samedi 1 janvier 2011

One Year Later: Bashung in English: Translating France's Greatest Rocker

"We will cross other lines..."

Dear friends and fans, 

It was one year ago on Christmas Day that I lunged into the work of translating the œuvre of Alain Bashung. I have now completed seven (7) albums, minus a couple of songs, including the album/song that gets the greatest number of hits on the website, "Cantique des cantiques". I thought it would be educational (and most humbling) to review what I've learned during this year, both about translating and about translating text that is as ironic and intangible as that of Bashung and his collaborators.

I decided from the beginning not to make the translations singable, which would have meant finding alternate words and phrases, changing around entire strophes, counting syllables (or close to it), and finagling a rhyme scheme. My immediate goal was to allow speakers of English the opportunity to comprehend what the songs were about and, as specifically as possible, to offer them the images that the songwriters had intended. I also wanted to make the whole experience as enjoyable and accessible as possible for the listeners and for myself. Consequently, I rushed through a lot of music, and the result is seven albums of some very good, some half-baked, and some, still, downright awkward translations.

Thanks to generous, incisive criticism from a couple of native French speakers and English poets, I had to admit that some of the translations were simply too precious, "too word-for-word and heavy", as one very kind and honest reviewer wrote. I went back and found that he was right; several of the songs did not sound like natural English.

Hence, I started with the ones that were critiqued and found that it was possible to shift some of the language without losing the actual images. One not minor example: my initial insistance on the use of the impersonal, third person "on" of french: "One is making love in the backseat." What would that possibly mean to an English speaker? So I went back through several "completed" translations, and had to make decisions about exactly who that "one" was. Was it "I", "they", "us"? Occasionally, "one" worked very well and I left it, but most often it did not. I made my selection from the context of both the line and the song, and I feel good about the whole debacle, which at first it was for me; that is, until I realized the necessity.

There were other things, like inverted sentences, where it sounded fine in French but made no sense in English. When I did "straighten out" those sentences, I'd often find a nice near-rhyme at the end or at least alliteration. Happy accidents! For example in the last song I translated, "Douane Eddy" from "Passé le Rio Grande": "Tellement beaucoup qu'elle a plu" (So much did she rain...). Here I decided to keep what I had translationed in the earlier part of the verse, "Elle a tellement plu qu'elle est encore toute mouillée" (She rained so much that she's still all wet), simply, "She rained so much", which sounded great followed by "Gallop gallop". Alliteration can be a wonderful substitute for a true rhyme...sometimes. In the case of the translations, since English words can sound like French words with only a slight change to the vowel, it happens a lot.

Eventually, I'd like to go back and select certain popular songs ("Madame Rêve", "Fantaisie Militaire", "Sommes-nous", "La nuit je mens") for the ultimate translations: those that could be sung in English. I believe I will be able to do this with time. First, I'm a poet. And second, I translated several poems at university with rhyme scheme and rhythm intact, and was loudly praised by my professors. First, however, I want to get the whole body done, make it sound like fabulous English, an English that I hope even Bashung would have loved, or Jean Fauque or Boris Bergman, to name his two most prominent lyricists.

One person has asked me, "How can you do this without their collaboration and consent? These are their words!" To which I responded that I have tried to contact Jean Fauque, twice, about at least getting his opinion, if not his actual collaboration, which would be enormously fun and certainly more challenging than working alone. The first time I wrote to him was months before I started, when it was but the seed of an idea. He did not respond, and I finally decided to just go for it. He knows I'm doing it, but he has said nothing; I even sent him my dedication for "Mes bras".

