Last week, on his BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show, Chris Evans played “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” by The Beatles, a German-language version of their 1963 #1 “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. I remember enough of my O Level German to know that the title is not a direct translation. “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” means “Come, give me your hand”, but the words fit the chorus just right. Fortunately the final word is the same as it is in English (although it’s usually pronounced with a hard “d” sound, more like a “t”, so it rhymes with “rant” rather than “band”). This means that when the word is stretched from its one syllable to seven, in the second line of the chorus, it sounds pretty much the same.
You can hear the show here, on “BBC Sounds”, the new name for iPlayer Radio, for the next 23 days. The song is at 1:22:51. I only caught a minute or two of the programme live, so didn’t realize that this was one of many German-language recordings played that morning, beginning with Nena (“99 Luftballons”, the original version of “99 Red Balloons”) at 12:45 on the link above, immediately followed by another Beatles recording (“Sie Liebt Dich”, for “She Loves You”). David Bowie singing “Helden” (“Heroes”) is at 41:00 and just before “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” there’s a bit of Abba singing “Waterloo” in German at 1:21:08.
Back in the 1970s, when my brother and I were teenagers and still shared a room, we heard “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” many times. It was played on Capital Radio one evening and we happened to tape it on the radio-cassette recorder we shared. We kept that recording for a year or two. I could translate a few phrases from the song: “Du bist so schön” (“You are so pretty”) and “In deinen armen bin ich glücklich” (“In your arms I am happy”) but much of it was lost on me. There were plenty of words that I couldn’t make out let alone translate. My brother didn’t study German (it was Spanish and French at his school) so nearly all of it was unfamiliar to him.
Back in 2016 I wrote this piece about the use of songs to help people learn languages. It describes my brother, teaching English to school-age children in Spain, playing “I Like It” by Gerry and the Pacemakers (another 1963 #1) to emphasize the use of the word “it”. It’s a tricky concept for most people learning our language but neither he nor I have ever resorted to reducing the question “Do you like it?” to “You like?” Similarly, we have corrected, countless hundreds of times, sentences such as “I like very much” and “Very much I like” to include the missing pronoun.
Hearing the Beatles sing in German for the first time in decades I wondered how good my grasp of the language would be if the majority of songs played on the radio were recorded that way. Would I be able to reel off the German equivalent of phrases like “I should be so lucky”, “I don’t want to talk about it” or “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” from hearing them, and singing along with them, hundreds of times? Vielleicht. That’s German for “perhaps”, a word that has never appeared in the title of a UK top 40 single, although “maybe” appears in the titles of over a dozen UK hits.