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.

Salim Halali, “Andalusia” (1940s?); Noureddine Lakhmari’s Casanegra (2009)

Name: Salim Halali, né Simon Halali (1920-2005)
Origin: Jewish-Algerian
Connection to previous post: Halali owned two cabarets in Paris in the 1940s and 50s (Ismaïalia Folies and Le Sérail [The Harem], I believe?) and Brel, Ferré, and Brassens all started out as cabaret singers. Bam.

I’ve been thinking about Morocco lately and the ethics of whose voices we choose to translate and the voiced that remain untranslated and thus unheard. Salim Halali wasn’t Moroccan, but he sang Moroccan songs and lived in Morocco for a number of years. I was introduced to him through the movie Free Men (Les Hommes Libres, 2011), directed by Ismael Ferroukhi, a Moroccan filmmaker. The movie takes places during Nazi-era Paris and generally tells the story of the real-life cooperation between the Jews and Muslims during this time. (Jewish and Muslim cooperation stories in France are my favorite kind of interfaith stories.) The protagonist is a young Muslim named Younes (played by my secret boyfriend Tahar Rahim) who is forced by the Nazis to spy on the mosque in Paris. The imam there is rumored to be providing forged documents to Jews and the Nazis are not very happy about it but can’t prove anything. During his spying, Younes meets a local singer named Salim, who is secretly-not-so-secretly a Jew hiding in plain sight. Of course they become total BFFs. Through his friendship with Salim, Younes figuratively is welcomed back into the Arab community from which he was estranged. One of the more beautiful moments of the movie is when Younes is at a café watching Salim perform Moroccan songs and has something of a spiritual moment. The song that Salim performs is called “Andalusia.”

YouTube: Andaloussia

I loved an Andalusian girl–
Young and beautiful, with brown hair

Such a beauty!
With her bewitching eyes and arched brows
Her face cast a spell on you,
Leaving you sighing, smiling

A soul sacrifices itself
Just for her beauty, charm and body,
And a heart sets itself ablaze,
Oh my lover does not want me

Her black eyes transfix you
And her long hair billowing
I don’t know anyone who looks like her
Praise be to God who made her

So here’s my trouble. Morocco needs a little love on the translation front. And I’d love to do my part bringing international attention to Moroccan artists, especially since interesting things are going on there on the cinema front. While French is still the language of education in Morocco, there is a large push to make the local colloquial Arabic dialect THE language of the people. So movies are made in dialect, TV shows, songs, etc. Even though Morocco is considered a Francophone country, my French does not help translate the kinds of cultural artifacts that they are producing. The best I can do, which is what I did with Halali’s song, is to translate the French translations of the Moroccan Arabic. My Arabic studies, like most shitty Arabic language programs, were in Standard Arabic, which is the language of books and TV news presenters. It’s not the language of the home or the streets. It’s not the language of the average person. I’m twice incapable of translating Moroccan culture. If all I can do is translate a translation, should I even bother to try? Is translating the subtitles on a movie trailer any better that not translating at all?

This topic of Moroccan cinema comes up because I’ve been taking part in a professional development seminar on how to incorporate Morocco and Turkey into the K-12 curriculum. Two of the speakers were Moroccan (an Arabic professor at CSU, and a media studies professor from CU), and they talked quite a bit about the new wave of cinema in that country, and how it’s finally beginning to address the real, lived lives of Moroccans, but no one in the world really knows about it because no one is translating it. Not a lot of people speak Moroccan Arabic. There are 30 million people in the country, and that’s pretty much the only place it’s spoken. The professors also mentioned that there are very few legal means for purchasing the films. Most people buy illegal copies. There are always the French translations, which are perhaps slightly more accessible, but you can’t show movies with French subtitles in your K-12 class, you know? So I guess I was trying to figure out what I personally could do on this front. I was thinking maybe I could translate trailers for the films. But then I’d have to rip them off YouTube, which hardly seems ethical. The question is, I guess, is it more unethical to NOT translate a voice that deserves to be heard, or to translate a voice in a way that violates copyright law?

For fun, here’s the trailer for the 2009 film Casanegra: YouTube. The text in the description reads:

In the Casablanca of today, chaotic but beautiful, cruel but seductive, two childhood friends, Adil and Karim, make their living as low-level cons and swindlers. Karim employs children to sell cigarettes on the street, but dreams of success and respect. Adil has found the miraculous solution to all his problems: buy a visa and a work contract to emigrate to Malmo, Sweden. Adil dreams of Sweden via a post card.

They have nothing, aside from their desire to live another life. Adil, ready to do anything to achieve his dreams of escape to a place he imagines as more luxurious, more forgiving, and more civilized. Karim, more lucid and responsible, just wants to take care of his family, and falls secretly in love with a beautiful middle-class girl.

