Monday, March 09, 2009

99 Decision Street

So what I’m about to lay down here ties into a few things that normally wouldn’t have much to do with each other. Among them: the episode of 30 Rock that aired two weeks ago, the Watchmen movie, the French film The Class that was the subject of this post, and the general trickiness of language in translation.

This past Saturday, I say Watchmen with Jesse and Leia, despite warnings from trustworthy sources that I should skip it altogether. I actually enjoyed the movie quite a bit. It had its faults, sure, but I walked into the theater expecting a complete broken-condom sodomization of the original graphic novel, and this was not that. Sure, Malin Ackerman doesn’t have the dramatic chops that Laurie Juspeczyk deserved, but considering that Ackerman has previously only been known for comedic work, she didn’t do a wholly terrible job. Certain scenes fell short — some due to Ackerman’s presence, some not — but others actually gave me geekly goosebumps as a result of how well they translated Alan Moore’s original work from the page to the screen. I didn’t even mind the soundtrack, which one certain naysayer claimed would stand out as being particularly ill-chosen. One of the things Moore’s original work did well was to riff on stray bits of pop culture. It makes perfect sense, then, that an audio-visual adaptation of it would incorporate sonic staples of the various decades in which its story takes place.

That brings us to the subject at hand: Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” more commonly known to use non-Deutschers as “99 Red Balloons,” which is featured early in the film as an intro to a date between Laurie and Dan Dreiberg. Some might find this song’s presence jarring or even downright irritating, but I think it not only makes sense but also constitutes a good use of the New Wave tune, seeing as how “99 Luftballons” is one of the more superficially sugarcoated pop songs about nuclear apocalypse ever and this exact type of potential world-ender looms throughout the film. Furthermore, Watchmen takes place in 1985, so the film’s characters would have had every reason to be familiar with it.

awkward apocalypse dancing

(Out of the context of the spandex-clad, for a moment, “99 Luftballons” was in my head already, due to the episode of 30 Rock that aired two weeks ago, in which Liz tried to pass it off as a lullaby that her German grandmother had sung to her. I feel like Liz Lemon isn’t the only one for whom the opening lyrics constitute the extent of their German vocabulary. There’s no great connection between 30 Rock and Watchmen other than this coincidence, but at least its appearance in both proves the song still bears relevance to pop culture as it stands now.)

My experience at the movies last week — with The Class, whose translation into English was hampered by the fact that its original, French version focused so heavily on languages other than English — got me wondering, however, how accurately the English lyrics to “99 Red Balloons” match up to those of the original, German version.

As a refresher, here is how the English versions read:
You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got
Set them free at the break of dawn
‘Til one by one, they were gone
Back at base, bugs in the software
Flash the message “Something’s out there”
Floating in the summer sky
Ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells — it’s red alert
There’s something here from somewhere else
The war machine springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
Focusing it on the sky
Where ninety-nine red balloons go by

99 Decision Street
Ninety-nine ministers meet
To worry, worry, super-scurry
Call the troops out in a hurry
This is what we’ve waited for
This is it boys, this is war
The president is on the line
As ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine knights of the air
Ride super-high-tech jet fighters
Everyone’s a superhero
Everyone’s a Captain Kirk
With orders to identify
To clarify and classify
Scramble in the summer sky
As ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine dreams I have had
In every one a red balloon
It’s all over and I’m standing pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
And here is a red balloon
I think of you and let it go
(I should note at this point that a Google search for “99 red balloons lyrics” first pulls up the words for the cover of this song by Goldfinger and next a listing of the song by Blondie. Nena only shows up on the third hit.)

I won’t put the German lyrics here — because who cares? — but their literal translation into English reads just a bit differently. Foremost, the balloons aren’t red. They’re technically not even balloons — they’re luftballons, though I’m not clear what the difference might be. The word red was added to the song to help the English words fit into the song, though I imagine that the translators picked red as a result of American anti-Soviet tensions.

According to this site, these are the German lyrics, translated into English without the restraint of rhyme or rhythm.
Have you some time for me,
Then I’ll sing a song for you
About ninety-nine balloons
On their way to the horizon
If you’re perhaps thinking about me right now
Then I’ll sing a song for you
About ninety-nine balloons
And that such a thing comes from such a thing

Ninety-nine balloons
On their way to the horizon
People think they’re UFOs from space
So a general sent up
A fighter squadron after them
Sound the alarm if it’s so
But there on the horizon were
Only ninety-nine balloons

Ninety-nine fighter jets
Each one’s a great warrior
Thought they were Captain Kirk
Then came a lot of fireworks
The neighbors didn’t understand anything
And felt like they were being provoked
So they shot at the horizon
At ninety-nine balloons

Ninety-nine war ministers
Matches and gasoline canisters
They thought they were clever people
Already smelled a nice bounty
Called for war and wanted power
Man, who would’ve thought
That things would someday go so far
Because of ninety-nine balloons

Ninety-nine years of war
Left no room for victors
There are no more war ministers
Nor any jet fighters
Today I’m making my rounds
See the world lying in ruins
I found a balloon
Think of you and let it fly
Nothing earth-shattering, and perhaps just as different as you might expect. But for me it just goes to show that anything in translation only offers a loose interpretation of whatever the original was attempting to say. Tragic, really, the limitations of language. The most I could hope to get from a film or song or book originally written in a language other than English is only the gist — and that’s saying I had the translation done by a clever friend equally fluent in both English and whatever the language in question was. And even then he or she would have to substitute certain foreign words and phrases and concepts with whatever the best English approximation is.

I swear, this represents the most I will write on “99 Red Balloons” ever, though it’s worth mentioning now that the song previously came up in this blog in 2005, when I realized it had a curious lyrical connection with The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside.” And the fact that this post follows so closely the heels of a similar one on Cyndi Lauper’s song from The Goonies is pure coincidence. Really.


  1. I believe I learned that "Luftballon" is the German word for "balloon." The literal meaning, however, is something like "air ball."

  2. Anonymous6:22 PM

    Yeah, Luft is "air".
    I'd sorta figured that in choosing the English lyrics, meter took precedent over actual translation.

  3. It actually seems to me that the two sets of lyrics are quite close, and tell the same story. Interesting that Captain Kirk is cross-cultural.

    And I loved it in Watchmen - it was perfectly appropriate. I often think about all those nuclear nightmare songs I listened to in high school & college. ("I Hope The Russians Love Their Children, Too", etc.)
    I think people forgot how pervasive that fear and imagery was.