When music director and producer Konnie Aoki was tapped to make an English version of “Yoru ni Kakeru” (titled “Into the Night” in English) — a breakout song by duo Yoasobi — the pressure he felt was overwhelming.
After all, the single was arguably Japan’s biggest hit of 2020: It topped the Billboard Japan Hot 100 chart last year, and the accompanying music video has received almost 242 million views on YouTube since it premiered there in November 2019.
Rendering something that’s already hugely popular into another language would be intimidating for any seasoned translator, but it was even more daunting for Aoki, who isn’t a professional translator and had never translated a major Japanese song into English before.
It’s little wonder, then, that after the English version of the song debuted on Yoasobi’s official YouTube channel last month, it took Aoki a while to muster the courage to look at the comments section, fearing an onslaught of negative feedback.
He was worried for nothing.
As it turns out, the viewers’ responses are full of praise for the way Aoki translated — or rather, interpreted — the lyrics of the original Japanese track.
“I was afraid people might get upset by how I prioritized things like rhyming over word-for-word semantic accuracy. … But the response has been surprisingly positive so far,” Aoki says.
Many noticed how the English version sounded exactly like Japanese at some of the catchiest parts of the song. Take the opening line: “Seize a move, you’re on me” sounds strikingly similar to “shizumu yō ni” (“like sinking down”) from the Japanese version.
“If I were a full-time translator whose job is to be faithful to the source text and accurately translate it into another language, I don’t think my English rendering of the song would’ve turned out this way,” Aoki says.
Aoki, whose real first name is Keita, was born and raised in Japan, and has had a fleeting experience living abroad in Australia and New York. Mostly based in Tokyo, he has spent over 15 years of his career in music, working as a composer, sound director, lyricist and arranger.
The musician in him, he says, “fetishizes the resonance” of words, a guiding principle he applied to “Yoru ni Kakeru.”
“I thought fans would be disappointed if I came up with something that sounded like it had been generated by Google Translate, with no regard at all for the rhymes and sense of language that made the original song so popular,” Aoki says. “So I maximized my sensitivity to rhyming.”
But at the same time, Aoki knew he couldn’t simply throw in random English words that sounded similar to Japanese. The lyrics needed to capture the atmosphere of the song, too.
So he decided to “dive into (the song’s) worldview.” Aoki spent days poring over “An Invitation from Thanatos” — the Mayo Hoshino short story about suicide that the track was based on — and the lyrics penned by Yoasobi composer Ayase, until he felt sure he had absorbed every word and connected deeply with the song’s protagonists.
Aoki also reached out to a bibliophile friend to discuss their thoughts on the short story and lyrics at length and make sure his interpretation wasn’t too far off the mark. A longtime American confidant helped vet his wordplay. It took about a week to complete the translation.
“A literal translation of the Japanese phrase ‘yō ni,’ for example, would be something similar to ‘like,’ but they don’t rhyme with each other at all,” Aoki says. He eventually came up with “you’re on me” to rhyme with “yō ni.”
“When I immersed myself in the story, ‘you’re on me’ felt so right to me — the meaning may not be exactly the same, but I thought the phrase captured what the main protagonist saw and felt,” Aoki says.
The same goes for “saw what got seen hid beneath” in the main chorus, which contains vowels and consonants similar to “sawagashii hibi ni” (“in the loud days”). Aoki says that although the two phrases have different meanings, the English version is meant to symbolize the main character’s inner conflict leading up to a denouement.
“I didn’t translate line by line, but rather paragraph by paragraph, so that even if some words are technically missing (in the English version), the whole paragraph, I hope, would leave the same impression on listeners,” Aoki says.
With the English version shaping up to be a fairly successful project — the official YouTube video has received nearly 6 million views so far — Aoki has high hopes for Ayase and vocalist Ikura performing the song while on tour abroad.
“If half the audience are used to listening to the Japanese version and another half to the English version, they can sing along in the main chorus and say, ‘Sawagashii hibi ni / Saw what got seen hid beneath’ together — and share a sense of oneness,” he says. “I think that would be awesome.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.