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A Song by Jacques Brel


G'day, Folks! Now Terreson has been at me a bit lately. No harm in that. Sometimes I need people on my back a bit. But he seems to be interested for some reason in the mechanics of translation. I'm not sure why, but I think it is a valid interest. Sometimes we are interested in finding out how things are made, so no reason not to raise the question about a translation.

I'll say first of all that I'm not vastly experienced in translation. Most of what I've done has been for my own purposes. It's only been lately that I've become mercenary with it--that is, I've started doing it for the crass purpose of trying to make money. So I can only give you my own ideas. Talk to somebody else, and you might well get different ideas altogether.

Whether many people on this forum are interested in this topic, I don't know. But you know how it is: sometimes you just feel like talking, but if others don't feel like listening, nobody will try and force them.

At any rate, I discovered Jacques Brel back in my teens. This discovery immediately bloomed into true love that has never died. I still listen to the man 33 years after he died and still love his songs.

Terreson and the gang got into him when the theatrical production, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, became famous, and they were the ones who got me started on translating his songs. My first efforts were pretty feeble, but I think I've got better as the years have gone by. This is not something I've worked at continuously: in fact it's been quite a while now since I've done one. But I've put one out from time to time, and I now have about 30 that I can more or less live with, though the quality of the work is fairly uneven, I think.

One thing that I do know is that prose ain't easy to translate and poetry is harder, but song lyrics are the most difficult of all. For one thing you want the bloody song to rhyme: and as soon as you go for rhyme, you're agreeing to lose all sorts of stuff and make all sorts of sacrifices and take all sorts of liberties. A translation of a song is inevitably very free. Also, if you want a translation that can actually be sung (which is what I always aim for) you have to respect metre as well, and that adds to your problems.

Then you have particular, unforeseeable problems: e.g., in French the main accent of a line always falls on the last syllable, whereas in English relatively few polysyllabic words have their accent on the last syllable. They tend to fall on the next to last syllable. This causes you endless headaches. But no use whinging: if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen, right?

Now the song I've chosen to present here is "Le Moribond", "The Dying Man"--but not because I consider it one of Brel's best. I'd consider it one of his middling ones--good on the whole but with certain weaknesses, and it certainly doesn't have the fireworks of some of his great songs. But I've chosen this one because it's one that everybody knows.

It was translated (more or less) by Rod McKuen as "Seasons in the Sun" and was sung by Terry Somebody, I think, in the 70's, I think, and was recently redone by an Irish boy band, Westlife, I think.

Those of us who love Brel are not great fans of McKuen. What is commonly said about his translations is that they "emasculate" Brel's songs, and I myself think the word is accurate. Basically what he did was to water down the song and sweeten it up for the teeny bopper set.

To illustrate: McKuen rendered the refrain of this song like this, as best I can recall:

We had joy, we had fun,
We had seasons in the sun,
But the stars in our reach
Were like starfish on the beach.

What Brel said, as close as I can render it literally, is this:

I want you to laugh, I want you to dance,
I want you to go mad and enjoy yourselves,
I want you to laugh, I want you to dance
When you put me in the hole.

Which I have translated like this:

And come and sing, come and dance,
Pass the bottle all around,
Come and sing, come and dance,
When you put me in the ground.

Now I've changed "laugh" to "sing", and Brel says nothing about a bottle. But what I'm trying to do--and for me this is the one thing above all that a translator should do--is to preseve the spirit of the song. I believe I've done that, whereas Mr. McKuen didn't.

Linguistic problems, such as I've been discussing so far, are not the only ones you run into. You can also run into cultural differences. French speakers often use images that make perfect sense to them, that evoke things for them, and that they're comfortable with. But their images often strike the English speaker as awkward, puzzling, even outlandish. When you run into that sort of problem, you have to look for some sort of accomodation.

In the last verse of this song, Brel talks about taking the train--a fairly common image, I think, for one's departure into the afterlife. I don't think this is a common image in the English-speaking world. I don't know that I've ever heard it, at any rate. Nonetheless, the image is readily understood, and in my initial version of this song, I worked the image in. Later, I changed my mind and dropped it. This is the sort of choice a translator has to make, and it's a matter of opinion as to whether a translator is right in his/her decisions.

Finally, a translator on occasion is unable to resist the temptation to touch things up a bit if he feels they're not quite right. This is what I've done with the last verse of this song. Some people might consider this a bit presumptuous, and if so I plead guilty as charged. But one established writer that I did a bit of work for (and who has done some translating himself) had this to say: the translator is the boss, because at the end of the day, he's the one who's going to be blamed, not the author, if the translation is weak. So you want to do the best you can. That's what I've done here.

