Looking for Specific Translation to Tum balalaika

Tum balalaika is a Yiddish folk song. John Ringo wrote me that he was looking for help finding a version from his childhood that’s different than the one we have posted (click the link for our version). Here’s what he wrote…

I was actually looking for a set of lyrics to this I remember from my childhood. I could recall the last two verses but not the first. My recollection (from, gulp, 30+ years ago) was that the introductory verse was less about a ‘young man trying to choose the right wife’ than a minstrel trying to woo a girl smarter than he was.

If I might dare to suggest an alternate translation to the last two verses:

Maiden, maiden, this I must know.
What can grow without rain or snow?
What can blaze and never die?
And what can weep and never cry?

Tumbala tumbala tum balalaika
Tumbala tumbala tum balalaika
Tum balalaika, play balalaika
Tum balalaika laugh and be gay.

Idle lad you’re joking I know.
A stone can grow without rain or snow.
Love can blaze and never die
And a heart can weep and never cry.

Chorus.

It’s just a more singable version in English. I used to use it as a lullabye for my kids.

Now if I can just find the translation of the first verse.

Take care,

John Ringo

If anyone is familiar with a version of the first verse of Tum balalaika that’s about ‘a minstrel trying to woo a girl smarter than he was’, please let us know about it in the comments below, or you can email me.

Thanks in advance!

Lisa

This article was posted on Sunday, May 4th, 2008 at 9:00 pm and is filed under Countries & Cultures, Folk Songs, Ireland, Questions, Readers Questions, Russia. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

63 Responses to “Looking for Specific Translation to Tum balalaika”

  1. L Says:

    Also the translation I remember learning (in the U.S.) is almost identical to the one rajani posted:

    Chorus: Tumbala, tumbala, tumbalalaika,
    Tumbala, tumbala, tumbalalaika,
    Tumbalalaika, shpil balalaika,
    Tumbalalaika, freylekh zol zayn.

    I’ll tell you a tale of a certain young man
    Who stayed up all night and thought of a plan
    He wanted a girl who’d be his delight
    A girl who was pretty, witty and bright.

    Chorus

    Tell me, maiden, tell if you know
    What needs no rain and yet it can grow
    Tell what can blossom, bloom through the years
    And what, when it yearns, cries without tears.

    Chorus

    Oh foolish boy, surely you know
    A stone needs no rain, and yet it can grow
    True love can blossom, bloom through the year
    And the heart when it yearns, cries without tears.

    Chorus

  2. Sabrina Says:

    I love all these different translations!

    When I sang this to the girl for whom I nannied, I’d switch the answers to the riddle in a way that made more sense to me. I don’t remember a first introductory verse whatsoever. Here’s what I would sing (with the wrong answers):

    Maiden, oh maiden, tell me again:
    What can grow, grow without rain?
    What can burn for many long years?
    And what can cry without shedding a tear?

    Tumbalala, tumbalala, tumbalalaika
    Tumbalala, tumbalala, tumbalalaika
    Tumbalalaika, sing me a-laika
    Tumbalalaika, sing me a tale.

    Silly young man, why ask again?
    Love can grow, grow without rain.
    A heart can burn for many long years
    And a stone can cry without shedding a tear.

    As a child, I figured only someone made of stone would not cry tears. The actual explanations for a stone growing are so interesting! I found one comment on another page that says: “Stones (in the fields), which are under the earth surface, appears from time to time on the surface. At first appears the top of the stone, then, in years, the whole stone. So, it grows. You can see it in north-east Europe.” Another person mentioned her garden in which she is always picking out stones that emerge from below.

  3. Beth Says:

    Tumbala, tumbala, tumbalalaika x 2

    Many the maidens, bright are their eyes–how shall I choose one who is wise?
    Refrain
    Maiden, maiden, can you explain–what can grow without snow or rain?
    What fire can burn, but never die?
    And what can weep, but never cry?
    Refrain
    Idle lad, you’re joking I know–a stone can grow without rain or snow.
    Love can burn for endless years.
    A heart can weep yet shed no tears.
    1970’s version from grade school.

  4. Alec Says:

    Wikipaedia has a brief, but good, article on the song, even including a second verse (set of questions) that I was unaware of. Sadly, although the song is termed a “folk song”, implying a certain antiquity, there is no reference to write or age. I am now in my middle seventies and first heard it on my mother’s knee, so it must be a shtetl song, but the concept of a boy choosing his own bride is contrary to my understanding of shtetl life. Also, how is telling the rejected girl that she isn’t smart enough to be his wife keeping her from shame ?

    But perhaps that’s overthinking it a little. Its a beautiful song with a lovely melody from our wonderful culture, so lets just enjoy it.

  5. Linda Blile Says:

    Pacing puzzling all the night long
    A young lad sang a haunting song
    What shall I say to my love today
    Oh what shall I say to my love today

  6. Sarah Says:

    I also learned this pacing puzzling song in grade school in the 60’s but over the years, some of my words have changed. I too was puzzled over the “stone” thinking it must equate with a cold or non-loving heart, like a “heart of stone” that can grow with time, but “understanding” in a shortened form makes much more sense.

