Love and sex in song – why it helps to be French

I’ve been thinking about song lyrics recently – or, rather, the translation of French song lyrics into English. The folk wisdom among serious translators is what, while French is the more natural language of romance and love, English is more economic, muscular and flexible

The first is certainly true. If you doubt the superiority of French when it comes to conveying romantic loss, try comparing “Les Feuilles Mortes”, as written by Jacques Prévert with the English version, written by the revered lyricist, Johnny Mercer. While one is simple, moving and evocative in both sense and language, the other, surely, is clunky and bears a distinct whiff of Tin Pan Alley. (Did Mercer really think that comparing autumn leaves to sunburned hands was a good idea?)


Here’s Prévert:

C’est une chanson qui nous ressemble.
Toi, tu m’aimais et je t’aimais
Et nous vivions tous les deux ensemble,
Toi qui m’aimais, moi qui t’aimais.
Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment,
Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit
Et la mer efface sur le sable
Les pas des amants désunis.


 And Mercer:

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold.
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sunburned hands, I used to hold
Since you went away, the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song.
But I miss you most of all, my darling,
When autumn leaves start to fall.

This is the great Yves Montand, who made toi song famous in the film Les Portes de la Nuit in 1946  singing it 40 years later. It is said to be the last time he performed it before he died.


As for economy and flexibility, is English really preferable to French?  How, for example, would one translate the chorus of Georges Brassens famous celebration of male randiness “Fernande”, which starts “Quand je pense à Fernande, je bande, je bande…”

 What does one do with “je bande” in English? “I am aroused”?  Too stuffy. “I get a  hard-on”?  Too plonky. “I get wood” ? Ridiculous.

There is nothing quite so direct, bold and priapic as the French verb “bander”. It  is essentially untranslatable.

Here, as a special treat, is the French president’s wife singing about erections.