Jacques Brel, “The Lock Keeper” (1968)

The Lock Keeper (L’éclusier) on YouTube.

There’s nothing much to say about this. I just wanted to translate the lyrics because it’s the saddest song ever featuring an accordion. The accordion gets a pretty bad rap, but ever since that one episode of Mad Men, when Joan played the accordion, I like to think it’s making something of a comeback. (Oh, here it is. Love you, Joanie!)

The sailors
See me growing old
I see the sailors
Growing  old

We play
The idiot’s game
In the oldest
Part of the building

In my line of work,
Even in the summer,
We have to travel
With our eyes closed

It’s a grand life,
Being a lock keeper

The sailors
Know my face
They laugh at me
They’re wrong

Part sorcerer
Part drunk
I cast a spell
On all who sing

In my line of work,
It’s in the autumn
When we gather the apples
And the drowned bodies

It’s a grand life,
Being a lock keeper

In his basket,
A child squints
To see the fly
On the tip of his nose

Mama purrs
Time sighs
Cabbage sweats
Fire grumbles

In my line of work,
It’s in the winter,
When we think of our father
Who drowned himself

It’s a grand life,
Being a lock keeper

Near the spring,
The sailors
Put on airs
In their barge

I’d like their game
Without all this fighting,
It’s worn me down
A bit too much

In my line of work,
It’s in the spring
When you take the time
To drown yourself

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Anna Marly, “The Partisan’s Lament” (1942); Leonard Cohen, “The Partisan” (1969); Joan Baez, “The Partisan” (1973)

Name: Anna Marly (née Anna Yurievna Betulinskaya, 1917-2006)
Origin: Russian  
Anna Marly singing “The Partisan’s Lament” on YouTube

Some translations are so classic, so beautiful, that to make a new one seems a futile move. Hy Zaret’s translation of Anna Marly’s song “La Complainte du Partisan” (The Partisan’s Lament) is one of these. Marly, the so-called Troubadour of the French Resistance during WWII, was born into a Russian family in St. Petersburg during the early days of the Russian Revolution. Her family fled to France. The birth of the song “The Partisan’s Lament” comes during Marly’s time in London during the Nazi occupation of France. I’m just going to steal the story from the Marly’s Wikipedia entry:

After the fall of France in 1940 Marly fled to London with her Dutch husband. It was while she was in London that she made contact with the Free French rebels. Emmanuel d’Astier, a prominent figure in the resistance, heard Marly sing the Chant des Partisans in Russian when he visited London in 1943. He asked the writers Joseph Kessel and Maurice Druon, both of whom had travelled with him, to translate the song into French. D’Astier asked for the translation with the intention of using the song as a replacement for La Marseillaise, which had been banned by the Nazi party. Following this translation, the song quickly established itself as the surrogate anthem of the supporters of the French resistance both in France and Britain. Kessel and Druon, however, took the credit for writing the song; it was not until some years later that she gained the recognition she deserved for writing the original song.

 

When I did my translation, I had been listening to Hy Zaret’s translation for months and months, and it was difficult to separate his words from my own translation. I think I might have over-corrected to get farther from his voice, whether or not it made mine any better. Anyway, here’s mine, which ends up being closer to literal than poetic:

The Germans came to my home
They told me, “Surrender!”
But I just couldn’t
So I took up my gun again

No one has asked me
Where I came from or where
I’m going
Oh you who know,
Cover my tracks

I’ve changed my name a hundred times
I’ve lost my wife and children
But I have so many friends:
I have the whole of France

An old man kept us hidden
For a night in the granary
The Germans took him
He died without surprise

Yesterday we were still three
But now there’s only me
And I’m going in circles
The frontiers are a prison

The wind is blowing through the graves
Freedom will return
We’ll be forgotten
And we’ll go back into the shadows

I’m not sure how Leonard Cohen came upon the song, but he covered it beautifully on his album Songs From A Room. He sings Hy Zaret’s translation, which is, in my opinion, iconic. Here’s Leonard Cohen singing it on French TV: YouTube.

