"Anthem" by Leonard Cohen

"The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again, I heard them say
Don't dwell on what has passed away
or what has yet to be...

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in"

Saturday, November 22, 2008

La Chanson des Vieux Amants (Jacques Brel)

I learned this song in back in the 1960's when I was a teenager, from a record I had of Jacques Brel. He was very popular in NYC at the time. There was a musical called "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" that was a hit on Broadway . Judy Collins also covered this song on one of her records then too.

I played the record over and over again to get the words (this was way before the internet. It would have been so much easier now). I performed it for a modern dance show at my High School. I had only a vague idea then what this song was about.

Now that I am older, it resonates so much more strongly for me....

Here are the French lyrics, with my English translation :

"La Chanson De Vieux Amants" by Jacques Brel

(The Song of Old Lovers) English translation by me

1) Bien sûr, nous eûmes des orages (Of course, we have had our storms)

Vingt ans d`amour, c`est l`amour fol (Lovers for 20 years, it is a crazy love)
Mille fois tu pris ton bagage
(A thousand times you have packed your bags)
Mille fois je pris mon envol
(A thousand times, I have taken flight)
Et chaque meuble se souvient
(And each piece of furniture remembers)
Dans cette chambre sans berceau
(in this room without a cradle)
Des éclats des vieilles tempêtes
(the claps of old thunderstorms)
Plus rien ne ressemblait à rien
(Nothing is the same anymore)

Tu avais perdu le goût de l`eau (You have even lost the taste for water)
Et moi celui de la conquête
(And me only the taste for conquest)


Mais mon amour (But my love)

Mon doux, mon tendre, mon merveilleux amour (My sweet, my tender , my marvelous love)
De l`aube claire jusqu`à la fin du jour (
from the clear dawn until the end of the day)
Je t`aime encore tu
sais je t`aime (I love you still, you know I love you)

2) Moi, je sais tous tes sortilèges
(Me, I know all your sorceries)
Tu sais tous mes envoûtements
(You know all my magic tricks)
Tu m`as gardé de pièges en pièges
(you have kept me safe from trap to trap)
Je t`ai perdue de temps en temps
(I have lost you from time to time)
Bien sûr tu pris quelques amants
(Of course, you have taken a few lovers)
Il fallait bien passer le temps
(You surely have to pass the time)
Il faut bien que le corps exulte
(The body must know rapture)
Finalement finalement
(Finally finally)
Il nous fallut bien du talent
(It took us a lot of talent)
Pour être vieux sans être adultes
(To become old without becoming adults)


Oh, mon amour ,mon doux, mon tendre, mon merveilleux amour
De l`aube claire jusqu`à la fin du jour
Je t`aime encore, tu
sais, je t`aime

3) Et plus le temps nous fait cortège (And the more time marches on)
Et plus le temps nous fait tourment
(The more time torments us)
Mais n`est-ce pas le pire piège
(but isn't it the worst trap)
Que vivre en paix pour des amants
( for lovers to live in peace?)
Bien sûr tu pleures un peu moins tôt
(Of course you cry a little less easily)

Je me déchire un peu plus tard (I tear myself apart a little more slowly)
Nous protégeons moins nos mystères
(We protect our secrets less and less )
On laisse moins faire le hasard
(We take fewer chances)
On se méfie du fil de l`eau
(we don't trust the stream of water)
Mais c`est toujours la tendre guerre
(but it is always a tender war)

Oh, mon amour...
Mon doux, mon tendre, mon merveilleux amour
De l`aube claire jusqu`à la fin du jour
Je t`aime encore tu
sais je t`aime.


Jeff said...

Hey, I just wanted to thank you for the invaluable service of posting a line-by-line translation of this here on your blog. As far as I can tell it's the only translation of its kind available online. The other English versions are loosely-translated lyrics to make a singable English song, with varying results -- an older one is terrible, a newer one by Des de Moor something of an improvement.

I used to sing it in French, I learned it as a kid from the Judy Collins album Wildflowers, which was one of the first albums I ever heard, it was in my parents' collection (It was released the year before I was born). But I was fortunate enough to find a great Judy Collins music book a few years ago, so I had an easier time learning the chords and lyrics!

Brel's words are so specific and evocative that one hates to lose even one nuance when rendering them into an English lyric. But I might just take a crack at it and your efforts here will help a lot! Thanks again.

Beth K. said...

YOu are most welcome. I learned the song from the same album originally, but then I got the Jacques Brel original.

I would be interested in your English lyric if you attempt it. The reason I did the literal translation was precisely for the reason you cited. I hated all the English lyrics I found.

Thanks again!

Jeff said...