    …Maiden, maiden, can you explain,
    what can grow without snow or rain?
    What can blaze for endless years?
    And what can weep and never shed tears?

    Tumbala… (chorus sung low like the slow soft beating of a sad heart.)

    Young lad, young lad, yes I do know,
    Understanding can grow without rain or snow.
    Love can blaze for endless years.
    A heart can weep yet never shed tears.

    Tumbala, Tumbala, Tumbalalaika (2x)
    Tumbalalaika, Play balalaika,
    Tumbalalaika, laugh and be gay.

    The “laugh and be gay” can be sung sarcastically or softly or celebratory making the line equate to “life goes on.”

  7. Lisa Says:

    Jill McCracken wrote:

    “I’m familiar with the Tumbala song.

    Pacing puzzling all the night long,
    A young lad sang a haunting song
    What shall I play for my love today,
    Oh what shall I play, for my love today?

    Maiden, maiden, can you explain,
    What can grow without snow or rain?
    What can burn for endless years,
    What can cry, and shed no tears?

    Idle lad, you’re joking I know
    A stone can grow without rain or snow
    Love can burn for endless years…
    A heart can cry, and shed no tears….

    Enjoy!

    Jill McCracken

  8. Bob Kleszics Says:

    I was remembering and singing the last verse of this beautiful tune that has stayed with me for more than fifty years. I learned it in music class in the mid 60’s in Washingtonville, NY. I remember many tunes from my elementary years. Back then music education was taken seriously and we learned folk songs from around the world, as well as 19th century New York work songs and songs purported to be “Native American” songs. We also wet our feet in instrumental music in the Flutaphone Band in fourth grade. I went on to become a brass player and played first trumpet, then French horn and finally the baritone horn through college. Music helps people be more empathetic and we certainly need more empathy in the world.

    But back to the song. This is the last verse as I remember it, which is the same as one of the versions mentioned previously:

    Idle lad you’re joking I know.
    A stone can grow without rain or snow.
    Love can last for endless years.
    A heart may weep, but shed no tears.

    One of the most beautiful minor key tunes I know.

  9. Kimberly Harmon Says:

    This is the version that I know in English:

    Maiden, maiden, you must explain,
    What can grow without snow or rain?
    What can burn for endless years?
    And what can cry, but she’d no tears?

    Tumbala tumbala tum balalaika
    Tumbala tumbala tum balalaika
    Tum balalaika, play balalaika
    Tum balalaika laugh and be gay.

    Child, child you must be joking.
    A rock can grow without snow or rain.
    Love can burn for endless years
    And a heart can cry, but shed no tears.

  10. Emma Best Says:

    Tossing, turning, all the night long, a young lad sings ….

  11. Jackie Ow Says:

    Maiden, maiden, tell me true
    What can grow without the dew?

    What can burn for years and years?
    What can cry, yet shed no tears?

    Silly lad, the answer true:
    A stone can grow without the dew.

    Love can burn for years and years,
    A heart can cry, yet shed no tears.

  12. Janice Dean Says:

    I’m with Jackie. This was played in my 6th grade class by the inimitable Mrs. Shaw. I remember it perfectly after 62 years – that’s how beautiful were the words and music!

    Maiden, maiden, tell me true.
    What can grow without the dew?
    What can burn for years and years?
    And what can cry and shed no tears?

    Tumbala tumbala tum balalaika
    Tumbala tumbala tum balalaika
    Tum balalaika Tum balalaika
    Tum balalaika Tum balalaika

    Silly lad the answer true.
    A stone can grow without dew.
    Love can burn for years and years.
    A heart can cry and shed no tears.

    Tumbala tumbala tum balalaika
    Tumbala tumbala tum balalaika
    Tum balalaika Tum balalaika
    Tum balalaika Tum balalaika

  13. Win Corduan Says:

    I only have the Yiddish in front of me, so the translation is my own. I’m being literal and, consequently, this translation doesn’t rhyme and isn’t very singable.

    A boy is standing, standing and thinking,
    Thinking and thinking all night long.
    Whom should he take without shaming her?
    Whom should he take without shaming her?

    Chorus: Tumbala, etc.

    Young girl, young girl, I will ask you,
    What can grow, grow without rain?
    What can burn without ceasing?
    What can yearn and weep without tears.

    Chorus

    Silly boy, silly boy, what are you [allowed to] ask?
    A stone can grow without rain.
    Love can burn without ceasing.
    A heart can break and weep without tears.

    Chorus

    What is taller than a house?
    What is faster than a mouse?
    What is deeper than a well?
    What is biter, even more bitter than gall?

    Chorus

    A chimney is taller than a house.
    A cat is faster than a mouse.
    The Torah is deeper than a well.
    Death is bitter, even more bitter than gall.

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