The Tales and Trails of Translating ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’

Jacques BrelWell, I’ve finally decided to put to bed an almost five year long attempt at accurately translating the marvellous ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ by Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel.

“Why bother?”, I hear you ask. It is true that there several English versions of the song already, such as Rod McKuen’s ‘If You Go Away’ as immortalized by the renowned Scott Walker.

The thing that always bothered me about these versions are; a) they are never precise translations of the song, often lacking the subtleties of the original and, b)  Brel’s version is generally far darker, and far more brooding.

Just look at the utter desolation in the direct translation of the song:

Let me become
The shadow of your shadow,
The shadow of your hand,
The shadow of your dog

…compared to McKuens

I’d have been the shadow of your shadow
If I thought it might have kept me by your side

It just ain’t emphatic enough. While McKuen postulates about what might happen if his lover goes away, Brel is both demanding and beseeching; “Don’t Leave Me! Don’t Leave Me!”

Apart from this, the subtext and subtleties of Brel’s version go far deeper. Brel originally wrote this song in response to his pregnant mistress dumping him right before aborting his child. So while the song is the desperate last plea, it is also far more.

Brel himself stated that the song was quintessentially about male cowardice. Yes, the man promises the girl pearls and gold and kingdoms. The question is, why would any woman consider leaving after hearing this? Unless, of course, she had heard it all before? Unless, of course, she didn’t believe him. Unless, of course, she wanted more than the earth, more than material things, something more like true love, and not words? More than just ‘pearls made from rain’. In ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ Brel offers the impossible knowing that it can never be attained, and so never demanded.

The starting point of my efforts was a translation by British singer/songwriter Des de Moor. While probably the most accurate online translation, I often felt that de Moors translation concentrated on internal rhyme at the cost of the passion within the song.

Some of his translation is absolute genius:

When all’s said and done,
Scorched fields of defeat,
Will give us more wheat,
Than the fine April sun

However, I did feel that these lines, among others, missed by a hairs breadth the songs original intent, and were, on occasion, just a little clumsy. A bit like that last sentence.

Compare the above to my amended version:

And when all’s said and done
Scorched fields of defeat
Can yield far more wheat
Than a bright April sun

The original intent of the lyric was to say that a burnt field yields a better harvest than any Summer, not a particular one, hence the change from “the fine April sun” to “a bright April sun”. Furthermore, I just felt that words such as “yield” and “bright” were more evocative, and so more passionate.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSfc662vXZU]

There were also times when providing anything other than a literal translation of the original would destroy the context of the piece. The last verse, in particular, is one of gradual ego destruction, and so should be sung in the plainest of possible terms; “I won’t cry, I won’t speak, I will lie here and watch you.”

This is especially true of the final lines, that final fall. A literal translation of the lines “Let me become, the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog.” is not as strong once de Moors adds a weakish rhyme to keep the metre: “Let me be for you, the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the dog at your command.”

My version eschews the de Moor final rhyme, and only alters the original slightly for impact, getting a rough rhyme with “hand” that still satisfies ones need for a resolution to the song. “Just let me be, the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your hound.”

So you see, my translation was uneasy truce between finding lines that can be sung naturally and with passion, while geekishly attempting to preserve the rhyming structure and intent of the original. That binary opposition of passion and metre has kept me coming back to this translation time and again, the same contradiction of passion versus logic that is at the heart of every Aspergers soul.

There are two sections that bother me still. The second part of the first verse was a tough one to interpret properly. A literal translation of it would be “Lets forget the time we lost trying to work out how to forget the hours that the heart filled with joy was hit with blows of why.” Or as near as I can reckon! I finally came up with an interpretation that I think preserves Brels intent, while maintaining the beats and rhymes in roughly their proper places.

Another section I continually found particularly hard to interpret accurately is “I shall dig the ground, even after my death, to cover your body, with gold and light.” I had to break the internal rhyme of the following section (“where love is law, and you are Queen”) to maintain the sense of desperation of the original, so I felt I had to keep the internal metre for this part. It’s a simple little bit, but I have tried every variation of “skin” and “body” and “death” and “ground” to preserve that ABBA metre, and it has absolutely defeated me. All suggestions gratefully received.

 

Don’t Leave Me Now

(English translation of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” by Pat Jackman,
loosely based on an translation by Des de Moor.)

Don’t leave me now
We may soon forget
All we can forget
All we’ve done ’til now

Let’s forget the days
Of hurt we cost
Or the times we lost
Trying to find a way

To forget those times
That, at times, made die
With each blow of “why?”
Our hearts of joy

Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now

Me? I’ll bring you pearls
That are made from the rain
Of a distant domain
Where rain never falls

And I’ll plough the earth
‘Til death is in sight
To cover your skin
With gold and with light

I’ll create a world
Where love is king
Where love is law
And you are queen

Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now

Don’t leave me now
I’ll invent for you
Words only meant for you
That only you will know

And I will tell you then
Tales of lovers who
Fell apart and who
Fell in love again

There’s a story too
That I’ll then confide
Of the king that died
From not meeting you

Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now

And it’s often told
That flames spring anew
From a long ancient hill
That we once thought too old

And when all’s said and done
Scorched fields of defeat
Can yield far more wheat
Than a bright April sun

And when evening’s nigh
With flames o’erhead
The black and the red
Don’t they touch as they die?

Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now

Don’t leave me now
I will cry no more
I will talk no more
Stay, if you allow

And then, by myself
Watch you dance and smile
And listen while
You sing, then laugh

Just let me be
The shadow of your shadow
The shadow of your hand
The shadow of your hound

Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now
Don’t leave me now

(Des de Moor’s translation is available at http://www.commex.org/jenny/lydontleave.htm)

And, for the sake of completeness, I include De Moors comment to my original post. I could be swayed by his argument but I’m done! Finito!

“You’ve improved my version of the “des terres brûlées donnant plus de blé qu’un meilleur avril” bit but you’ve hit on the essential bugbear of translating song texts, particularly from a language where it’s so easy to create internal rhymes and equal syllable counts as French. I too wasn’t happy with “the dog at your command” but just going literally, and losing the dense rhymes and the strict five syllable metre, seems to deny the repetitive and obsessive beat of the song.”

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