Scott Walker: Jackie and Inspired Translation

It takes a brave translator to turn Jacques Brel‘s “Même si un jour à Knokke-le-Zoute/Je deviens comme je le redoute” into “And if one day I should become/A singer with a Spanish bum:

I can’t imagine a ‘Spanish bum’ regularly appearing in song lyrics. I’d guess that Scott Walker, not having grown up in England, had no problem singing the word straight. To him, it was just a word. And to Mort Shulman, far away in California, ‘Spanish bum’ has the virtue of rhyming with ‘should become’. How could either of them know that, in England, ‘bum’ is a child’s word.

And a ‘Spanish bum’? You’ll never find it in an English dictionary, but anyone who hears ‘Jackie’ will be imagining a slim matador‘s tight trousers. Something like the gentleman on the right:

Why does it work, even to a British audience? We should be giggling, but we’re taking our clues from Scott Walker. He doesn’t seem to find the word ‘bum‘ funny or ironic, so we follow his lead.  He uses his hand to sketch the slim, shapely contours of an attractive Spanish man’s derrière, and that’s sufficient. He takes us with him, on into the story. The impossibility of suddenly acquiring a svelte Spanish bum is just another element in the rambling imagination of the song.

It’s as fantastical as And I’d sell boats of opium/Whisky that came from Twickenham. Twickenham is a suburb of London, famous for its rugby stadium. It has no whisky distilleries:

Twickenham Stadium (photo: Abdel Moumen)

I imagine Mort Shulman retrieved the town of Twickenham from a rhyming dictionary. It’s an easy word to sing: with the t and the ck helping it romp along. Twickenham has the same certain, clear rhyme with opium as Spanish bum and should become. For those who know Twickenham, linking it with whisky is a bizarre, intriguing juxtaposition.

Thanks to the Anglo Saxons, the English-speaking world is full of three syllable place names whose final syllable rhymes with opium: Birmingham, Framingham, Caversham, Tottenham etc. None of them trip off the tongue as Twickenham does: Birmingham is slowed by the B and rm, Framingham by its Fr and m, Caversham by its central ver. You can imagine them all in a ‘word audition’, with Twickenham‘s enthusiastic Tw and powerful central ck propelling it into first place.

Why does Twickenham trump Tottenham? Because the central tt of Tottenham is too small and precise for this song. It’s the sound of a typewriter. It forces the mouth to close. The shape of Tottenham calls our attention to the Tott. Twickenham is made of rounder, but still powerful sounds: Tw and ck. It’s a word that unwinds. Tottenham sounds matter-of-fact. Twickenham, as the masterful Scott Walker sings the word, sounds like a place of dreams.

If you’re writing a fantastical song in English, the words you choose have to be right: a mix of ordinary and extraordinary, with a rhythm that moves forward easily, like a fairy story told to a child, easy on the mouth of the singer and on the ear of the listener.

Apart from the fact that the words have Scott Walker’s delicious baritone to bathe in, Mort Shulman manages to capture the true meaning of Brel’s song “La Chanson de Jacky” without getting bogged down in word-for-word dictionary diving.

Jacques Brel 1962.                         Photo: Ben van Meerendonk

Brel wrote “La Chanson de Jacky” at a time when he was tired of relentless touring. He imagines a far future, when he’s in sad retirement, washed up, drunk and singing to/servicing overdressed matrons in the posh resort casino of Knokke-le-Zoute. His virility is long gone, but everyone is trapped in the memory of what he once was: Celle du temps où j’m’appelais Jacky (The time when I was called Jacky)

“La Chanson de Jacky” is a song of imagined future regret. It’s surreal in its imaginings. Most of its meaning would be lost in a straight French to English translation. Knokke-le-Zoute, anyone?

René Magritte murals in casino at Knokke-le-Zoute

Mort Shuman takes the heart of Brel’s song and pours it into flowing, fantastical English. Every sound and every word serves the music. Scott Walker brings the heart of Brel’s song to life perfectly, spinning a surreal tale of imagination, memory and sadness. As he sings, you can see that he’s in the moment, telling the song’s story as if he’d written it himself, in his diary.

Scott Walker said he fell in love with Jacques Brel’s music thanks to a German Playboy Bunny he met in 1966:

It’s heart-warming to see translation escape the death-trap of ‘every single word in French must have an exact correlation in English’. They don’t. The heart of a word lives in the heart of the listener.

Here’s Jacques Brel with the original ‘La Chanson de Jacky’. You can see, whether you understand French or not, that he’s deep in imagining. And the warm way he sings the name Jacky makes it clear that it’s his own childhood pet-name:

RIP Scott Walker 1943- 2019

© Sing Better English 2019



11 thoughts on “Scott Walker: Jackie and Inspired Translation”

  1. Scott Walker would have been charmed by this gem of a post! But my … how times have changed. (Probably a good thing, because I don’t think we could stomach Justin Bieber singing about gathering a bunch of young girls to set up his bordello.) What fun to hear the Jacques Brel original, too. Loved his pronunciation of “corathón.” 🙂


    1. Thanks for your kind words, Heide. There’s been a lot of Scott Walker on the radio here since the sad news of his death was announced. What a wonderful voice and what an inspiring artist.

      It is strange how a young man singing casually about ‘setting up a bordello’ stood as a tra-la-la , ha-ha-ha, throwaway line in 1967, but would bring the weight of social media, and then all media, crashing around Justin Bieber’s ears today if he happened to write himself a song which featured collecting young women to stock a brothel. It’s unimaginable, isn’t it? Though, I suppose, the same skewed messages about the easy sexual availability of young women play out for us these days in music videos, where the men are wearing a lot of layers and the women are showing a lot of skin.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What a treat to have a steady diet of Scott Walker on the radio! The sad news has hardly made a ripple across the pond, I’m afraid.

        Great observation too about how the sexual mores have shifted. It seems I don’t belong in either era, because I’m not a fan of either underage bordellos or naked Miley Cyruses flying across the screen on a wrecking ball. Fortunately there are lots of choices in between for “sensitive” listeners like me, ha ha.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s funny how dance moves are so much ‘of their time’. A lot of young men in the mid-60s danced with that ‘swivel on the heel’ movement. You don’t see men moving like that these days. Or maybe they still do in California. Here’s another treat – Tom Jones doing the same song with an audience of adoring ladies with interesting hairdos. He’s very gracious about the offerings at the beginning – apparently it was the tradition to bring underwear as a tribute:

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oops. Hit return accidentally. It’s almost as if the performer gives the listener time to partially digest. Then it’s on to the next series, followed by a pause. Maybe it’s a signature of cabaret singing? I’m reminded of dream states, in which a series of images pile on. A person needs a moment to take it all in. Regardless, Walker’s interpretation of Brel is a lot of fun.

    Liked by 1 person

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