I'm more tentative about reaching out to Mr. Bergman. I recently posted a video of him, from September this year, singing "Gaby oh Gaby" in English... and I'm going to grab and credit him with that translation when I reach that song, as well as his marvelous introduction (Oh, Cabbie/y!). He also put out his own album of English translations for Gainsbourg, sung by various singers.¹ But I feel that "Bibi", as he is affectionately called, might still have issues about his and Bashung's abrupt separation, and, of course, I'm totally unknown to him: I'm a bit terrified that he will say "no". Thus, if anyone has a relationship with Mr. Bergman or with Mr. Fauque, the latter whom I have met and even had pleasantries with--he wrote me before and congratulated me after my first-anniversary AB broadcast from Astoria, Oregon and even listened live at 3am in France--I will be very happy to speak with you about approaching them. Honestly, I would love to have their support, as it would only deepen the work.

Now, back to the translating. For words and phrases, both idiomatic and not, with which I am unfamiliar, there are some fantastic resources on line. I knew this before, but never as much as I do now. "WordReference" ( is still my favorite, but... there's a catch. With experience, I found that, occasionally, the offerings on the site, both on the main translation and in the forums, were simply the best that someone else could come up with, "unofficial" as it were, odd to my ear or the British equivalent. On the former, it meant I was going to have to dig a lot, go into the French-to-French dictionaries and read and read; etymology, history, myth, and even, in the case of our dear Monsieur Bashung, German. It's been wonderful for me as someone who has always loved language, all languages but especially French. And I found that, yes, I could be creative without losing even a dime of meaning or image. On the British front, I decided that these would be American English translations because 1) it is the English I know best, and 2) it is the English that most students around the world want to learn. I'm sorry to my British friends if they feel slighted, but given my own background, it was the best choice I could make. On occasion, however, when the word that Bashung is singing actually comes from the British, I will use that word.

I've tried to be generous with my new knowledge, sharing some of the history and etymology in footnotes and pictograms, and also, when I can find it, the background of Bashung's and his collaborators' wordplay. There's a lot of wordplay: that's their claim to fame, and I know, fundamentally, that I only get a sliver of it. Much shall remain known only to native French speakers from France (although, due to the difficulty of the texts, not to all), and I can't say that I'm not a wee bit jealous. To get into those brains and mine that gold (that hilarious gold!), that is my impossible dream. I keep trying as hard as I can... yet in a vacuum. Here, whatever help you, dear reader, can offer would be like feeding me Belgian chocolates on a long winter's night in Alaska. You would actually be helping all of us English speakers and fellow Bashung lovers to a deeper understanding of the texts. Even if occasionally you would browse one of the translations and offer some clue to the wordplay, I would appreciate it so much, and, as some have already discovered, I will give you credit on the website. (I'd pay if you if I could.)

So, there it is, a year of translating perhaps the most difficult, twisted, sardonic French lyrics ever written. I'm proud of this work and my continuing education. I continue to pour over the translations that are done as they come back up, usually by happenstance, sometimes because I can no longer hear what he's actually singing myself--yes, I use my own translations from time to time; I read French better than I hear it. However, once the work is completed, with five more albums to go, I will systematically go back, one by one, and rework the rough patches and errors. Years from now, I will think, Eureka!, and run back to "Bashung in English", search the index, and put that genius touch on another line or word. Maybe if I'm lucky, Alain himself will guide my erratic, sardonic, depressive self with his own. I don't believe that, but it's a lovely thought, isn't it? I just miss him so much, as we all do.

Thanks to all of you for your kind and friendly support. The traffic to the website is now coming from all over the globe and has recently doubled in size; yesterday, we had visitors from Mainland China, Russia and India, to name a few. The largest group is still from France, and many of the French are repeat visitors. I can only surmise that they 1) are lovers of Alain Bashung and can't get enough of him and 2) are using the translations to improve their own knowledge of English, and that is a great use. I hope that perhaps teachers will eventually consider using the translations in the classroom; as a former utilization specialist for public television, I know the value of media in the classroom.

More than anything else, people throughout the world are now loving Alain Bashung in French and in English. What could be a better tribute almost two years after his passing? I can only hope that with these translations, I will help keep his enormous legacy alive for many, many years, perhaps many generations, to come.

Vive Alain Bashung! Et Bonne Année à tous!

~Laura Tattoo
January 1, 2011

¹Album "Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited", translated by Boris Bergman (

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