DER STARKE TOBAK DES MONSIEUR BRASSENS
Georges Brassens in deutsch -- übersetzt und gesungen von Ralf Tauchmann
TRANSLATION -- ADAPTATION -- IMITATION
TRANSLATION is often believed to be a simple substitution of words, but this is not true even for "everyday" translation, because every language is a system on its own -- a system of notions allocated to sounds giving words and expressions, a system of relationships allocated to structures giving grammar and phrases. There probably is not even one single word that has an exact match in any other language. One might think the French word maison is the equivalent of the English word house, but à la maison means at home. You might say I am means je suis in French, but I am 40 years old will have to be translated as j'ai 40 ans. So translation as what is often called simple translation is widely underestimated. This introductory remark seems necessary especially with regard to the translation of poetry and lyrics, because in poems words do not only convey contents, but they tend to represent themselves as well. Poetry is always structural reflection of and on the language itself.
This is one of the reasons why Georges Brassens is largely unknown in the non French-speaking parts of the world. His poetry is deeply rooted in the French language and culture, his images and analogies emanate from language itself. TRANSLATION as a process solely focused on contents is not sufficient for rendering foreign poetry. As poetry means to use and select words BOTH for their contents AND for their form, the same is absolutely necessary for the target language. This is what I call linguistic ADAPTATION -- the selection of equivalent means. Only contents can be translated, form needs to be adapted.
IMITATION in this linguistic context does not mean to make believe, but to take up the structure of a verse as closely as possible to the original poem.
I am speaking here about the theoretical background to avoid the general temptation to translate one's own personal interpretation. The chansons of Georges Brassens have such a wide scope and profound depth that every attempt to restrict them to precise views will imply the risk to make the songs more vulgar than they actually are in French or to remove the suggestive vagueness of the original verses. What is important is to identify the author who remains visible regardless of whether a song evokes the French catholic and rural tradition of the humble and modest (Les sabots d'Hélène, Pauvre Martin, Le joueur de flûteau) or the traditional rebellious spirit of barricading (Boulevard du Temps qui passe, Tempête dans un bénitier) -- to find the linking elements between Hécatombe and L'épave or between L'ancêtre and La messe au pendu.
These linking elements are the stylistic, aesthetic and poetic means used by Georges Brassens. You find a brief outline in my French summary (Traduire Brassens), which is far from being exhaustive. The challenge of the translator is to use an equivalent style while TRANSLATING the original contents, because a second temptation could be to use the author's style without respecting the original scope and depth of contents. I know that the word ADAPTATION is widely used to describe the whole process of translating poetry, but this is largely due to the underestimation and misunderstanding of what is generally called TRANSLATION. In my view, TRANSLATION and LINGUISTIC ADAPTATION give no freedom, but are linked to unavoidable restraints!
As my translations are in German, I will just refer to some aspects of translation and adaptation of cultural aspects. For the linguistic and stylistic means, you should read Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, who uses a similar style.
The songs of Georges Brassens are full of allusions to French culture and history. The translation approaches vary according to the particular song. Personally, I did not change direct references to litterature such as the following :
The latter example makes reference to a French comic strip (bande dessinée) and so the word bande (band, gang, bunch) is an obvious allusion to that and has not been chosen accidentally. This is a typical example for how Brassens uses the French language ( I call it CONTEXTUAL LINK in my French summary). I still have not made my mind up whether to use Nimbus or to opt for an alternative German translation, where I replace Nimbus by Doktor Allwissend (Doctor Know-All), not only because the Nimbus reference in itself is less important than its meaning for the train of thought, but because a German audience would understand nimbus ONLY as an allusion or -- what is worse -- even reference to rain clouds. The following example may be better to illustrate this:
In this example, the reference to Paris is a reference to the French capital. In favour of the song, it is not desirable to stick to Paris in the German translation, because Paris would be understood as a cosmopolitan city in a foreign country so that the very idea of the first strophe (contrast between crime in the capital and in the village) would not work out. It would of course be possible to use the name of the German capital, but I decided to generalize and replace the name of Paris by the German word for capital.
This is what I would call GENERALIZING ADAPTATION. This is adaptation by translating a cultural reference or allusion according to its function in the particular context. This approach is of course not possible for songs like Ricochets or Le vieux Léon. I even did the contrary for the latter chanson, where I introduced the words Paris and Montparnasse by replacing the allusion to the town of bridgesand the detailed street names:
Sometimes, the decision is not so easy. In the song Hécatombe, I replaced the name of the town of Brive-la-Gaillarde by a reference to a non-existing (provincial and narrow-minded) town known from old German folk songs. It is important to know that XIXth century dictionaries indicate Brive-la-Gaillarde as symbolic for provincial and narrow-minded behaviour. This use is no longer true, but Brassens confirms in an interview with Philippe Nemo that he did not have in mind the actual town (which has nevertheless renamed its market square Georges Brassens, if I'm well informed).