Hi Beth,

Well, here's my first draft -- not bad for a night's work I think, but I hope you agree. It's far from perfect, though what translation ever is, and maybe I can improve it, but I think this retains more of the specific sense of the original than the others I've seen, and for the most part preserves the rhyme scheme. I'm open to feedback on what you like or don't either here or by email at sensofwndrATaolDOTcom. Thanks again for your efforts, I made a literal translation years ago when I was learning the song, but you've made it make much more sense than I did.

Are you in Oregon? I see it among your blog topics. I'm in Portland. And I see you're a Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan fan -- I saw Leonard in Seattle last Thursday and heard the new Dylan album yesterday, both fantastic -- it's officially Wise Old Jew Week in my world!

Anyway, here's my version... hope you like it.

La Chanson des Vieux Amants by Jacques Brel
Translation ©2009 by Jeff Rosenberg

Of course we've weathered stormy places
Through this mad love of twenty years
A thousand times you've packed your cases
A thousand times I've disappeared
Though there's no cradle in this room
Each stick of furniture recalls
The thunderstorms' reverberations
Nothing resembles what it was
You've lost the taste for water now
And I for conquerors' sensations

Oh love of mine
Sweet marvelous and tender love of mine
From clearest dawn until the day's decline
I love you still, you know I love you

I've watched your witchcraft through the ages
You've memorized each trick of mine
You've guided me past snares and cages
Though I've lost you from time to time
Of course you've loved some others too
It must have helped to pass the time
The need for passion is enduring
And in the end, in the end
Such talent we've had to expend
To have grown old without maturing


The more time marches through these hallways
The more the time feels like a curse
And yet a love that's tranquil always
Surely must be the trap that's worse
You tear up less than in the past
I'm slow to tear myself apart
No more are we the great pretenders
We're both more guarded with our hearts
That stream of water may not last
Yet on it goes, this war so tender


Jeff said...

oh I see you are in Santa Cruz.

Better make that "such great pretenders". :)

Jeff said...

And another second thought... I think "Yet it goes on" might sing better than "Yet on it goes" which I changed it to at the last minute. What do you think?

Beth K. said...

I think this is a good effort overall and much more true to the original than any other translations I have seen.

Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Such a beautiful song.
Are you playing the guitar also?
Thx for the lyrics both in french and english... :D

Beth K. said...

Thank you and yes I am playing the guitar

Sutton Library Book Reviews said...

Such a gorgeous sad, sad song, reminds me of my times in Brittany and those long evenings by the sea, drinking wine and wishing I had never had to go home...

ARMAN said...

I'm ARMAN from iran.i just want to thank .this song is one of songs that keep me alive because the feeling of it is a reason for me to live in this hell,and your translation is one of the best that i see.
thank you

Beth K. said...

Hi Arman

I am a great supporter of the wonderful people of Iran. I am glad that in some small way this song makes things a bit more bearable. My deepest prayer is for freedom for you and your people.

Sandra said...

Hello Beth!

I found this post while I was searching for a translation to this wonderful song. I like yours very much, it captures the spirit of the original while still being very exact. Congratulations! (Btw, I just left a comment to your YouTube video, as well!)

You see, right now I am working at a music video with this song and video footage from the animated movie "Up" (if you haven't seen it, here's some of the scenes I want to use: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GroDErHIM_0). I think the lyrics go very well with the movie, so I needed a translation....

The thing is, I would very much like to add English subtitles to my music video and I was thinking of using your translation. Will you please allow me to? Of course, I will be crediting the translation to you and post links to your blog and/or channel. Do you agree?

Thank you in advance,

Jerry said...

For Brel, it would do one well to learn a little French. One cannot compare the feel in English if one cannot feel it in French, it is worth it, one of the most beautiful songs...

Another of my favorites is Francis Cabrel's 'Carte Postale', the first song I ever did understand in French, and very haunting, worth the trouble to look up.

Thanks SO MUCH you did a bang up job of translation on this too.

Beth K. said...

Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment here on my blog. It warms my heart really.

This is such a heart-breakingly beautiful song and my English translation does not come close to doing it justice. It is so much more moving and of course poetic in the original French, the way Brel wrote it.

The PopCulturist said...

Hello all,

I am the author of the translation of this Brel song found in the comments section here -- not the literal version Beth provided in her original post, but the one that begins "Of course we've weathered stormy places..."

If anyone would like to share, reproduce, or perform my translation, please make sure to include the following credit:

English translation ©2009 by Jeff Rosenberg

Thank you, and thanks Beth!

Lisa said...

thanks so much to you both, Beth and Jeff. i've always loved this song in French and never bothered to research its origins. my mother, who died when I was quite young, was a fan of Jacques Brel and unfortunately I wasn't interested enough when I was young to care about his music as I was growing up in NY with the Beach Boys, Beatles and Byrds. now i'm sitting at work, reading your translations and listening to Judy Collins and trying to manage this lump in my throat. Brel's words and music and your translations are all impossibly beautiful.