A local mafioso tracks them down to enlist them in a major heist, which will allow them to fulfill their dreams. Everything that unites them will be brought into question.
Casanegra is then the stage of their dilemmas and defiances: love or friendship? adventure or reason? hope or stagnation?

A love story of two young protagonists and their city, a city which does not love them back, Casanegra is an ode to friendship, and to the hope of a city and a generation.

Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré, Roundtable Part 1 (1969)

Brel Brassens and Ferré

So I’ve been thinking about the relationship between poetry and music in the French tradition, so I thought I’d translate the first part of the roundtable discussion Brassens, Brel and Ferré had in 1969 for a radio show (I believe), in which they touch on some of this issues. I got the transcript of the roundtable from the website Snoopairz, where you can also see more great pictures from the session. I’ve read that these three sort of represent a holy trinity of singer-songwriters in France at this time. Even though I have never been a fan of Ferré’s for whatever reason (too elitist? too misogynistic? who knows?), Brel and Brassens are perfectly interesting people. I sort of long for the days when artists had genuine, thoughtful things to say about art and life, instead of these weird, shallow interviews you see all too often in magazines and on-line. Maybe because France has a more prominent history of encouraging philosophical discourse in public? I don’t know, I don’t want to cast aspersions. But anyway. This isn’t a perfect translation by any means. Given the amount of writing I’m require to put on this blog each week for class, I’m sort of just going with my gut and posting what is essentially the first drafts of these translations. I’ve provided notes where I think what they’re saying needs a little clarification.


– Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré: are you all aware of the fact that you are the three biggest singer-songwriters in French music, and have been for years with consistent success? 

FERRÉ: I’m aware first and foremost of being with two brothers-in-arms, who have immense talent, yes, but first and foremost I’m with two friends. I’ve wanted that for a long time. Today, people never stop saying: “What is music for you?…” What’s an off-ramp– who cares? The important thing, I believe, is that it’s a small bit of love that one can give or receive, with a microphone, for example. Now, since we’ve been making music for twenty years, we’ve been working hard, we’ve been, as I say where I’m from [Ed: Monaco], zugumed for a long time at work, now, we can sing quietly in a place without having the cops come, or people who just come to whistle at us, that’s our just reward. You do what you can, you say what you want, and there’s no need to break your back for all that.

All three of you are in the celebrated collection “Poets of Today” …

BRASSENS: We’re not the only ones [in the collection]. And besides, it doesn’t really mean anything, the way people label–

– You don’t consider yourself a poet, then?

BRASSENS: Not really. I don’t know if I’m a poet. I guess I might be a little, but I don’t care. I put words and music together and then I sing them.

I believe Jacques Brel doesn’t think of himself as a poet either?

BREL: I’m a “song-maker,” that’s the right word! I’m a little musical artisan.
FERRÉ: People who say they’re poets– these are the people who aren’t really poets, deep down. The people who are honored to be considered poets– these are the Sunday poets, who have little self-published booklets… That said, if someone tells me I’m a poet, that’s what I want. But it’s like if someone said to me that I’m a cobbler who makes beautiful shoes. I share the same point of view as Brel.

According to you, is music an art? Is it a major art or a minor art?

[Ed: The French traditionally divide the disciplines of art into a hierarchy: so-called “major” arts include painting, sculpture, architecture, etc., and “minor” arts include ceramics, furniture, or other decorative objects. Serge Gainsbourg and Guy Béart had a famous argument on TV over this issue in the 80s, with Gainsbourg insisting music was a “minor” art because it required no formal training or apprenticeship. He famously told Béart to “shut [his] trap” when Béart disagreed.]

