Friday, May 30, 2014

The French Have a Word For That

Translation is a tricky thing on its own, but when it involves a song and trying to keep a rhythm and rhyme scheme while holding on to the original sentiment, it's pretty daunting. Quite often, it seems, songs have to become something completely new in translation. The original French song that Frank Sinatra's My Way is based on, Comme d'habitude, has absolutely no lyrical relevance to the song most of us know in english, for example. They aren't about the same thing at all. And I'm sure that happens a lot. More interesting to me, however, is when the basic meaning is intact, but the translation is just different somehow, no matter how closely it follows the original. If You Go Away is a song that everyone has covered at some point, so that which version you identify with is pretty much up in the air. Is it Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield, Scott Walker, someone else? So many to choose from. Let's start with a more recent version.

Cyndi definitely brings the right level of angst and desperation, but two things stand out to me that separate it from the original (we'll get to it). One is that, for me, this song feels a lot more powerful when sung by a man. I'm sure that's just because of the ingrained cultural norms that exist in the back of my head suggesting that a man doesn't normally plead this way unless he's really hurt. I completely accept that that is a bullshit gender stereotype that I would normally rail against, but the flip side of that is that because men aren't normally "allowed" to express these feelings, hearing it in a song is actually breaking the gender stereotype and that is why I respond to it more from a male point of view. In any case, the other thing that stands out is that the english version of the song is not nearly as primal as the French. I only learned that recently when I saw a video of the original with subtitles that translated it literally. Jacques Brel's Ne Me Quitte Pas, right from the title is already more direct as the literal translation is not If You Go Away, but Don't Leave Me Now.

For starters, the close up of a sweaty, buggery, pleading French dude is already going to make it that much more raw. His delivery aside, though, where the english version is merely heartbreaking, the french lyrics are absolutely gut-wrenching. If You Go Away, even though it has the line "as I know you must," still has the implication that it has not happened yet. There is hope in the singer even as he/she completely tears their heart open before their lover. The original has no "if." It is much more plainly presented as an increasingly self-deprecating supplication. The differences are there throughout, but the lines that cement the original as better for me are the last ones. The english version's "I'd have been the shadow of your shadow if I thought it might have kept me by your side" is nowhere near as vivid and emotionally draining as "Let me become the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog." If we go by the gender stereotype, this is a man completely emasculating himself just to be around his lover, not even with her. Raw may not be a strong enough word. But that's Jacques Brel. If you've never heard anything else from him, I highly recommend giving Scott Walker's collection of Brel covers a listen, for songs about prostitutes, depravity and gonorrhea. You know, birthday party tunes.

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