When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do
I took my gun and vanished

I have changed my name so often
Yes I’ve lost my wife and children
But I’ve many friends
And some of them are with me (with me out there, now)

An old woman gave us shelter,
Kept us hidden in the garret
Then the soldiers came
She died without a whisper (without a whisper)

There were three of us this morning
I’m the only one this evening
But I will go on
These frontiers are my prison

Ah the wind, the wind is blowing,
Through the graves the wind is blowing
Freedom soon will come
Then we’ll come from these shadows (I mean these shadows)

French:
The Germans were at my home
They told me to give up
But I couldn’t
I took up my gun again

I changed my name a hundred times
I lost my wife and child
But I have so many friends
I have the whole France

An old man in an attic
Hid us for the night
The Germans captured him
He died without surprise

English:
Ah the wind the wind is blowing
Through the graves the wind is blowing
Freedom soon will come
Then we’ll come from these shadows (oh these shadows)

Ah the wind the wind is blowing
Through the graves the wind is blowing
Freedom soon will come
Then we’ll come from these shadows (I mean these shadows)

So what’s interesting across all the translations is what happens with the last stanza. In Marly’s version, the resistance fighters “[will] be forgotten/And [they will] go back into the shadows” after freedom has returned. Resistance fighters emerge when they are necessary and then disappear when they aren’t. They never get to enjoy the peace that follows the violence. They do what they have to do, and then they disappear from society. There is no rejoining mainstream society after the violence ends. Their proper place is in the shadows. In Leonard’s version, the resistance fighters come out of the shadows to rejoin society. Once freedom returns and everything is as it should be, those fighters are able to leave the violence in the shadows. Unlike Marly’s resistance fighter, who can never be separated from his violence, Cohen’s fighter can and will leave it behind. Everyone gets to enjoy the peacetime in Cohen’s version. Baez’s version of the song is interesting too:

Joan Baez: The Partisan

They poured across the borders
We were cautioned to surrender
This I could not do
Into the hills I vanished

No one ever asked me
Who I am or where I’m going
Those of you who know
You cover up my footprints

I have changed my name so often
I have lost my wife and family
But I have many friends
And some of them are with me

An old woman gave us shelter
Kept us hidden in a garret
Then the soldiers came
She died without a whisper

There were three of us this morning
I’m the only one this evening
Still I must go on
Frontiers are my prison

Ah the winds, the winds are blowing
Through the graves the winds are blowing
Freedom soon will come
Then we’ll come from the shadows

So in Baez’s version, the violence is erased completely. Her resistance fighter never takes up his gun. The conflict between violent resistance and peacetime present in Marly’s and Cohen’s versions disappears. Baez transforms the song into one about non-violent resistance. I get that Baez was a pacifist, but I still wonder whether it was ethical of her to take a song written in support of violent revolution and de-claw it like that. Does it efface the real, lived dangers and lives of the French Resistance? Does it diminish their sacrifices and accomplishments during the Nazi occupation? Is it a white-washing of history? So many questions…

Magali Noël and Boris Vian, “Hurt Me, Johnny” (1959)

Name: Magali Noël (1932-), born in Izmir, Turkey to French diplomat parents; Boris Vian (1920-1959), born in a rich suburb of Paris to Parisian parents of Italian origin.

I just realized this draft was unpublished. I don’t really want to make much comment on it, aside from the fact that it makes me laugh. According to what I’ve heard, it’s one of the first (if not THE first) rock and roll songs recorded in French. Boris Vian, the great novelist and jazz enthusiast wrote it and sings the male part. When the whole rock and roll thing started rolling in from the U.S., he started writing songs in that genre, but never in a serious way. He thought it was more suited to comedy and parody. So the couple of rock and roll songs he did write were straight up comedy. I’m also posting my translation of the lyrics just so I can put up this picture of Boris and Magali, which never fails to crack me up:

noel-vian

YouTube: Hurt me, Johnny

He stood as I walked up
He was a short, little guy
I said to myself, “It’s in the bag.”
This cutie’s all mine
He only came up to my shoulder
But he was built like a house
He followed me back to my crib
And I shouted, “Let’s go, bad boy!”

