Tag Archives: Jacques Brel

La Chanson Des Vieux Amants, Jacques Brel

Many of Jacques Brel’s lyrics are almost poetry. That is, their meaning is often dependent on imagery, association, and sound rather than logical prose narrative. You can see that in the translation of La Chanson Des Vieux Amants below. A woman is talking to her lover about their twenty-year relationship and how they have survived. It sounds like one of those stormy relationships that consists of passions, partings, and reunions. Brel uses language in a symbolist way:

And each piece of furniture has its memory,
In this room without a cot
Fragments of old storms…

The translation is drained of the meaning that comes from the sound association of the original, the end rhymes and inner rhymes. Also, a French word may have a cluster of associations and potency for which there is no equivalent in the target language. For example, the original French for ‘fragments of old storms’ is ‘des éclats des vieilles tempêtes’. The word ‘éclat’ has multiple meanings in French: a flash, a burst, a scandal, breaking into splinters. All of those are present in the French but there is no single equivalent word in English. ‘Splinters of old storms’ is probably a better translation because its proximity to furniture suggests the violence of things being broken during an explosive argument.

Some of the lines I don’t know how to translate so that they make sense in English, such as ‘Et plus le temps nous fait cortège.’ A cortège is a procession, wedding or funeral, but I am not sure what he means exactly by ‘plus le temps’. ‘And longer the time makes us our cortège’ seems nonsensical to me so if you have a better translation, please let me know.

As well as the Brel version, I heard it sung by Juliette Greco. The woman says, ‘Of course, you had your lovers’, not ‘we had our lovers’. Maybe they wouldn’t have survived for twenty-years if their affairs had been more symmetrical. That’s possibly a Gallic thing, or a Gallic cliché – I don’t know which.

La Chanson des Vieux Amants, Jacques Brel

Bien sûr, nous eûmes des orages
Of course, we had some storms
Vingt ans d’amour, c’est l’amour fol
Twenty years of love, that's crazy love
Mille fois tu pris ton bagage
A thousand times you took your luggage
Mille fois je pris mon envol
A thousand times I took flight
Et chaque meuble se souvient
And each furniture has its memory
Dans cette chambre sans berceau
In this room without a cot
Des éclats des vieilles tempêtes
Fragments of old storms
Plus rien ne ressemblait à rien
Nothing any longer resembled anything
Tu avais perdu le goût de l’eau
You had lost the taste for water
Et moi celui de la conquête
And me, that of conquest
Mais mon amour, mon amour
But my love, my love
Mon doux mon tendre mon merveilleux amour
My sweet, my tender, my marvellous love
De l’aube claire jusqu’à la fin du jour
From the clear dawn till the end of the day
Je t’aime encore tu sais je t’aime
I love you still, you know I love you.
Moi, je sais tous tes sortilèges
Me, I know all your magic tricks
Tu sais tous mes envoûtements
You know all my magic charms
Tu m’as gardé de pièges en pièges
You kept me from trap to trap
Je t’ai perdue de temps en temps
I lost you from time to time
Bien sûr tu pris quelques amants
Of course, you took some lovers
Il fallait bien passer le temps
It was necessary to get through
Il faut bien que le corps exulte
The body has to rejoice
Finalement finalement
In the end, in the end
Il nous fallut bien du talent
It took us a lot of talent
Pour être vieux sans être adultes
To get old without being adults.
Et plus le temps nous fait cortège
And longer the time makes us our cortège
Et plus le temps nous fait tourment
And longer the time torments us
Mais n’est-ce pas le pire piège
But is it not the worst trap
Que vivre en paix pour des amants
For lovers to live peacefully?
Bien sûr tu pleures un peu moins tôt
Okay, you cry a little less early
Je me déchire un peu plus tard
I get torn up a little later
Nous protégeons moins nos mystères
We protect less our mysteries
On laisse moins faire le hasard
We leave less to chance
On se méfie du fil de l’eau
We are wary of the current
Mais c’est toujours la tendre guerre
But it's still the loving war.