So to proceed: I'll first give you Brel's lyrics as literally as possible.

Good-bye Emile, I liked you
Good-bye Emile, I liked you, you know
We sang about the same wines
We sang about the same girls
We sang about the same disappointments
Good-bye Emile, I'm going to die
It's hard to die in the spring, you know
But I'm heading for the flowers with peace in my soul
Since you're as good as white bread
I know that you'll take care of my wife

Refrain:
And I want you to laugh, I want you to dance
I want you to go mad and enjoy yourselves
I want you to laugh, I want you to dance
When you put me in the hole.

Good-bye, Father, I liked you
Good-bye, Father, I liked you, you know
We weren't on the same side
We weren't on the same road
But we were seeking the same port
Good-bye, Father, I'm going to die
It's hard to die in the spring, you know
But I'm heading for the flowers with peace in my soul
Since you were her confessor
I know that you'll take care of my wife

Refrain

Good-bye, Antoine, I didn't like you
Good-bye, Antoine, I didn't like you, you know
It kills me to be dying today
While you're still alive and well
And even more solid than boredom
Good-bye, Antoine, I'm going to die
It's hard to die in the spring, you know
But I'm heading for the flowers with peace in my soul
Since you were her lover
I know that you'll take care of my wife

Refrain

Good-bye, my wife, I liked you
Good-bye, my wife, I liked you, you know
But I'm taking the train to go to God
I'm taking the train before yours
But we all take the train we can
Good-bye, my wife, I'm going to die
It's hard to die in the spring, you know
But I'm heading for the flowers with my eyes closed
Since I so often kept them closed
I know that you'll take care of my soul

Refrain

All of which I've rendered like this:

Good-bye, Emile, good-bye, my friend
I always knew you'd see me to the end
We drank to all our favorite wines
We drank to all our favorite girls
We drank to all our bitter times
Good-bye, Emile, it's hardly fair
To have to die when Spring is in the air
But my heart at peace I leave this life
Since you always had a heart of gold
I know that you'll take care of my wife

Refrain
And come and sing, come and dance
Pass the bottle all around
Come and sing, come and dance
When you put me in the ground

And good-bye now, Father John
It's no use crying for the time that's gone
We found ourselves on different sides
We found ourselves on different roads
To what we each called paradise
So good-bye now, it's hardly fair
To have to die when Spring is in the air
But my heart at peace I leave this life
Since you took such pains to guard her soul
I know that you'll take care of my wife

Refrain

And good-bye now, good-bye, Antoine
I doubt I'll miss you in the Great Beyond
It kills me to be dying here
While you'll be going strong for years
Still boring everyone to tears
So long, Antoine, it's just not fair
To have to die when Spring is in the air
But my heart at peace I leave this life
Since you were so hot to warm her bed
I know that you'll take care of my wife

Refrain

Farewell, my wife, farewell, my dear
You know I've truly loved you all these years
But now it seems I'll take my leave
If you're not too overcome with grief
Perhaps you'll say a prayer for me
Good-bye, my wife, it isn't fair
To have to die when Spring is in the air
But now's your turn to close my eyes
Till now 'twas always up to me
There was so much I shouldn't see

Refrain

So there it is, Folks. Now that you have the literal, original lyrics, maybe you can do your own version or touch mine up a bit. I won't deny that it could probably use it.

All the best, the Duck.

---
It's not the dress, it's the woman!
Nov/6/2010, 7:26 am Link to this post Send Email to SenecatheDuck   Send PM to SenecatheDuck
 
Terreson Profile
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Re: A Song by Jacques Brel


Somebody pinch me. Hard to believe this is actually happening. Just so everyone knows, Seneca mentions the old gang. We were a gange of four. Place was Charlottesville, VA. We were young Turks who knew nothing about nothing. We despised programmatic thinking. We eschewed all ideologies. We egged each other on. Those who have read my L.D. poems have already met a third member of the gang. Seneca and I lost contact in '82. Thanks to a mutual friend contact reestablished a few months ago. I certainly owe her.

The translation works for me, Seneca. I appreciate that you give a literal translation for comparison. That is honest. Naturally, I cannot speak to the mechanics. But, knowing Brel almost as well as you do, having sworn by him all my life, I catch that unmistakably Brellean edge in your rendering. It is that sharp, ironic edge in his voice. A tonal thing, brilliantly understated in almost all of his songs. It cleanly comes through with what you've done.

And yeah. That McKuen thing always turned my stomach. I cringed every time it got carried on the radio waves. Such a lie it was.