Hurt me Johnny, Johnny, Johnny
Take me to cloud nine… zoom!
Hurt me Johnny, Johnny, Johnny
I just love it when love goes boom!

(He’s gonna hurt her, he’s gonna hurt her, he’s gonna hurt her…)

He was down to his socks
Nice yellow ones with blue stripes
He looked at me stupidly
He didn’t get it at all, the poor guy
He said sheepishly,
“I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
That pissed me off! I slapped him
And squealed like an animal,

Hurt me Johnny, Johnny, Johnny
I’m not some fly… zoom!
Hurt me Johnny, Johnny, Johnny
I love it when love goes BOOM!

(Come on, hurt her… come on, hurt her… come on, hurt her….)

When I saw he wasn’t getting hot
I insulted him left and right
I called him all the names in heaven
And others you’ve probably never heard
That woke him up good!
And he said, Stop messing around!
You think I’m just some dummy!
I’ll show you a real film noir!

You’re hurting me Johnny, Johnny, Johnny
Not your feet… Zing!
You’re hurting me Johnny, Johnny, Johnny
I don’t like it when love goes BING!

(He hurt her, he hurt her, he hurt her…)

He put his little shirt back on
His little suit, his little shoes
He went down the stairs
And left me with a dislocated shoulder
With animals like him
You’ll really pay for it
Now my backside is black and blue
And I’ll never say again

Hurt me Johnny, Johnny, Johnny
Take me to cloud nine… Zoom!
Hurt me Johnny, Johnny, Johnny
I love it when love goes BOOM!

(Oh, Johnny)

Oh, that pig, oh I’ve had enough of him…

Ramy Essam, “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice” (2011)

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Square lately, the documentary about the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo. It was nominated for an Oscar (apparently the first Egyptian film to be nominated), but didn’t win. The film follows around several “characters” as the demonstrations unfold, over the months, one of them being Ramy Essam, the “Voice of Egypt,” whose song “Get Out” (إرحل) was more or less the official anthem of the demonstrators. He was arrested at one point and tortured by the military, which is chronicled in the documentary. Anyway, since the documentary, he’s continued to write quite a few protest songs, and one of them I stumbled across that I like pretty well is “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice” ( عيش حرية عدالة اجتماعية). So this is the official version of the video. And there are captions/subtitles if you turn them on, but they’re such a goddamn mess that I just cried. I don’t know if someone just threw it into an auto-translator or what, but it’s almost completely garbled. I mean, the first minute of the song is just three words repeated so you can’t really screw that up, but once you get into Ramy actually singing a verse, it’s suddenly as clear as mud:

Bread in egypt means life
egyptian lived it before for a whole civilization
and if he gets thirsty one day ,egyptians will fill his thirst
Bread in egypt means life
egyptian lived it before for a whole civilization
and if he gets thirsty one day ,nile stream will fill his thirst and will cover the debt

There’s another version, via MemriTV.

In the Egyptian dialect, “bread” means “life”
Egyptians have lived their civilization for years
If the Nile shall run dry, the Egyptians will water it with their sweat
In the Egyptian dialect, “bread” means “life”
Egyptians have lived their civilization for years
If the Nile shall run dry, someday it will overflow and pay its debt

This one is much better, but not without its problems and I still felt like I was missing something when I read it.

My Egyptian is shoddy, but since I really should make the effort to not let two years of Arabic classes go to waste (even though the classes were a total waste of time, but that’s another story). See, I learned Modern Standard Arabic, not the Egyptian dialect. I have been told that Modern Standard Arabic:Egyptian Arabic:: Shakespearean English:Modern English. This means if you speak MSA to a guy in Egypt, if he’s educated he’ll know what you’re saying, but in no way is it a viable form of genuine conversation. MSA is the language of the newspapers and high-brow literature. So what I’m getting at is that MSA helps me translate Egyptian, sort of/not too much. But I figured any translation of “Bread, Freedom” would be better than what’s offered in the captions on YouTube.