So every song offers its own restraints to the translator. Let's take the example of Les quat'z'arts, which I like very much. The references to the French bal des carabins and bal des quat'z'arts will not be understood by foreign people and are even not very well known to everyone in France. But again, the reference itself is less important than the train of thought developed by Brassens in this song, which leads to the final fatalistic statement:
Nous n'irons plus danser au grand-bal des quat'z'arts.
This is a marvellous song creating a vague atmosphere of apprehension and I would have regretted it very much not to be able to share it with a German speaking audience, especially because the conclusion is in contrast with many other songs and does not abolish the feeling of anxiety. Under this aspect, it has a certain similarity with Le grand Pan. But to come back to adaptation: The song Les quat'z'arts alludes e.g. to traditional "smutty" songs (Saint-Éloi n'est pas mort..., Les filles de Camaret...), to libertinage of youth... A linear translation would be incomprehensible. Allusion is a stylistic means of Brassens, the foundation on which he builds his songs and makes his reflections. The important thing, in my view, is to render the reasoning of Brassens and not to explain his cultural background (the latter could be an object for commented editions, but not for an evening of songs). So there are two songs where I took actual liberties, but without having this intention from the very beginning. For the songs La ronde des jurons and La route aux quatre chansons, this approach eventually proved to be UNAVOIDABLE. I said at the beginning that poetry always means to reflect and mirror the language itself. The refrain of La ronde des jurons is a collection of curses, chiefly ancient curses, as the symbolic and emblematic expression of opposition and rebellion as a TRADITION. So it is a look on the French language under the aspect of cursing. I was curious and did the same for the German language and finally even had to pick out some of them, because there was not enough space in the refrain. Once the refrain was entirely German, it was no longer possible to sing:
Quand les Gaulois
because the curses were no longer Gaul and French, but German curses. The next step was unavoidable: I had to replace the Gauls by the Teutons.
Als der German,Since I sing the songs both in French and in German, I can compare them and dare say that my adaptation is closer to the original idea than any intermediate solution I could have tried. Georges Brassens is generally known as nonconformist or unconventional -- and so is his way to use the French language. In the case of La ronde des jurons as well as La route aux quatre chansons, the deviation from the cultural standards is more important than the cultural standards themselves. How could an audience understand or let's better say: feel unconventionality without understanding the conventions? For the Brassens translator, it is important to reproduce nonconformism as a stylistic means : by deviating from the linguistic standards of the target language. If Brassens sings:
Mais se touchant le crâne en criant: « J'ai trouvé! »
It is important to trace the source : maisons frappées d'alignement (as an administrative procedure) and the consequence: chasser les habitants de leur maison with an unambiguous allusion to chasser Adam et Ève du paradis (expulsion from paradise) and to find equivalent or let's say at least similar expressions of a similar "taste". In German, it is lucky coincidence that the Biblic equivalent of chasser as vertreiben alludes to marketing/selling the Gods and alignment as the technical term of construction Flucht alludes to escape. The verb chasser could be translated by other German words (verjagen, hinauswerfen), but as the words tend to represent themselves in their (almost) entire scope of meaning, it is crucial to select each word very carefully and test it for its impact on INTERPRETABILITY. This is what I mean by PRECISION and RESTRAINT even in terms of ADAPTATION often believed to mean freedom and liberty...
Another very important aspect is POETIC ADAPTATION. In the case of Brassens, this means to find an adequate way for the unconventional treatment of poetic forms against the background of the target language. So I believe it indispensable for a faithful translation-adaptation to reproduce the broken rhymes (within a word, as done e.g. by Edgar Allan Poe, see my French summary) and to try to stick to the sometimes very rigorous rhyme structures. These rhymes do not only have a poetic meaning (dividing longer verses), but sometimes even a direct meaning in a particular song. To give an example (Le vin):
Avant de chanter
In this song, the place of the first broken rhyme (rime coupée) is so important that I did not use a possible translation for the first six verses, because there would have been the need to place the first broken rhyme too early. So the rhyme here has an actual MEANING at the content level, because the first six lines say, to put it very roughly without the original images: "Before starting to sing/praise my life, I've thought over what I'm saying..." It is only then that the first in-word rhyme occurs as a break of thinking while speaking the word. The songs of Georges Brassens are a harmonious blend of linguistic, stylistic, poetic, and musical means -- always in close connection with the contents and the story being told. To conclude, I'd like to point out the process of IMITATION in translation of poetry. By the way, this is not a translatory approach, but Louis Aragon used it as well and referred to Guillaume Apollinaire who had a notebook where he entered the verses he liked and wanted to imitate. The same is true for certain allusions contained in the songs of Brassens:
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