Jacques Brel: the easy and the important

When you learn a song by ear, especially when it’s in a foreign language, the ‘easy’ words, the words you know, leap out at you. Words you recognise, like a favourite auntie walking towards you through a crowd of strangers.

Give your aunt a bear hug and a box of chocolates, by all means. She’s special to you. But don’t scream “here’s Aunt Lavinia, everybody,” and expect the world to share your enthusiasm. Your Aunt Lavinia is like an ‘easy’ word in a song. She’s familiar to you, but unremarkable to anyone else in the airport.

In an Aunt Lavinia at Arrivals situation, we know to keep our interest personal and private. We hug her hello, then we take her home. When we sing in a foreign language, it’s easy to get unbalanced by familiar words, to pump undeserved energy into words, just because we recognise them. I’ll tell you a story about Jacques Brel and me …

I studied French at school, long ago. When I hear Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam, the words that are ‘easy’ for me are Amsterdam (along with dans le port de). I’d be tempted to sing the phrase dans le port d’Amsterdam with strength and certainty, every single time it appears in the song. It’s my lifebelt of ‘known’ language in a sea of scarily poetic French. But I’d be wrong to confuse security with important.

<a title="By Das Robert (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons" href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALifebelt_in_Water.jpg"><img width="512" alt="Lifebelt in Water" src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/98/Lifebelt_in_Water.jpg/512px-Lifebelt_in_Water.jpg"/></a>

Listen to Jacques – yes, he sings dans le port d’Amsterdam strongly the first two times, to set the scene, and because the word Amsterdam is wonderfully evocative, but notice how matter-of-factly he sings dans le port d’Amsterdam later. He doesn’t over-egg the pudding. Once he’s established the landscape of his song, the port of Amsterdam rusts back into a matter-of-fact place of work. Amsterdam becomes a character in the song, not the hero. The magic and the music flow through the words he weaves around it.

Watch Jacques’ hands when he sings ruisselantsWhen a word is important enough for the songwriter himself to  mime, it’s always a significant word:

The essence of Amsterdam thrives in its mesmerising mix of soft, strong eur, ss, v and French sounds. The song waltzes and rolls between them all, set in motion by the musically three-syllabled word Amsterdam itself. Remember, Jacques could have chosen any number of Dutch ports for his sailors – Gent, Oostende, or Moerdijk, for example.

He wrote the song while he was far to the South, on the Mediterranean here:


So Amsterdam was a conscious choice as a place for his sailors to live and love. It’s a word that rolls and rocks on its own energy.

To surround Amsterdam with the right sound picture, Jacques made some choices so quiet that they’re easy to overlook. Like the ent at the end of any verb, and every line that describes the sailors’ actions. The sailors dorment, chantent, meurent, dansent etc. That final ent softens and lengthens the end of the verbs and the end of the lines. It’s like a comet’s tail fading into the dark.

Jacques Brel could have chosen to sing about one solitary sailor, an Everyman.  Or about named, individual sailors. But the song needs something different. One single sailor doesn’t dorment. In French, he dort. That soft central is lost and the word dort is too short and punchy, clunking uncomfortably against the qui that precedes it. The word dort, so early in the song, sets up too close and confusing a rhyme with port, sending the listener in the wrong direction, in search of a meaningful rhyme pattern. Dort is all wrong for this song. But dorment is just right.

It’s the same for chantent/chante, meurent/meurt, dansent/danse. The plural form is so much better for the musical landscape of Jacques’ Amsterdam. And yes, it’s a choice. Think of David Bowie’s English version of Amsterdam. Bowie sings: In the port of Amsterdam there’s a sailor who sings/Of the dreams that he brings from the wide open sea. It works in English – one sailor as Everyman. The single sailor needs a  final s – he sings but they sing – that crucially warms and softens the end of the word. One sailor in English and many sailors in French. The music decides.

A direct translation from French to English: In the port of Amsterdam there are sailors who sing would be wrong. In English, that choice of words implies a separation between the special singing sailors and all the other sailors. There are some sailors who sing – sounds as if they’re in the minority, like a barbershop quartet. Bowie’s plural to singular set-up (he returns to the plural later) is an inspired translation.

The melancholy of Bowie’s version thrives in the cracks in his voice and in the gaps between the swooping vowels of words like sleep, cries, early, swallow, again. He chooses very few ss or sounds – in English they would be hard to sing, especially the sloshing ss sound.

That hard ss comes to trouble Bowie later in the song when he makes a direct translation from French to English in the final lines. Maybe he’d run out of true translation energy by then.