What I came up with is kind of overwrought, but I can’t see any way around it:

The word “Bread” in Egyptian means “life”
Egyptian civilization has been earning its daily bread for eons
And if the Nile should run dry, Egyptians will fill it with their sweat
The word “Bread” in Egyptian means “life”
Egyptian civilization has been earning its daily bread for eons
And if the Nile should run dry tomorrow, it will overflow and pay the debt

So the first line even gives me grief. The literal translation is: “Bread in Egyptian [dialect] means life.” Ramy is alluding to the fact that the noun bread in the Egyptian Arabic dialect is ‘aish, which is derived from the same root as the verb ‘ashasha, to live. But life as a noun in the first line is rendered as haiyaa, whose root is different (hayawa). The difference between the root ‘ashasha and hayawa is that the former refers to the physical act of living, where the latter speaks to the abstract idea of Life. So when Ramy says “Bread means life”, he’s invoking both senses of the word “life.” Bread allows you to physically live, but the act of earning your bread allows you to live your Life. I felt that by rendering the first line as “The word ‘bread’…” it draws attention to his wordplay without going into didactic (and largely unwelcome to the average listener) explanations.

I got pretty loose with the second line. Literally: “Egyptian civilization has lived [its life for] years.” My issue with rendering it straight like this is twofold:

1.) Egyptian civilization is millenia old. To me, “years” means like, 10, 20, 30 years, not millenia. I guess I could have written “Egyptian civilization has been earning its daily bread for millenia,” but I liked the word “eons” better. Millenia sounds… overly technical and specific? But there’s a vague, mystical quality to “eons.” I think when Ramy says “years” he means it in that vague way (e.g. “Oh we’ve been friends for years….”), so that’s why I went with the grandiose and mythical shades inherent in “eons.”

2.) Because Ramy made the connection between “life” and “bread” in the previous line, I wanted to drive that home because here he quite explicitly uses the verb ‘ashasha in this line to express “has lived.” Luckily, “earn one’s daily bread” is a euphemism for “live” in English, so that’s why I went that route. The English plays on the bread/life connection. Most languages that I’ve encountered have a bread/life connection. The French say gagner son pain (earn one’s bread) or gagner sa vie (earn one’s life/living). Related to nothing at all, Boris Vian has a great quote that plays on this: “I don’t want to earn my life; I have a life.” (Je ne veux pas gagner ma vie, je l’ai.) So even though I’ve added like a billion words to the line, I feel like it more fully encompasses the subtleties of the lyrics. The only reservation I have is that “daily bread” might invoke a religious undertone because of the Lord’s Prayer (“…Give us this day our daily bread”) and I’m not certain whether this idea of “daily bread” comes from this prayer, or if it has secular origins. Considering I’m not certain Ramy is a religious person, I’m not 100% sure whether the religious undertones would be appropriate. I might be over-thinking this, but I try to always be cognizant of the ideologies my language choices bring into my translations. Translations are violences, and I want to try to minimize the damage, you know?

The third line got a little ugly for me because of the grammar, but I think I got it all right. Literally, the line reads: “And if the Nile thirsts, the Egyptians will irrigate its course [with] sweat.” I think it’s the central image here that I struggled with. The importance of the Nile in Egypt can’t be overstated. The Nile IS Egypt, because in a desert country, a river represents fertility, crops, life, abundance. The Nile makes life possible. So if the Nile “thirsts”, what the hell does that mean? Why would Life be thirsty? We’re getting into some complex metaphors here, and I’m not certain I understand it. We can sort of make a guess by looking at the second half of the line. Logically, Ramy sets up the first half as the problem (the Nile is thirsty) and the second half as the solution (the people will irrigate it with their sweat). Something has gone wrong, and the sweat of the people will fix it. Sweat is generally thought to come from hard work. So I changed “thirsts” to “runs dry” because it just makes more sense in English. The sudden personification of the Nile through the word “thirsts” in the Egyptian doesn’t really go anywhere so I don’t feel bad about dropping it. “Irrigate” becomes “fill” in my version and now I’m not certain I agree with my own choice. I guess the charm and problem with “irrigate” is that its a technical word. By using this agricultural term, it presents the Egyptians as farmers, workers, earthy people, which is lost by just using the word “fill.” I guess I chose “fill” because it conveys a sense of fullness, of enough-ness. Simply irrigating a river doesn’t mean the river will get enough water. So that’s why I went with “fill” and sacrificed the farming reference. I don’t know. This shit is hard. I can make justifications all day long, but really, more often than not I live by Jack Kerouac’s belief: “First thought, best thought.”

