods” so much. Reading a text you like in translation helps you learn about why you like it—you’ll see!

Again, you’re gone, off on a different path than mine
I’m left behind, wondering if I should follow

You had to go, and of course it’s always fine
I probably could catch up with you tomorrow
But is this what it feels like to be growing apart?

When did I become the one who’s always chasing your heart?

Now I turn around and find I am lost in the woods
North is south, right is left,
when you’re gone
I’m the one who sees you
but now I’m lost in the woods
And I don’t know what path you are on
I’m lost in the woods

Up ’til now the next step was a question of how
I never thought it was a question of whether
Who am I, if I’m not your guy?
Where am I, if we’re not together forever?
Now I know you’re my true north, ’cause I am lost in the woods
Up is down, day is night, when you’re not there

Oh, you’re my only landmark, so I’m lost in the woods
Wondering if you still care
But I’ll wait for a sign that I’m on your path
‘Cause you are mine (you are mine)
Until then, I’m lost in the woods
I’m lost in the woods
I’m lost in the woods
Quand tu t’en vas
Que tu prends un nouveau chemin
Je ne suis plus rien
Je ressens comme un grand frisson

Je pense à nous
Je me dis que tout va bien
Peut-être que je me fais des illusions

Je ne sais plus quoi faire
Lorsque la vie nous sépare
Je suis comme un vieux bateau
Qui guette la lumière du phare

Je suis comme une boussole
Qui a perdu le nord, et le sud
L’est et l’ouest
Quand tu pars
Je savais lire dans le ciel
Mais là j’ai perdu le nord
Et bientôt l’espoir de te revoir
J’ai perdu le nord

Autrefois, notre amour était une évidence
Le doute n’avait jamais montré tant de ferveur
Je suis là, si tu veux de moi
Je suis là, pour t’offrir le meilleur
Pas des fleurs

C’était toi ma vraie boussole
Parce que j’ai perdu le nord
Je ne sais plus où je suis
Quand tu t’en vas

Plus rien ne me console
Et j’ai perdu le nord
Est-ce qu’un jour
Tu reviendras
J’attendrai tu verras
Ton vrai chemin
C’est avec moi
Car sans toi
J’ai perdu le nord
J’ai perdu le nord
J’ai perdu le nord
J’ai perdu le nord
我世界 日和夜

Note: I could not find the names of the lyricists who translated the French and Chinese versions. #NameTheTranslator. I also chose to use the Mainland Chinese version of this song mostly because the audio was more HD.

The first thing to note about “Lost in the Woods” is that the song is situated in the actual forest, i.e. Kristoff sings it when he is literally lost in the woods. And yet, the phrase “lost in the woods” mostly carries figurative significance; the idiom “out of the woods” (the title of a Taylor Swift song, by the way, did you think I wasn’t going to point that out?) means that one is no longer in a dangerous predicament. The rest of the song is deeply figurative, too; lines such as “you’re my only landmark” and “you’re my true north” suggest that Kristoff is lost in the woods because he has literally and figuratively lost Anna, his compass (“ma vraie boussole” in the French). So, the woods are merely the setting, and not the reason, why he is “lost.” Given the figurative function of the woods, how important are they, anyway, to the song?

It is fascinating to observe that “woods” do not appear a single time in the French translation of the song. Here’s a simple transliteration of the French version that I found online (note: “a big thrill” in the first stanza is more like “a great shiver”). Seriously—not even a tree. Instead, the song is titled after the idiom “perdre le nord” (to lose the North), which means to lose direction. So, the French translation takes after the original by adopting its idiomatic, figurative quality. In fact, most of the french translation is full of metaphors that don’t exist in the original. Instead of “is this what it feels like to be growing apart….” we get “when life separates us, I am like an old boat watching for the lighthouse’s glow.” The idea of watching for the lighthouse’s light is like “chasing your heart.” That’s actually beautiful. All in all, I find “Perdu le nord” quite a genius translation, given that North-ness is inherent in the original song—lines such as “North is South,” “you’re my true North” make “North” an important part of the woods anyway.

Compare what the French translators have done to the Chinese version, which keeps the “woods” in the song. “I’m lost in the woods” translates literally to “我在森林迷路“ (wo zai sen lin mi lu), which is quite fortuitous since “woods” and “路” (lu) share a vowel rhyme (ish). Interestingly, whereas the English and French versions repeat the same refrain, be it “lost in the woods” or “perdu le nord”, the Chinese version switches it up a little bit. It alternates between “在森林迷路” (lost in the woods) and “找不到出路” (zhao bu dao chu lu / cannot find the way out). Both end with the same character, “路”, so it works. The variation sonically/musically works in the Chinese, too—something about repeating “lost in the woods” over and over in Chinese feels odd (maybe because it isn’t an idiom?). Fun fact: the Taiwanese/Mandarin version of “Lost in the Woods” is titled 森林迷途, which also means “lost in the woods,”but uses 迷途(mi tu) instead of 迷路 (mi lu). The difference between both is negligible, but I personally think the “l” sound of “lu” works better when you’re singing that lllllong note…

Something I like to do when comparing works in translation is to see how my favorite line translates into different languages. I am obsessed with “up ’til now the next step was a question of how / I never thought it was a question of whether.” Listening to the French (Autrefois, notre amour était une évidence / Le doute n’avait jamais montré) and the Chinese (到現在 / 我想問如何找到未來 / 我從未想過這到底應不應該), I have a more nuanced idea of why I like that line so much. It’s not just the way it begins the second verse, musically; it has to do with the rhymes/diction itself. The rhyme between “now” and “how” hits a sweet spot for me, and I get that in the Chinese with 在 (zai) and 來 (lai). There’s even a third rhyme in the Chinese at the end with 該 (gai). The French version doesn’t quite hit these rhymes, but that’s okay. I personally also think the multi-syllabic nature of “évidence” in the French throws me off a bit, whereas the English and Chinese remain nicely monosyllabic at the end of the first line: “how” and “ 來 .” I think my ear is also looking for the repetition of “question,” which stands out because it’s a nice, crunchy word. There’s no crunchy repetition of any word in the French version of this lyric. In Chinese, the special character that is repeated is 未,which means “future” in the first instance (未來)and “have yet” (從未)in the second. This is super clever, but I almost feel as if it gets lost amid the other monosyllabic words repeated in the lines: “我想問如何找 /未想過這底應不應該.” Nonetheless, maybe I’ll appreciate the doubling more when I listen to it again later. Finally, I think another reason why I like line so much in English is that I just think the word “whether,” especially in contrast with “how,” is so great. I also like how “ferveur” in in the French rhymes with “whether.” So, all this is to say: comparing how a line you love lives in different translations is a productive way to get to the bottom of what makes it shine; and to appreciate how it transforms in other iterations.

As someone who loves to translate form and rhyme, I find song translations a work of art. It’s fascinating to compare how “Lost in the Woods” takes on a highly figurative life in French, and to see how the song operates in Chinese, which is a language that makes rhyming effortless.

Ultimately, regardless of the language we’re reading, we can agree that the feeling of being “lost in the woods” is universal. There’s a reason why Dante’s 14th-century Inferno still mesmerizes us with its opening lines: “In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself astray in a dark wood” (tr. Seamus Heaney). And, just as Dante’s Inferno has captivated translators and translation scholars worldwide, perhaps the many translations of Disney songs are what help the franchise hold on to its magic today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s