In his famous collection of essays Imaginary Homelands, Salmon Rushdie ponders the potential of translation:

The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.

One of the few downsides of having a mixed heritage is the whole realm of Great experiences I’ll never be able to fully share with people. The beauty of certain novelists, poets and musicians is difficult to maintain in translation. Every language is a reflection of the culture it’s evolved from and knowing what individual words mean does little to convey the cultural context of the people that wrote them.

The English language simply isn’t structured to convey the full weight of Baudelaire’s ennui, just as French struggles to capture the subtle ironies and understatement of everyday English. Even Bollywood can be pretty hard to get into without having experienced the daily life it provides such a magical escape from. I recently enjoyed the fabulously-illustrated  compilation of untranslatable words, Lost In Translation, which reiterated how ill-equipped we are to do justice to cultural difference. What we really need is a Cultural Dictionary.

This is one of The Great Everything’s missions, at least with regards to the cultures we know about – to find gems from around the world and discuss what they tell us about their culture. They’ll be part of an ongoing Translating Culture series.

Which all brings me to Jacques Brel, one of the Great icons of chanson française. For such a legend of French music, he was officially Belgian. Now, I don’t know what that means either. But Brel was one of the Greatest 20th century artists our generation hasn’t heard (much) of. His baritone timbre was technically ordinary but boy did it have impact. It was almost a physical force. I always get knotted, then knocked flat on my ass by it. Like Johnny Cash, Brel was no technical virtuoso, yet he was born to sing.

Maybe you’re feeling sceptical right now. I mean, apart from some classical composers, Piaf and co, some Great rap (if you’re a French speaker) and the kitsch pleasantness of Gaulywood film tracks, French music hasn’t been kind to you, has it. And I’m sorry about that.

But I humbly ordain you to give this a go.

Here was a guy whose turns of phrase, sincerity and sheer charisma could whip up sentimental tsunamis in nobles and peasants alike. He sang with such unique feeling and intensity that his live performances felt like total character inhabitations (for a modern example of this style, you should also check out his compatriot, Stromae – article to come). Great singers don’t just interpret a feeling and pitch it to you, they become the feeling they’re depicting.

And those lyrics. While stripped of some of their verve and ferocity in English translations, they’re of poet-laureate Greatness in Brel’s native French. English-speakers will get an approximate but nonetheless touching translation in the clip above this article. If Tony Blair’s old sidekick Alastair Campbell got anything right, it may be his depiction of what Brel means to him:

I see Brel above all as a poet who wrote music and could sing with phenomenal passion. You can find lots of film of him on YouTube – it’s like he’s living the song, totally possessed by it. He wasn’t a good-looking bloke – odd teeth, a face that didn’t quite work. But on stage he was mesmeric. The records are great, but you have to see him perform live to get a sense of what a genius he was. 

That’s the thing with this guy. Half-way through, I don’t even care what he’s saying anymore. His eyes, face and sweat are making me feel it right in my gut. That’s the universal language of music, and his combo of high-brow poetry and low-brow rawness is the exact recipe we find cropping up in so many of our Great things. Check it out in the video that heads this page.

I’ve rarely heard such a raw expression of despair. The shadow of her dog. He said he’d be the SHADOW of her DOG. What can I say, the guy seems upset.

With a melody inspired from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 (five just weren’t enough), Brel penned the lyrics after being dumped by his mistress. He wrote them in the Au Rêve bar on the northern slopes of Montmartre, from where he could see her apartment across the square. Having just been chucked out, Brel retaliated by refusing to acknowledge he was the father of their as-yet unborn child. A timeless storyline with an uplifting ending. She had an abortion.

Some time later, wrought with shame at his own behaviour, but aware that his masterpiece had become a love song to transcend the ages, Brel would declare:

This is no longer a love song, but a song about the cowardice of men.

Sure, you can pick at the dramatic execution of his performance. It’s distinctly unsubtle, if that’s the optic you want to get stuck in. But it’s also the pure, authentic embodiment of the culture and language most closely associated with matters of love, its beauty and its heartbreak. No, I don’t mean Belgian culture, smart-ass. Belgium’s a suburb. He’s acting every bit as much as he’s singing and that’s one of the things good chanson française is about. Indeed, because of this theatrical aspect, we think the best way to enjoy Brel is to get your hands on the compilation of live performances offered on the DVD Comme Quand Il Etait Beau.

You know how some cultures mourn with brass jams (hello New Orleans) and others with languid borrowings from classical music? Well check out how France does it in the video below. You might have come across this in the media – François Hollande’s tearful reaction to the rendition in the wake of the Paris massacres made headlines across the world. And guess what. It’s a cover of another Brel classic (Quand On N’A Que L’Amour – When All We Have Is Love):

Yeah. Good luck bouncing back from 2:27 onwards. But the point of including it here is to note that in 50 years, a certain style of delivery has remained. In Ne Me Quitte Pas, Brel isn’t just the wonderful, inimitable voice of Brel – he’s the voice of a whole (musical) culture.

To me, Brel’s work is a shoe-in for my pantheon of Great Things That Stick because I come back to it time and time again. The sentiment behind it hasn’t aged a bit and it’s a tribute to a bygone era when people could just stand at a microphone live on TV, without any special effects skewing their voice, and sing. Guts ‘n all. You didn’t need Mariah Carey’s vocals or Beyoncé’s choreography. You just had to have something relevant to say. Looking at his (extensive) work more broadly, beyond Ne Me Quitte Pas, Neil Hannon pitches the essence of what Brel has to say in a tight ten:

Life is shit, everybody is horrible. But isn’t life wonderful.

And funnily enough, the way he communicated that message has resonated with more people – past and present – than Brel may ever have dreamed of. To his huge international following, whatever was lost in translation was an irrelevance in comparison to the unique sentiment and vivacity his words offered people of all cultural backgrounds.

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