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The Gas/The Phone, Jacques Brel


G'day, Folks! Hope everyone's well. I thought I'd post another of my translations of Jacques Brel, hopefully for your pleasure. This is one I absolutely had to butcher in order to get a singable version of it, yet it's one I've always been fairly pleased with. You can see what you think yourselves.

This has always been one of my favorite Brel songs--mainly because it's a funny one. A lot of Brel's work was fairly gloomy, true, but not all of it. Of his lighter works, this is one that's right at the top of my list.

To start, I'll give you a literal translation, as closely as I can:


THE GAS, J. Brel


You live on the Street of the Madonna
A house that sways its hips
A house that corkscrews
And weeps big boards
The staircase spirals
It’s not big, no, but there’s space
You live on the Street of the Madonna
And I came for the gas

You have a sitting-room full of Buddhas
The candles dance in their holders
It smells nice, there’s no nonsense
It’s dripping with taffeta
It’s full of photos of you
That are dozing before the mirror
You have a sitting-room full of Buddhas
And I came for the gas

You have a sofa made for a king
A true diva’s sofa
Some port wine you brought back
From the Porte des Lilas
You have a little dog and a big cat
You have a sofa made for a king
And I came for the gas

You have breasts like suns
Like fruits, like household altars
You have breasts like mirrors
Like fruits, like honey
You cover them up, everything goes dark
You uncover them and I become Pegasus
You have breasts like sidewalks
And I came for the gas

Then in your house there’s the plumber
There’s the verger, there’s the postman
The doctor who’s making coffee
The lawyer who’s serving the liqueurs
There’s the half of an artillery-man
There’s a poet from Carpentras
There’s several cops and my sister’s hand
And they’re all there for the gas

So come on, everyone, Street of the Madonna
It’s not big, no, but there’s space
Come on, everyone, Street of the Madonna
And be sure to say it’s for the gas


And then my version:


THE PHONE
(Le Gaz, J. Brel)


You live on St. Theresa Street
A house that’s fallen to its knees
A house so tired it wants to go to sleep
And every window seems to weep
The staircase sighs beneath your feet
It’s not too big, but it’s a cosy home
You live on St. Theresa Street
And I came to fix the phone

Your sitting-room was full of light
With candles dancing round the place
It smelled so nice, ‘twas all just right
The windows all were hung with lace
You had a coal fire burning bright
And rows of portraits—all your own
Your sitting-room was full of light
And I just came to fix the phone

You had a sofa fit for a queen
The plushest carpet ever seen
A case of red Le Piat d’Or
You bought from the corner store
You had a little dog and lots of fat cats
A stereo that was playing jazz
Lots of Buddhas in soapstone
And I just came to fix the phone

‘Cause you’ve got boobs like shooting stars
Like peaches and cream, like nenuphars
You’ve got boobs like clementines
Like golden honey, like wayside shrines
You covered them up, I fainted away
You showed them again and I could have flown
‘Cause you’ve got boobs like the Milky Way
And I just came to fix the phone

Well, in your house I met a lawyer
The parish priest and then the plumber
The postman who was making tea
A doctor serving the Hennessy
A Russian sailor on weekend leave
A lyric poet from Athlone
A couple of cops, and would you believe
That they were all there to fix the phone

So come on, all you lads, St. Theresa Street
It’s not big, no, but it’s a cosy home
Come on, all you lads, St. Theresa Street
And say you’ve come to fix the phone


A few words of explanation are in order. First of all, I changed "the gas" to "the phone". As for "I came for the gas", I always took that to mean that he came to read the meter. But my contacts tell me that's not necessarily so: it could be for general repair work, something like that. At any rate, however you take it, sticking with the gas involved too many translation problems. So I changed it to the phone, which made things a lot easier. And I think it's a trivial detail: the gas, the phone, much the same thing.

First verse: I never hesitate to change place names, as I did in this and other verses, when necessary. So here the Madonna becomes St. Theresa. You do what you need to do for the sake of metre and rhyme, and again I think the names are unimportant.

This first verse also shows Brel at his quintessential, untranslatable best. The verbs "corkscrew" and "spiral" don't exist in French. They're words Brel coined and can't be reproduced in English. As for "weeping big boards", this is a variation of the common expression, "weeping big tears", meaning "sobbing bitterly". In my version, I simply tried to reproduce the general image of the house that Brel was creating.

