Nena’s ’99 Luftballons’ German and English Translations

Way back in 1983, a German band released their debut album which contained a single that would eventually take the world by storm. The band Nena took its name from the nickname and stage name of their female lead vocalist. The song is “99 Luftballons” which became a #1 hit in West Germany by March of 1983 and went on to major international chart success the following year also reaching #1 in Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland. The German version even reached #2 in the United States in March of 1984, but was held out of the top spot by Van Halen’s “Jump”.

The original song was co-written by keyboardist Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen (music) and guitarist Carlo Karges (lyrics). An English version titled “99 Red Balloons” was created which was NOT a direct translation of the original with lyrics written by Kevin McAlea though it does capture the same sentiment. The English version reached #1 in Australia, Canada, Ireland and in the UK. It is kind of surprising that the German version was even more popular in the U.S. than the English version, though I do remember them both getting airplay.

The song tells the story of some children’s balloons floating in the sky that are mistakenly identified as a threat with the governments immediately putting their troops on red alert and then scrambling fighter jets to intercept the balloons, which ultimately triggers a nuclear war. In the apocalyptic aftermath, the song’s narrator stands in the rubble of the city and finds a single remaining balloon. This awesome chart from allows you to compare the original German lyrics, the direct German translation to English and the English version lyrics side-by-side

Captain Kirk in German is still Captain Kirk and he does appear in both versions. This was in the early-80s, so the Cold War and fear of nuclear war was prominent. This song was topical in that regard capitalizing on that paranoia/obsession, but also is just a rockin’ fun tune for such a serious topic. Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)” was another German song having similar success with an English version at this same time. In fact, Nena’s hit knocked Schilling’s hit out of the top spot on the German chart in March of 1983. Here is the original music video for this version of “99 Luftballons” by Nena

A music video for the English version was put together featuring footage from the original video with added footage from a nightclub performance. That video does not seem to be available anymore, so here is a video that allows you to hear the English lyrics for “99 Red Balloons” by Nena

When I was a kid hearing this song, especially the German version, I had no idea what it was about. Just thought it was a fun song to dance to about balloons. It is such an upbeat sounding song, but has such a sad meaning behind the lyrics. That might be why I have been more fascinated about the song’s meaning as I have gotten older.

Although “99 Luftballons” was Nena’s only hit in the English-speaking world, the band continued to enjoy success in Germany and several European countries in the following years. By mid-1985, sales of Nena’s records and the attendance numbers on her 1985 tour dates dropped, which led to the eventual band split in mid-1987 and Nena went solo thereafter. To me, the band and its namesake lead singer will always be best remembered for that smash one-hit-wonder from the early ’80s. As 99 red balloons go by…

Listen to the song now!

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Old School Tim has an adoring devotion to the awesome '80s decade. He loves to relive and share that nostalgia on a regular basis. The Kickin' it Old School blog site has been retired, but you can still get daily doses of '80s goodness on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and anywhere else they let him.