I'm going to ask you to think about K-pop Girls' Generation (SNSD)'s song "Gee". You know, "Gee, gee, gee, gee, baby, baby, baby..."
Now that you have that song stuck in your head again, check out the English remix by an American pop-rock band called Nylon Pink in the above video. For research purposes, I've watched several unique covers of or videos inspired by Gee, including a rock version, a death metal rendition, and an excellent parody by a bunch of old men (the Japanese word for old man is "jiji" a.k.a. gee-gee) from a Japanese variety show called Smap x Smap. While I concluded that the Korean original was the best in terms of the combination of musicality, choreography, and language efficiency, I still had fun watching and listening to all the different interpretations of the same song.
It was simultaneously surprising and delightful to find that with the negative connotations attached to pop songs, especially the idea that one song is indistinguishable from another, one song could prove to be the seed of these variations showing distinct personalities behind their creation, like the Nylon Pink cover.
To judge the quality of musicality and choreography depends on individual taste, and changes to those two elements from one song to its translated version will have different effects on different people. The solution to those to problems lies in interpretation and artistic licence. On the other hand, language efficiency in a song is a more tactile problem. Here, I want to make a distinction between song lyrics being translated alone and songs being translated in whole. Language has its own set of rhythms and "musical" tones, because the vehicle through which most people communicate in their language is their voice.
Before Final Fantasy X-2 was released in the US, I started listening to the Japanese version of Real Emotion, which is the song that Yuna sings in the intro movie. I'm not astonished to recall that I recoiled like a klobb when I first listened to the American version of Real Emotion. The song's key had been changed, the English singer's voice didn't match the Japanese singer's. And of course, now and then, it seemed a touch... how shall one say? That there were too many notes, perhaps? What I had sensed was the change in the song's identity — its "personality".
Of course there were too many notes, because the song's English lyrics were longer than the Japanese lyrics at points. You can't just cut a few and think it'll be perfect. Korean and Japanese vocabulary and sentence structure are very similar to one another, which makes it easier for SNSD to translate their Korean version of Gee into Japanese than I imagine it took Nylon Pink to do the same with English.
Let us expand on this idea and talk about "spiritual sequels" that you might have played. When game developers talk about making spiritual sequels, I feel that what they're doing is another kind of difficult translation work. Game code is a kind of language, isn't it? The people who made Perfect Dark also made Goldeneye; Xenosaga is the spiritual sequel to Xenogears; Bioshock to System Shock; Bayonetta to Devil May Cry. I'll tell you which I preferred in each coupling, the original or the variation. Perfect Dark, Xenogears, System Shock, and Bayonetta. It's half and half here, but it all comes down to taste, and that I will attribute to my personality. You might feel differently, so go ahead and personalise the comment section, Kotaku readers.
Original Gee by SNSD [Youtube]