Third verse: the Porte des Lilas is a poor, working-class district of Paris.

Fourth verse: I recently came across an account of Brel's disappointment with the reception this song got the first time he sang it: the audience didn't know what he was talking about in this verse. Brel said, "The accordeonist in the band told me, 'Jacques, "breasts like suns", that doesn't mean anything.' And maybe he was right."

As for "breasts like sidewalks", my contacts were unable to explain exactly what that means. So I went with something else that I thought might fit there. At any rate, I take this verse as an expression of a young guy's amazement and delight. In his excitement, he becomes a bit incoherent. Perfectly understandable.

Fifth verse: "my sister's hand" is part of a rather vulgar expression, "and my sister's hand in a soldier's pants", meaning "I don't believe a word of it"--that is, he doesn't believe all those guys are there to fix the phone.

If you've never heard the song, hopefully you can find it somewhere. It's one of Brel's classics: it starts out quietly, on a rather melancholy tone. Then it begins bouncing a bit, making you wonder what's going to come. And by the end of it, it's just a fine, rollicking number. You can hear the guy chortling with glee, more than a bit pleased with himself.

---
It's not the dress, it's the woman!
Jan/12/2011, 1:49 pm Link to this post Send Email to SenecatheDuck   Send PM to SenecatheDuck
 
Terreson Profile
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Re: The Gas/The Phone, Jacques Brel


Seneca I've decided you ain't no goose, no swan, no Rhode Island Red rooster, and no Guinea hen. Without question you are a duck. Transliteration and liberties taken work for me, man. Perfect actually.

I found this on You Tube. Brel himself in an excitable mood:

[url][sign in to see URL]

Tere
Jan/12/2011, 8:51 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: The Gas/The Phone, Jacques Brel


Glad you like it. And I'm perfectly happy being a duck. I used to be a fish, didn't I?

Actually, I did later find that video on Youtube. I should have looked for it earlier, but it didn't occur to me. And the literal translation given there is much the same as mine.

Looking at Brel on that video reminded me of a story he himself once told. When he was a young lad just starting out, desperately trying to break into the the business, some cabaret owner (or someone like that) told him he'd never make it in show business because he was too ugly. Brel said, "It took me 400 bottles of wine to get over that one." But it goes to show how much the know-it-alls really know.

---
It's not the dress, it's the woman!
Jan/13/2011, 5:53 am Link to this post Send Email to SenecatheDuck   Send PM to SenecatheDuck
 
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Re: The Gas/The Phone, Jacques Brel


I remember the story too, Seneca. My recollection also is that it came from a cabaret owner. Goes to show what capacity a proprietor, of any sort, may have for accounting for duende.

And again your transliteration tickles the melancholy jesus out of me.

Tere
Jan/13/2011, 6:53 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
Katlin Profile
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Re: The Gas/The Phone, Jacques Brel


Hi Seneca,

What fun! You've done a good job capturing the joie de vivre in this one. Even in the literal translation, the laughter comes through, but in the singable version, the rhyme-scheme itself adds to the humor. The line "And rows of portraits—all your own" signalled the beginning shift in tone for me. I, too, took the various descriptions of the breasts/boobs to be examples of exuberance, extravagance, outrageousness even. All part of the game, the sport, nothing to be taken literally.

I enjoyed the translation as well as your explanations. Thanks for posting. emoticon
Jan/19/2011, 2:31 pm Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
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Re: The Gas/The Phone, Jacques Brel


quote:

Katlin wrote:

  The line "And rows of portraits—all your own" signalled the beginning shift in tone for me.



Thanks, Katlin, and I think you're right about this. I've always considered this a very clever little song: step by step he lets you in on what's really going on in that house.

A couple of lines that always got me were the doctor who was making coffee and the lawyer who was serving the liqueurs. It all sounds so jolly, everybody's having so much fun. So many guys and one woman--and yet everybody's friends, they're just there to enjoy themselves. "Joie de vivre" is spot on.



---
It's not the dress, it's the woman!
Jan/19/2011, 4:46 pm Link to this post Send Email to SenecatheDuck   Send PM to SenecatheDuck
 


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