Tere

Nov/6/2010, 12:22 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: A Song by Jacques Brel


Ironic, yes..."There was so much I shouldn't see." All the variables involved in translation make my head spin when the translators on this board describe the process and post their work.

From what I can see, McKuen really did file off the sharp edges. What a pity.

Thanks for this,

Chris
Nov/6/2010, 5:23 pm Link to this post Send Email to Christine98   Send PM to Christine98
 
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Re: A Song by Jacques Brel


Hi Seneca,

Thanks for posting. More good stuff! It strikes me that your literal translation of Brel's song works as a poem, but I can see how much more challenging it must have been to turn that version into a song with rhyme and meter.

You've got a small but captive audience here at DM. If you want to talk translation, we'll be, as Tere likes to say, your huckleberries. emoticon
Nov/16/2010, 10:37 pm Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
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Re: A Song by Jacques Brel


Thanks for that, Katlin. You're right: I'd never be content with a word-for-word translation of Brel's stuff. I'd always want to make the best song out of it that I could.

Back in the old days, I used to play the guitar (badly) and sing (even worse), so I enjoyed singing the songs even if no one else could stand to listen to them. I eventually gave it up when it became too painful even for me to endure. But it was fun while it lasted.

Brel is always difficult. I remember something I came across somewhere, a remark by Mort Schuman who did most of the translations for the theatrical production, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (and these were excellent translations). There was one song they wanted to do, "Les Bonbons", and Schuman said they had a translation of it ("Caramels"), but in the end they decided not to include it.

And I think I know why. It's one I translated myself as "Chocolates". It's about a young guy (described by Schuman as "a young turkey", though nowadays I think he'd be called "a nerd") out on a date with a girl who's really class. She dumps him for another guy they run into, so he has to settle for another girl who's not so class.

A funny song, and extremely difficult to translate. Because Brel simply has the right touch, that indefinable something that distinguishes the master artist from the chump who's trying to translate him. My version came out as very corny, embarrassingly painful, rather than the light-hearted, funny song it should have been. You have to get it just right, and I couldn't do it.

It's the sort of thing, once you've got it done, you look at it say, "Did I do that?" And you tear it up real quick before anybody else can see it. Brel was a great artist because he knew life and could record it as he saw it. To translate him you have to know life as well as he did and be able to record it. And some of us can't do that nearly as well as he could.

---
It's not the dress, it's the woman!
Nov/17/2010, 8:25 am Link to this post Send Email to SenecatheDuck   Send PM to SenecatheDuck
 
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Re: A Song by Jacques Brel


Brel was a great artist because he knew life and could record it as he saw it. To translate him you have to know life as well as he did and be able to record it. And some of us can't do that nearly as well as he could.

Ah, you are right to point out that a good translation is the result of more than a facility with language. One is translating more than words; one is translating thoughts, feelings, sensations, fantasies, imagination, experience. In a way, the orginal poem itself is a translation of those things into language.
Nov/18/2010, 9:07 am Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
SenecatheDuck Profile
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Re: A Song by Jacques Brel


quote:

Katlin wrote:


Ah, you are right to point out that a good translation is the result of more than a facility with language. One is translating more than words; one is translating thoughts, feelings, sensations, fantasies, imagination, experience. In a way, the orginal poem itself is a translation of those things into language.



I think you're spot on there. That's what art is for me: seeing things and being able to reproduce them, whatever medium you're working in, so that other people can see them. This is one of the chief ways that I personally measure an artist--by what he/she can show me that I've never seen before. A good artist is deep, and can make you deeper, too.



---
It's not the dress, it's the woman!
Nov/18/2010, 5:00 pm Link to this post Send Email to SenecatheDuck   Send PM to SenecatheDuck
 
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Re: A Song by Jacques Brel


Oh I do love rubbing elbows with smart people, in many cases smarter than me, who don't just think with their heads. But maybe "think" is not the right word for it. Neither would be "feel." "Process" as in processing kind of sucks. Can one "gestalt"? Can one go a gestalting? My Oxford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Getaltists this way: "The Gestalists emphasised 'wholes' and structures which could not be broken down into elements." A dictionary on lit terms says gestalt, German for form, shape, figure, denotes a work's organic unity. Maybe artists and translators can go a gestalting.

Tere
Nov/18/2010, 7:04 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: A Song by Jacques Brel


quote:

Terreson wrote:

Maybe artists and translators can go a gestalting.

Tere



Is that anything like trick-or-treating? If so, maybe I should try that method myself.



---
It's not the dress, it's the woman!
Nov/19/2010, 6:17 am Link to this post Send Email to SenecatheDuck   Send PM to SenecatheDuck
 


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