FERRÉ: Brassens said something true: “I put words and music together.” That’s what I do.
BRASSENS: Well, yes, it’s completely different from what we colloquially call “poetry,” which is written to be read or spoken. Music is very different. Even if people like Ferré have succeeded in setting poets to music, like Baudelaire, it’s difficult to use music like the poets who came before used the verb. When you write for the ear, you’re obliged to use a slightly different vocabulary, words that catch your ear… Even though now we have the record, and the listener can listen to it again…
BREL: Yes, but the record is a by-product of music, let’s not kid ourselves… Songs were meant to be sung, not to be distributed as a record…
FERRÉ: I agree perfectly with him. It’s as if you were making delicious chocolates, extraordinary chocolates, not for sale, that you keep at home. But the moment you put them in a bag, or you sell them, you don’t care about them anymore. If I make delicious chocolates, and someone else eats them, it doesn’t matter to me. The bag is the record. The record is the death of music, in a way.
BRASSENS: In the old days, you sang. When a guy performed a song, the people would pass by and learn it and sing it themselves. They participated, they had books of musical scores… Today, the public has become more passive.
FERRÉ: Some people hear the music first, others the lyrics. The most intelligent people will hear the lyrics first. The most sensitive people– and possibly the least intelligent– hear the music first. This means that I can introduce Baudelaire to people who had no idea who he was.
BREL: In the past, when a guy wrote a song, others would reproduce it–like Georges was saying– but now we reproduce it ourselves. It created a chain, before… I mean before the microgroove. In fact, the greatest musical inventor was the English engineer who discovered the principle of the microgroove, during the war. [???]
FERRÉ: That’s it. You were just saying we were poets, or artisans, all that… We’re not. You know what all three of us are?
BRASSENS: A trio of morons with mikes in front of them!
FERRÉ: No, we’re singers. Because if we didn’t have a voice, we couldn’t produce our work. Because if I didn’t have a voice, or you Georges, or you Jacques, you wouldn’t write and I wouldn’t either.
BRASSENS: That’s very kind of you to say. Because when it comes to that side of things [i.e. singing], I’m not really into it, you know! [Ed: Brassens suffered from terrible stage fright. Brel did too, in fact, claiming in an interview that he vomited every time before he sang.]
FERRÉ: But you do have a voice. You sing. Jacques does, too. If he didn’t have a voice, who would sing Brel’s songs? Everything he’s composed, he never would have done it. He wrote his songs because he “published” them with his voice. I did too…
BRASSENS: Yes, he definitely would have written different things…
BREL: All that to say that you might be a singer… just because you have a voice.

Have you ever done anything besides writing, composing, and singing, and has this helped you in your work as a singer?

FERRÉ: At the same time, we can’t do anything else. Now what we’ve done before, we all went to school, studied, had jobs, etc.
BRASSENS: We lived, you know. But really, we’ve always written songs.
FERRÉ: We had to make ends meet, sometimes. When Brel came to Paris with his guitar, I don’t know what he did to make ends meet, but it must not have been fun. He probably doesn’t want to talk about it…
BREL: Oh, I don’t mind. I didn’t do anything at all! [laughs]
FERRÉ: That’s great, then… It’s always better that way! [laughs]
BRASSENS: You weren’t the only one. I’ve never done anything but write songs…

All three of you have, more or less, been involved in cinema. Do you think actors and singers have something in common?

FERRÉ: I’ve never been an actor. I’d love to do it, but I guess I don’t know. I’d love to, the way you’d love to do things you don’t know how to do.
BRASSENS: I don’t know how to be an actor, I really, sincerely don’t… I have no idea.
BREL: I’ve made two films. Not for the sake of Cinema or the Lumière brothers, but because both times there was this idea of freedom… And I’ve very strong feelings about freedom! The first was Risky Business (Les risques du métier, 1967), and the other was The Bonnot Gang (La bande à Bonnot, 1968). I was seduced by the idea. And I believe that, if you can lend a hand to an idea, you have to do it.

Cinema is first and foremost a collaborative effort… Did this do anything to change the lonely work of the singer?

BREL: No… For musicals, you can talk a lot more about collaborative work.
BRASSENS: I don’t think it’s that collaborative work, or some other kind of work, brings or doesn’t bring something more to the table… A guy likes acting or he doesn’t. I don’t like it, but I have nothing against collaborative work. The film that I was involved in, The Gates of Paris (La porte des Lilas, 1957), I did with a couple of friends, Brasseurs and Bussières, and it worked very well. They didn’t bother me. I didn’t bother them. What I don’t like is the technical side of things, the mechanical. I don’t like anything more than the mike you guys shoved under our noses!
FERRÉ: When we sing, we are the only ones there in the spotlight, with just a suit on, a guitar or a piano, and we know what “the solitude of a singer” means. We cope with what we call “work,” but it’s not always easy. What I’m wondering is, if, for Brel, the solitude of the theater is the same as a recital?
BREL: Yes, it’s the same solitude.
FERRÉ: You mean that when you play your role, surrounded by other people, you are as alone as when you sing in a concert-hall for two hours? That’s new to me… I didn’t realize that.
BRASSENS: Of course it is… Because if it turns out rotten, they’ll say it’s him who was bad. He’s got to make his voice heard…
FERRÉ: He’s already got his armor on the moment he steps onto the stage…
BREL: For Man of La Mancha [Ed: Stage Musical, 1968], it’s a bit different because it was me who started this madness. So I’m still a little bit alone in my madness.

– The others don’t share in the madness?

BREL: Of course they do! But it’s likely they don’t think it’s all madness. In the end, for me, in the moment that I’m acting, I’m as alone as when I’m giving a recital.
BRASSENS: Don’t worry. In any case, you’re always alone where ever you go, all the time. And you’re not the only one!
BREL: Well of course! The guy who says to me that he’s not alone in life is more Belgian than I am! [Ed: Possibly an oblique reference to the stereotype that Belgians aren’t the brightest crayons in the box.]