When I first heard Brel’s Amsterdam, I caught ils pissent comme je pleure from the stream of French, partly because Jacques sings it strongly and partly because pissent sounds similar enough to guess in English. A risqué word always attracts the attention of a foreigner. Once I’d looked it up in the dictionary, it was tempting to sing ils pissent comme je pleure with gusto – because it sounds intriguingly, authentically French to me and because it sounds a bit rude.

Unsurprisingly, we were never taught the verb pisser in French class, so it’s a moment of schoolchild rebellion to sing such a ‘forbidden’ word with knowing enthusiasm.

Yes, the meaning and feeling of the word pisser is important – bringing us back to the down-to-earth, hardworking sailor, with the soft, strong onomatopoeic strength of the double ss at the centre of pissent reassuring us of his ‘manliness’. All of that. But all the necessary meaning is in the sound and feel of the word itself. It’s not a schoolroom joke.

If I listen carefully to Jacques, I can hear that my loud, jolly ‘aren’t I clever’ version of ils pissent comme je pleure is totally out of keeping with the sense of his song.  He sings the line strongly but matter-of-factly.

The strength of the line ils pissent comme je pleure/ Sur les femmes infidèles is everywhere, and no more in the pissent than anywhere else. Singing the ‘easy, naughty word’ loudly sucks the existential meaning out of the line. Like a bawdy line from Chaucer or a Sheela Na Gig carved carefully during the construction of a Romanesque church, the power is in routine presentation and contrast.

My adolescent version of ils pissent comme je pleure unbalances and trivialises the words, smothering the line’s power. It doesn’t matter if I’m singing to myself in my kitchen  – I think Jacques would forgive me a bit of private fun. It’s a different matter if I take my lop-sided version out in public.

Listen to Basque singer Xabier Lete‘s version of Amsterdamsung here by Petti.  Xabier translated every word of Brel’s song into his native Basque/Euskara – you’ll hear Petti sing Amsterdamgo portuan (In the port of Amsterdam). Xabier managed to retain the beautiful, meandering musicality of the original Jacques Brel song in his translation. There’s a rich and seam of sound rippling through Xabier’s word choices in Euskara too.

But there’s a line Xabier left untranslated. Which one? Ils pissent comme je pleure/Sur les femmes infidèles.There’s something perfect about those particular words, in that particular order, with their mix of earthiness and despair. They’re untranslatable:

Untranslatable into English too. You can hear how the line stumbles for David Bowie hereHe pisses like I cry/ On the unfaithful love sounds clumsy. The final shortens the word pisses uncomfortably and crudely, where ils pissent ends softly. Cry is a harsh word, with its hard c. It’s too short – where pleure ends softly, with just a slight sob of the at its beginning and the sigh of eure at the end.

By the way: Chris O’Leary’s piece on Bowie’s Amsterdam here is well worth reading, partly to understand the purpose of the increasing speed of the song as you sing it. I enjoyed his thoughts on Brel’s sailors as characters in a Breughel painting.

I like David Bowie’s version of Amsterdam very much, but I think he would have been better to have left that particular line in French, as Xabier wisely chose to do. Most translations of Amsterdam avoid the line and pour the emotion into the song in other ways.

Here’s the marvellous Katarzyna Groniec with Wojciech Młynarski‘s Polish ‘sung poetry‘ version of the song. You’ll recognise the word Amsterdam easily and marynarze =sailors. You’ll hear familiar, soft sounds like: śpią=sleep=dorment and tańce=dance=dansent. Katarzyna’s worth watching, whether you understand Polish or not. The sounds of the words will sing to your heart:

Always think of sounds when you sing. Sounds affect your listeners on a purely physical level first – before they’ve had time to process the dictionary definition of the words. In Jacque Brel’s Amsterdam the sound picture is painted with the ss, and the ent endings of the French.  The same job is done by the soft z, r and the an endings in Basque (Xabier Lete’s lyrics here) and in English by wide, melancholy diphthongs. Wojciech Młynarski fills his Polish version with soft consonants and rippling syllables. Jacques Brel’s swirling music does the rest.

Meaning comes later, after the music and the music of language has done its hypnotic work. I’ve read that a lot of phrases in the Brel Amsterdam have a poetic meaning that’s hard to translate but easy to feel. Phrases like croquer la fortune are understood on a level that’s outside the dictionary, by Francophones too.

When you sing in a language that isn’t your own: don’t confuse familiarity with importance. Don’t emphasise words just because you recognise them. If the song requires it, fine, but let music, not memory, be your mistress.

Remember: all French words were ‘easy’ to Jacques Brel. And he never met your Aunt Lavinia.

© Sing Better English, 2016


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