The last line still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it is what it is. Literally, it reads: “And if the Nile should thirst, tomorrow its course will overflow and satisfy the debt.” Initially I lost my mind because “tomorrow” in Egyptian colloquial is bukrah. I didn’t recognize it at first because the word in MSA for “tomorrow” is ghadan. And the site I found the lyrics on mistranscribed bukrah and so I read it as bikrahu, which means “his firstborn son.” So this is a very understandable mistake. Arabic has an awful habit of not writing the short vowel sounds. It would be like writing “bird” in English as “brd.” You could read “brd” as “bird” or “bard” or even “bored” so you just gotta know by the context? Annoying for foreign language learners. So for a long time I was trying to figure out what the Nile’s firstborn son was doing. It was madness.

I’ve gone on way too long here, and I want to stop. So I will. I might someday finish translating the whole song, but it’s such an effort (as you fine folk have seen here), that I can only take one tiny step at a time in Arabic. It’s completely fatiguing.

As a reward for making it to the end, here are more Ramy Essam songs:

Here’s one about the massacre at Port Said: UA07. This has no subtitles, but the energy is good enough that it doesn’t matter.

And here’s a nice hard rock song: We Don’t Belong To Them (Or Them Or Them). I like the anarchy and energy of this one. This has good subtitles. And Ramy is very attractive in his war paint. So that’s worth something.

Marcel Mouloudji, “The Deserter” (1954)

I just realized I’m like two weeks behind on this blog. Being sick, I suddenly have a couple hours to pound this out.

Name: Marcel Mouloudji (1922-1994)
Ethnic/National Origin: Mouloudji’s father was a Kabyle (part of the indigenous population) from Algeria.
Connection to previous post: Skipping over the Envisioning Project, and going back to Salim Halali, Mouloudji’s father was Algerian, like Halali.

I’ve been thinking for several months about the way songs change–sometimes drastically–from interpreter to interpreter, especially in protest songs of the 50s and 60s. The one I want to talk about is “The Deserter,” which was originally written by Boris Vian, but first recorded by Marcel Mouloudji in 1954. The song is generally about a man called up to go to war, who doesn’t want to go. It was incidentally released the same day as the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, during the Indochina War, which France lost pretty decidedly. The song was immediately banned on French airwaves until 1962. When Mouloudji recorded the song, he received Vian’s permission to change the lyrics to make for a stronger pacifist message. Whereas Mouloudji’s version can be summarized as “Sorry, but I’m outta here. Peace!”, Vian’s was more of a “Fuck you, I’m gone, and I’ll fuck shit up if you follow me.” Needless to say, I like Vian’s version better, but I’ll put the lyrics back to back to talk about it more.

Mouloudji’s version (1969): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARcecZswpXI

Dear Great Leaders of France,
I’m writing you a letter
That you may one day read
If you have the time
I just received
My conscription papers
To go to war
Before Wednesday night
Dear Great Leaders of France,
I don’t want to go to war
I wasn’t put on this earth
To kill people
I don’t mean to make you mad
But I have to tell you
Wars are senseless
The world has had enough
Since I was born
I’ve seen fathers die
And brothers leave
And children cry
Mothers have suffered so much,
While others have dreamed
And lived a life of ease
Despite the blood-soaked mud
There are prisoners
Whose souls have been stolen
Whose wives have been stolen
And all their memories past
Tomorrow at first light
I’ll shut my door
In the face of those dead years
I’ll go on the road
I’ll wander
Across the earth and seas
Of the Old and New World
And I’ll say to everyone:
Make the most of Life
Stay away from Misery
You are all brothers
Poor people of all countries
If blood must be shed
Go shed your own
To the Great Leaders of France, oh faithful apostles,
To the Great Leaders of France
If you pursue me,
Tell your soldiers
That I will be unarmed
And that they may shoot
And that they may shoot…

