The Sockdolager

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While I Rock

My favorite example of a literary translation error begins in the year 2000. That year, alternative rock band Wheatus released an album containing what would become their biggest hit, a song called “Teenage Dirtbag.” It is about the singer’s unrequited love for a girl who attends his high school.

The song’s second verse is a description of the girl’s boyfriend. It begins about one minute and ten seconds into the song, and reads:

He lives on my block
and he drives an IROC
and he doesn’t know who I am

“IROC” is an acronym that stands for “International Race of Champions,” a racing series promoted as a sort of all-star game for motorsport. Notionally, drivers from many different racing series would all compete using identically-prepared cars. In practice, it wound up being mostly NASCAR drivers on oval tracks. But beginning in 1985, at the height of IROC’s popularity, Chevrolet produced an IROC edition of its Camaro sports car: The Camaro IROC-Z.

Over the next ten years, the IROC-Z became the American sports car of choice for the jackass teenager on a budget. Its profile cannot help but conjure up the odors of illegally-obtained beer and poor decision making.

The fact that the boyfriend drives an IROC tells us an enormous amount about him; it might be the single most evocative line in the song.

“Teenage Dirtbag” hit #2 on the UK charts. Around half a decade later, Girls Aloud, an all-girl pop group formed out of a British reality TV contest, would cover the song, but gender-flip it such that the boyfriend was now a girlfriend.

You can watch their live performance of the song. What’s interesting, for our purposes, is their version of the second verse:

She lives on my block
and she drives while I rock
and she doesn’t know who I am

Wheatus vocalist Brendan B. Brown’s intonation of “an IROC” is phonetically indistinguishable from “and I rock,” which is grammatically plausible and even makes some degree of narrative sense, given the protagonist’s enjoyment—established elsewhere in the song—of Iron Maiden. The song’s video even includes footage of the hapless protagonist on a bicycle, which suggests the narrative of a carless nerd listening to Iron Maiden alone while the boyfriend drives a car: “He drives while I rock.”

I don’t know the process the Girls Aloud vocalists went through to learn the song. If it involved reading the lyrics, they must have been incorrectly transcribed. If they had been correct, it would’ve been clear to them that the line is not “he drives and I rock.” Given the line’s phonetic ambiguity, without written lyrics, the only way to know what the line means is to watch the original video and to notice that the car driven by the boyfriend is a Camaro IROC-Z.

This is an example of that rare bird, the intra-language translation error. It’s not even a British English-to American English translation error, although the intrinsic American-ness of the Camaro makes it that much harder for a British listener to catch. It’s a simple mistake of ignorance—someone in the Girls Aloud chain of command did not even realize that there was a reference there for them to miss, and so it sailed right over their heads. This led to “she drives while I rock,” and the erasure of the most genuinely evocative line of the song.

This is the labor and the challenge of literary translation. When a translator lacks the cultural and textual knowledge to understand when a text is making an intertextual reference, while-I-rock errors are as inevitable as they are invisible.