Beth K. said...

You are most welcome. I think Brel is a mature taste. If it wasn't for Judy Collins' lovely rendition of this song in the 1960's, I never would have even listened to him at that time either.

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l'ire and the commonplace said...

Nice job Beth, and jeff nice creative spin...one thing though, at the end of the song the point is that they no longer hide their secrets or as Brel sings, "we protect our secrets less" a notion of no longer having any cause for pretense that you nailed with the great pretenders use. As for the Francis Cabrel fan, thank you for reminding me of my secret shame. Cabrel is pretty cheesy and I don't know too many French people who take him seriously under the age of 45, certainly none of my friends do, but I think his song c'est écrit was the first of his songs that I really liked, an appreciation I carried with me to France when I moved there as a 19yo, finding out shortly after that good old Cabrels glory days were about 15 years earlier in the mid 80s...a decade which have been much different had my favorite belgian, Brel lived to see...

Anonymous said...

thanks for the translation

Dave Rave said...

After many years of owning my album, for the first time I listened through Alison Moyet singing this, and was marveling at the pronunciations she imbues the lyrics with. Thanx for the translation, I can see why she sings with such passion. And my cheeks are muchly wet. ;)

One hound crappoing said...

The youtube video of. Juliette Greco singing le Chanson in. Concert, 2006 I think, is. The most perfect interpretation of all (IMVHO).

PeterB said...


Very sweet, very soulful.

I came here from listening to Brel on LastFM, also happy to find the literal translation.

gajokos said...

Thank you both for your efforts at translating that gem of a song. I have an objection with the "stream of water" in both translations for "on se méfie du fil de l'eau"

The "fil de l'eau" in French implies a certain laisser-faire, as in "going with the flow" or something that would capture the sense of "let things happen" or "let the puck skid" as some Americans have it. Here, it seems to me, the old lovers no longer leave things to chance. Going with the flow was cool way back when, but now we're a little more suspicious of what that flow may bring... and yet, and yet... it's still a sweet war...

Beth Kotkin said...

Thanks gajokos....good feedback. i agree that your "going with the flow" idea is more true to what is being said here. thanks!

Carolyn said...


Thanks to both you and Jeff. I have loved Brell since my college Prof. turned us onto his music in a wonderful "Music as Poetry" class. Glad to see Cohen coming back to college halls (Adrian College, Adrian, Mich.). My daughter said that his "Hallelujah" echoes through the dorms. Anyone know if he is touring soon? Saw Dylan, we have all aged.

Hanrod said...

I like the Jeff/Pop Culturist version here best of the two. Of course I have always felt that to compare any translation with the original IN SONG OR POETRY is only to create a new song or poem; and that it should not even be attempted, except for some academic, literal reason, to translate poetry with real accuracy. The language and cultural differences distort the effort. I am an old man now, and learned Brel from the "Alive and Well" film (now available in DVD), and much loved the Mort Shuman / Eric Blau version (note that I do not call it a translation). Let's not call new poetry a translation -- maybe an interpretation?

Cantare said...

Hanrod, while I agree with you when you're talking about poetry as poetry, as a singer who sings in languages I don't speak (a common issues for singers of classical music who aren't whizzes at learning new languages), a translation that is as close to being word for word while still keeping the meaning of the original text is a necessity. If I know both the meaning of a phrase and the meaning of each word in that phrase, then I have a better chance of interpreting it faithfully and with artistic integrity.

And the best reason for singing a song in its original language, regardless of the genre of the music, is that a composer who is sensitive to the nuances of the text - and that was certainly true of Brel - will combine the text with the music in a way that expresses the meaning of the words through the music. If you use a "poetic" translation to sing the piece, that expressiveness is lost.

Beth and Jeff, thank both of you for your translations. Put together, they're a great tool for getting this song right.

Beth Kotkin said...

Glad to help the process of understanding this beautiful song!

Ana E said...

If your man is pushing you away and acting distant

Or if the guy you’re after isn’t giving you the time of day...

Then it’s time to pull out all the stops.

Because 99% of the time, there is only 1 thing you can say to a standoffish guy that will grab him by the heartstrings-

And get his blood pumping at just the thought of you.

Insert subject line here and link it to: <=========> Your ex won’t be able to resist?

Once you say this to him, or even send this simple phrase in a text message...

It will flip his world upside down and you will suddenly find him chasing you-

And even begging to be with you.

Here’s what I’m talking about: <=========> Is your man hiding something? He may need your help?

Thanks again.

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