Vian’s version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BT-AEPnDbr4

Dear Mr. President,
I’m writing you a letter
That you may one day read
If you have the time
I just received
My conscription papers
To go to war
Before Wednesday night.
Mr. President,
I don’t want to go to war
I wasn’t put on this earth
To kill people
I don’t mean to make you angry,
But I have to tell you,
I’ve made up my mind,
I’m deserting.
Since I was born,
I’ve seen my father die
I’ve seen my brothers die
And my children cry
My mother has suffered so much
That she is in her tomb
She’s mocking the bombs
And the worms too.
When I was a prisoner,
They stole my wife
They stole my soul
And all my memories past.
Tomorrow at first light
I’ll shut my door
In the face of those dead years
And I’ll go on the road
I’ll spend my life wandering
the roads of France
From Brittany to Provence
And I’ll shout to all the people:
“Refuse to obey
Refuse to do it,
Don’t go to war
Refuse to leave.”
If blood must be given,
Go give your own,
You’re a faithful apostle
Mr. President.
If you pursue me
Tell your soldiers
That I will be armed
And that I know how to shoot.

So I guess what’s striking to me is the way Mouloudji tries to universalize it. It’s no longer his own father who has died (and brother, and mother), but someone else’s. It’s no longer he who was a prisoner, it’s someone else.
Vian:

I’ve made up my mind,
I’m deserting.
Since I was born,
I’ve seen my father die
I’ve seen my brothers die
And my children cry
My mother has suffered so much
That she is in her tomb

Mouloudji:

Wars are senseless
The world has had enough
Since I was born
I’ve seen fathers die
And brothers leave
And children cry
Mothers have suffered so much,
While others have dreamed

There’s a biting, personal anger in Vian’s that is the result of personal suffering that becomes toothless in Mouloudji’s. Look, Mouloudji’s song is perfectly nice, but there’s a power in Vian’s that comes from the specificity. The soldier in Vian’s version is an anarchist: he says openly that he’s deserting, and that he will travel around France expressly with the purpose of riling up the population against the government that’s trying to send them to war, and openly threatening to fight back:

I’ll spend my life wandering
the roads of France
From Brittany to Provence
And I’ll shout to all the people:
“Refuse to obey
Refuse to do it,
Don’t go to war
Refuse to leave.”

Mouloudji’s soldier, on the other hand, has resolved himself to exile to preach peace:

I’ll wander
Across the earth and seas
Of the Old and New World
And I’ll say to everyone:
Make the most of Life

I guess the implication here is that Vian is arguing that the only thing a man can do when the government is forcing him into a war he doesn’t believe in, is essentially to revolt. To respond to senseless violence with righteous violence. It’s amazing that Mouloudji would even try to turn this around into a pacifist message. The only way he succeeds in doing it is what I mentioned before: by completely de-contextualizing the soldier and the war. By universalizing it. I feel like we have a tendency to valorize the universal, but I believe there is often something more powerful in suffering that is particular to a time, place, and body. To universalize an individual’s suffering is a violent act: it means your suffering, my suffering, his suffering is less important than the world’s suffering. But Mouloudji forgets that humans have difficulty sympathizing with abstract ideas of suffering, and that it’s much easier for us to make connections on an individual level. That’s why Vian’s is a more powerful and pathetic (as in “elicits pathos” not “lame”) song.

You could make the argument that Mouloudji had to tone down the song because of the fact that the Algerian War was just beginning and Mouloudji himself was half-Algerian, so the political repercussions might have been more severe for him than for Vian. And also the war in Indochina was ongoing. Governments at war tend to be more sensitive to criticism, right? I mean, it certainly was brave of Mouloudji to put out a song like “The Deserter” when he did, but I guess I just prefer the open anarchy of Vian’s version.