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Found In translation: Jacques Brel

Elsa Kenningham


These are two songs, 'Amsterdam' and 'Les Vieux', written and performed in the early 60s by Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer. 

English versions of both these songs already exist; Eric Blau and Mort Shuman translated them for their Off-Broadway show 'Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris'. Obviously because it’s a musical, these rhyme properly which (no offence to Messrs. Mort & Eric) is, a bit of a shame IMHO because some of Brel’s best images get skipped out. I think his lyrics work better if they’re translated more literally, less lyrically. Sometimes I think it can be quite effective when things sound a bit jarring in translation, and sing-song rhymes can mean you don’t pay attention to what’s actually being said – but à chacun son goût. 

'Amsterdam' is a song about sailors on leave; drinking, dancing and visiting Dutch prostitutes. You may know the English version because David Bowie and Scott Walker both covered it, but it’s quite different from the original song. Brel’s performance of it (he never recorded it in a studio) is a whirly, drawn out crescendo of crude debauchery during which Brel’s violently rolled r’s and emphatic arm-waving escalate as he becomes increasingly shouty, sweaty and spitty (I advise you ~check it out~ on YouTube). The images he describes are grotesque and unclichéd; I didn’t want to miss out the smell of fish so strong that it penetrates chips, couples rubbing their bellies together or equating the relieving of piss with that of tears. So I’ve stuck to the original pretty closely, the way I understand it, to prioritise conserving Brel’s images, not worrying so much about dodgy rhyming (born and oc-e-aaan is pushing it a bit, I know).


In 'Les Vieux' (Old People) Brel sings intensely sad lyrics about impending death over a disarmingly tinkly backing. Here I’ve really just not bothered to try and rhyme anything… the subject matter isn’t particularly beautiful, so I don’t think the verse needs to be either. In the French lyrics, the clock “ronronne au salon”: one big shame for the English language is not having nicked the onomatopoeic verb ronronner which means to hum (or to purr). Blau and Shuman’s translation omits a lot of Brel’s synesthetic (or simply nonsensical?) description in 'Les Vieux'; the smell of old-fashioned language, wrinkled gestures and people running across the present.

Amsterdam (Orignial)


Dans le port d'Amsterdam
Y'a des marins qui chantent
Les rêves qui les hantent
Au large d'Amsterdam.

Dans le port d’Amsterdam

Y’a des marins qui dorment

Comme des oriflammes

Le long des berges mornes.

Dans le port d’Amsterdam 

Y’a des marins qui meurent

Pleins de bière et de drames

Aux premières lueurs.

Mais dans le port d’Amsterdam

Y’a des marins qui naissent

Dans la chaleur épaisse

Des langueurs océanes.

Dans le port d'Amsterdam
Y'a des marins qui mangent
Sur des nappes trop blanches
Des poissons ruisselants

Et ça sent la morue
Jusque dans le cœur des frites
Que leurs grosses mains invitent
A revenir en plus

Puis se lèvent en riant

Dans un bruit de tempête

Referment leur braguette

Et sortent en rotant

Dans le port d’Amsterdam

Y’a des marins qui dansent

En se frottant la panse

Sur la panse des femmes:

Et ils tournent et ils dansent

Comme des soleils crachés
Dans le son déchiré
D'un accordéon rance.

Ils se tordent le cou
Pour mieux s'entendre rire
Jusqu'à ce que tout à coup
L'accordéon expire.

Alors le geste grave
Alors le regard fier

Ils ramènent leur batave

Jusqu’en pleine lumière

Dans le port d’Amsterdam

Y’a des marins qui boivent

Et qui boivent et reboivent

Et qui reboivent encore

Ils boivent à la santé
Des putains d'Amsterdam
De Hambourg et d'ailleurs
Enfin ils boivent aux dames

Qui leur donnent leur joli corps
Qui leur donnent leur vertu
Pour une pièce en or
Et quand ils ont bien bu

Se plantent le nez au ciel
Se mouchent dans les étoiles
Et ils pissent comme je pleure
Sur les femmes infidèles

Dans le port d'Amsterdam.

Amsterdam (Translation)

In the port of Amsterdam

There are sailors who sing

Of dreams that haunt them

Off the coast of Amsterdam.


In the port of Amsterdam 

There’re sailors having naps

Like bright banners draped 

Along dull riverbanks.


In the port of Amsterdam

There are sailors who die

Bulging with beer and tragedy

At the first glimmers of daylight.


But in the port of Amsterdam

There are sailors who are born

In the suffocating heat

Of a thick sluggish ocean.


In the port of Amsterdam

There are sailors who scoff

Streaming fish off 

Offensively white tablecloths.


The stench of their fish

Pierces the middle of the chips

Which their fat hands scrabble at

To come back again.


Then they rise with belly laughs

In the sound of a storm

They zip up their flies

And leave just burps behind.

