One Vassar student has struck Internet gold. A video Malinda Reese ’16 posted on her YouTube channel garnered over a million views in less than a week.
In it, Reese sings “Let it Go,” a song from the 2013 animated-musical Disney film “Frozen.” Except in her version, she switched out the original lyrics and replaced what the words looked like after put through several rounds of Google Translate.
Reese used the online application to translate individual lines from English through several different languages and then back into English.
As she explains in the video’s introduction, the idea of using Google Translate came from some high school friends of hers.
What Reese typically does is she translates a line first to something more or less related to English before gradually moving on to other languages more estranged on the linguistic tree.
In this manner, a word or phrase in English is bounced across several languages, from English to German, German to Spanish, Spanish to Chinese or Japanese, and finally back into English.
Reese had played around with Google Translate before. She described how every year during the holidays her family reads a Google-translated version of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” She remarked, “I just thought it was funny. It’s kind of like a parlor game.”
On pure whim one day, Reese took some lines from “Frozen” and put it through the system. “Let it Go” became “Give Up,” “Not a footprint to be seen” became “no visible legs,” and “A Kingdom of isolation” was converted to “discrimination law.”
Reese sensed she was onto something.
“I knew if I didn’t record this right now and share it with people I was going to regret it,” she said.
The following morning, carrying with her a video camera and a voice microphone, she walked over to Skinner Hall to record. After some warm ups, it took Reese six takes before she was satisfied. The entire process of capturing and editing the video only took less than three hours, but Reese waited an entire day before sharing it online.
According to Reese, her parents were the first to see it. They were the ones who suggested adding subtitles at the bottom so that viewers can follow the stilted translation.
Reese described how afterwards she shared the video with some fellow student singers.
She said, “I sent it to a couple of friends first to be, like, is this worth posting?”
Although she described herself as having been a longtime devotee of Vloggers and YouTube musicians, Reese had created only a few videos herself.
“I knew it was going to get more views than any other idea I had posted because, well, the idea certainly wasn’t original, but it was unique and it was weird,” said Reese. “So I was like maybe 1,000 views. Maybe. Max.”
Six hours after posting, the video had roughly 30,000 views. Blogs and news sources quickly picked up the video. The day after it hit the Internet, the Huffington Post, Smosh and Perez Hilton all posted about it. On the third day, the video had been re-shared by BuzzFeed and the YouTube homepage, along with numerous TV and radio websites from across the globe.
What impressed Reese about the response she received was its transnational dimensions. “The coolest thing has been to receive messages from people all over the world. Not just positive messages but insightful and observant,” described Reese. “It was just cool to have that kind of connection through laughter and music. It was just fun. Those are two things that bring people together.”
Reese is taking the video’s success one day at a time. “I’m just kind of enjoying it while it lasts because having a video that gets that much attention isn’t something at all that happens every day,” she said. “I don’t think it will ever happen to me again so its just really, really fun to enjoy it while it is happening.”
She claimed her priorities haven’t changed. “I’m really keeping things in perspective,” she said. “My life here at Vassar comes first. And I feel like my academics and my friends and my extracurricular, everything, all that stuff is really the most important and I have really tried to choose to focus on that.”
Reese is, however, planning on releasing more Google Translate videos in the coming weeks. Last Tuesday Feb. 18, she released a Google Translate version of “Part of the World” from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”
Starting a YouTube series had been an ambition of Reese for awhile.
“There are a lot of Youtube musicians and vloggers that I love and I had always thought about doing it, but trying to get started on YouTube is so hard and it takes so long,” she said. “To have my first weird video to blow up in front of me it was a matter of luck and timing.”
“Frozen” is the movie musical of the moment, and people singing top songs are always among the most watched YouTube videos. But among the vast reaches of the Internet, and the hundreds-of-thousands of “Frozen” covers already existing, why did this one video become so popular so fast?
Reese has a theory. She recalled how what first sparked her was watching a multilingual version of “Let it Go” Disney released, which featured the hit song being song in 25 different languages.
Listening to the part in Spanish, Reese had a thought. “I remember thinking, ‘If you directly translated that it would be incorrect,’” she said.
Reese believes her videos speaks to the difficulties and contrariness of language.
“One of the reasons that it has appealed to people all around the world is that it shows that language is hard,” she explained. “There are some things in some languages that are expressed differently.”
So while the video commenters blame Google Translate for ruining their favorite song, Reese sees it differently
She said, “It wasn’t demeaning of Google Translator, it’s pointing out how language can be awkward and funny.”