What is Free Translator by the Books based on?
December 6, 2010 1:49 PM   Subscribe

The Books have a song called "Free Translator" (YouTube link) in which the somewhat nonsensical lyrics started out as a "very well known folk song", but were passed through free web translators again and again until they became something completely different. Does anyone know/can anyone figure out what the original song was? It will be harder than it sounds. The answer does not appear to be on the internet yet...
posted by PercussivePaul to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Subterranean Homesick Blues?
posted by Knappster at 1:55 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Knappster has it, I think.
posted by Miss Otis' Egrets at 1:59 PM on December 6, 2010

Call me a cynic, but I suspect that either the lyrics were massaged a little in addition to all the machine translation or that 'very well known folk song' doesn't mean what I think it does.

The last bit seems like one possible vein to mine--if there's a song that ends with 'and a noun/ and a noun/ and a noun/ and a noun/ in a noun,' it's probably a good possibility.
posted by box at 1:59 PM on December 6, 2010

'Free Translator':

And I see

The hold-out boy and the weather girl,
know the wind moves in a patient way
Like a two-decade day

The man in the mouth of a drain
Laughing and chewing erasers
Like a black dog in the snow

Write in relief and sleep again
and you cant believe your eyes
and you cant find your pen
and the man in the hole
is your new friend's friend

Symmetrical foot in your mouth
and your high speed legs
Your knee-jerks a mark of distinction
It's an elevator put-on

Count your dollar, only one
and count it again
one one one
You can't count it when your dead, no
You keep a pure nose
Write in relief and sleep again
and you get in the hole,
with your new friend's friend
and he cant believe his eyes
and he can't find his pen

And the meteorological man
With a whirl-wind girl
And a mote in the sun
And a squid in a bag
And a raccoon hat
And a talking plant
And a careful goat
In a sewer system shaft

'Subterranean Homesick Blues':

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It’s somethin’ you did
God knows when
But you’re doin’ it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin’ for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap
By the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten

Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the D.A.
Look out kid
Don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tiptoes
Don’t try “No-Doz”
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows

Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin’ to sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write braille
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail
Look out kid
You’re gonna get hit
But users, cheaters
Six-time losers
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool
Lookin’ for a new fool
Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parkin’ meters

Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
’Cause the vandals took the handles
posted by box at 2:02 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

The linked page says "we made a collection of the best moments in our texts." So it's clear to me at least it's the snippets of a few back and forth runs of the translator. I don't think you'll find some line for line correlation.
posted by neustile at 2:09 PM on December 6, 2010

Nick freely admits in that Tumblr post that "Both Paul and I translated an retranslated these lyrics so many times that new characters began to emerge and we made a collection of the best moments in our texts." The fact that it's a "collection of best moments" makes me think that it's not the incredibly serendipitous result of a complete song dropped into a machine translator but a collage of the most poetic stuff they found after running translations over and over. So looking for a song with a lot of "and a" phrases isn't going to get you anywhere, since for all you know the squid in a bag and the careful goat originate from the exact same original lyric.

My money's on "Subterranean Homesick Blues," though.
posted by theodolite at 2:10 PM on December 6, 2010

Assuming that it's a collage and not a whole-song translation:

"know the wind moves in a patient way" = "To know which way the wind blows"

"Count your dollar, only one / and count it again / one one one" = "Wants eleven dollar bills / You only got ten"

"With a whirl-wind girl" = "Girl by the whirlpool"

"The man in the mouth of a drain" = "Better jump down a manhole"

posted by theodolite at 2:19 PM on December 6, 2010

Meteorological man = weatherman
Racoon hat = coon-skin cap
posted by naju at 3:05 PM on December 6, 2010

like a two-decade day = twenty years of schoolin'
posted by rocket88 at 3:25 PM on December 6, 2010

Response by poster: I think it must be. Nice work.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:40 PM on December 6, 2010

Awesome. We saw them in Portland last week and my first guess was "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Glad to hear I wasn't just imagining it.
posted by MonsieurBon at 3:55 PM on December 6, 2010

"box" has it right-NOT Dylan's Subterranean HB. (Sushma=60's folksinger) Am/F/Am6/Am7/Am6/fAm/C/C/Am/F/Am6/Am7/E/Dm6/E/Dm6/Am/F7/Am/Interlude/Repeat 3 times.....
posted by ~Sushma~ at 7:36 PM on December 6, 2010

I didn't think it was, but I've changed my tune. Now that I know the lyrics weren't transcribed exactly, and presuming the people from The Books think 'SHB' is a folk song, I think it's a perfectly plausible answer. And--correct me if I'm wrong--I don't think anyone is claiming the chords are the same.
posted by box at 7:58 PM on December 6, 2010

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