In the port of Amsterdam

There are sailors who dance

Rubbing their paunches

On the ladies’ paunches:


They spin and they dance

Like they’re spat-out suns

In the torn-up sound

Of a stale accordion.


They twist their necks

The better to hear themselves laugh

Then - all of a sudden!

The accordion breathes its last.


So, with solemn gestures

And a dignified face

They bring their whores back

Until the harsh light of day.


In the port of Amsterdam

There are sailors who drink,

who drink and the drink

And drink once again:


They drink to their health,

To the whores of Amsterdam,

Whores from Hamburg and elsewhere,

They drink to all women.


Who’ve given their pretty bodies

And given their virtue

For a single gold coin.

And when they’ve drunk their fill


They stick their noses in the sky,

They blow them in the stars.

And they piss as I weep

On the faithless women


In the port of Amsterdam.

Old People (Translation)

Old people don’t talk anymore, or at least only sometimes, through their eyes

Even the rich become poor when they’ve no illusions left, and just one heart between two

Their homes smell like thyme, lavender, hygiene and language from days gone by

Whether or not you live in Paris, everyone lives in a province when they’ve lived too long

Is it because they’ve laughed too much that their voices crack when they talk of the old times?

And because they’ve cried too much, that tears still appear in the corners of their eyes?

And if they tremble a bit, is it because they can see the clock ticking on?

Humming in the living room: it says yes, it says no… I’m waiting for you…


Old people no longer dream; their books go to sleep, their pianos are closed

The little cat has died, Sunday’s sweet wine no longer makes them sing

Old people don’t move anymore, their gestures are too wrinkled, their world too small

From the bed to the window; then bed to armchair; from bed to bed

And if they do go out, arm in arm, they’re dressed up and made stiff,

And it’s to follow the sun to the burial of someone older, someone uglier

And to sob, passing a whole hour on that clock.

Which is humming in the living room: it says yes, it says no, that it is waiting for them…


Old people don’t die, they fall asleep one day and sleep too long

They clasp each other’s hands, scared of losing each other, and lose each other anyway.

And the other stays there: the better or the worse, the sweet or the strict,

It doesn’t matter – whoever stays, lives in hell

You might be able to see them sometimes in the rain and in grief

Walking across the present and already excusing themselves for not having got further

And running away from you one final time, the ticking clock

Which hums in the living room, it says yes, it says no. Tells them: I’m waiting for you


It hums in the living room. It says yes, it says no, and it waits for us.

Les Vieux (Orignial)


Les vieux ne parlent plus
Ou alors seulement
Parfois du bout des yeux,
Même riches ils sont pauvres,
Ils n'ont plus d'illusions,
Et n'ont qu'un cœur pour deux.
Chez eux ça sent le thym,
Le propre, la lavande,
Et le verbe d'antan,
Que l'on vive à Paris,
On vit tous en province
Quand on vit trop longtemps.
Est-ce d'avoir trop ri
Que leur voix se lézarde
Quand ils parlent d'hier?
Et d'avoir trop pleuré
Que des larmes encore
Leur perlent les paupières?
Et s'ils tremblent un peu
Est-ce de voir vieillir
La pendule d'argent
Qui ronronne au salon,
Qui dit oui, qui dit non,
Qui dit "Je vous attends".

Les vieux ne rêvent plus,
Leurs livres s'ensommeillent,
Leurs pianos sont fermés,
Le petit chat est mort.
Le muscat du dimanche
Ne les fait plus chanter,
Les vieux ne bougent plus,
Leurs gestes ont trop de rides,
Leur monde est trop petit,
Du lit à la fenêtre,
Puis du lit au fauteuil,
Et puis du lit au lit,
Et s'ils sortent encore
Bras dessus, bras dessous,
Tout habillés de raide,
C'est pour suivre au soleil
L'enterrement d'un plus vieux,
L'enterrement d'une plus laide,
Et le temps d'un sanglot
Oublier toute une heure
La pendule d'argent
Qui ronronne au salon,
Qui dit oui, qui dit non,
Et puis qui les attend.

Les vieux ne meurent pas,
Ils s'endorment un jour
Et dorment trop longtemps,
Ils se tiennent la main,
Ils ont peur de se perdre,
Et se perdent pourtant
Et l'autre reste là,
Le meilleur ou le pire,
Le doux ou le sévère,
Cela n'importe pas,
Celui des deux qui reste
Se retrouve en enfer.
Vous le verrez peut-être,
Vous le verrez parfois
En pluie et en chagrin
Traverser le présent.
En s'excusant déjà
De n'être pas plus loin.
Et fuir devant vous
Une dernière fois
La pendule d'argent
Qui ronronne au salon,
Qui dit oui, qui dit non,
Qui leur dit "Je t'attends",
Qui ronronne au salon,
Qui dit oui, qui dit non,
Et puis qui nous attend

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