Just like two women

Francis Cabrel is one of my favourite singer-songwriters, coming from the region of France where I lived for ten years. I learnt much of my French from his songs, as he writes with a great deal of intelligence and poetic sensibility and love for language and music – in the best tradition of la Chanson Francaise but also set apart from it.

His new album, however, has raised some questions and for me it’s an opportunity to think about translation a little.

Cabrel is a long-term fan of Bob Dylan, who inspired him to become a musician in the first place. On a previous album, he’s already made what I think is a masterful adaptation of She belongs to me, entitled Elle m’appartient. I’ll paste it here since there’s also a lovely video (though I haven’t researched whether this video belongs to Cabrel or not). I think the mood is poised and evocative, the guitar work lovely, and the nod to Dylan while maintaining a new identity quite gracefully managed. Basically, I love it.

His new album, however, entitled Vise le Ciel, is entirely made up of Dylan covers, all translated by Cabrel. Already, fans are divided, with some saying that we wait so long for a new album, and he’s capable of writing his own words so beautifully, that we’d have rather heard more of his own. And it’s true that the first single to come from the album is debatable. It’s Comme une femme, a cover of Just Like a Woman. Here’s the original (or the best I could find, which is sadly lacking the end – sorry).

And here is Cabrel’s version, handily transcribed with the lyrics on screen.

I think the thing that strikes me at first is how pedestrian the music and the beat is, re-using a now trademark dusty blues snare backing that’s just… well… boring. And how Cabrel (whose singing voice is pitch perfect and quite beautiful) tries to mimic some of Dylan’s characteristics (in particular in groaning ‘Elle regne’ half-spoken). But my main questions are with the lyrics.

Here are Dylan’s lyrics:

Nobody feels any pain
Tonight as I stand inside the rain
Everybody knows
That Baby’s got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls
She takes just like a woman, yes she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl.

Queen Mary, she’s my friend
Yes, I believe I’ll go see her again
Nobody has to guess
That Baby can’t be blessed
Till she finally sees that she’s like all the rest
With her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls
She takes just like a woman, yes she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl.

It was raining from the first
And I was dying of thirst
So I came in here
And your long-time curse hurts
But what’s worse
Is this pain in here
I can’t stay in here
Ain’t it clear that

I just can’t fit
Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit
When we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry and it was your world
Ah, you fake just like a woman, yes you do
You make love just like a woman, yes you do
Then you ache just like a woman
But you break just like a little girl.

Here are Cabrel’s lyrics.

Personne n’éprouve aucune peine.
La nuit quand sous la pluie je traine.
Mais tout l’monde a appris
Que Babe de nouveaux habits,
De longues mèches de sirènes
Et des rubans hors de prix.
Qu’elle cache mais je les ai surpris.

Elle règne, juste comme une femme.
Elle se donne, juste comme une femme.
Elle prie, juste comme une femme.
Elle se brise comme une petite fille.

La reine Marie, elle doit surement savoir.
Demain je retournerai la voir.
Puis chez elle j’attendrai
Que Babe soit sauvée.
Quand elle aura compris qu’elle est comme toute l’humanité.
Avec ses perles, ses amphétamines, et ses insomnies.

Elle règne, juste comme une femme.
Elle se donne, juste comme une femme.
Elle souffre, juste comme une femme.
Elle se brise comme une petite fille.

Il pleuvait depuis un mois,
Je crevais de faim et voilà je l’ai suivie.
Je rêvais d’avoir moins froid,
Elle savait qu’elle n’aurait pour moi qu’une nuit.
Elle n’a rien dit, elle m’a trahi et même si aujourd’hui
Ni elle ni moi on ne regrette.
Voilà c’est comme ça, tout s’arrête.
Et si un jour par hasard
On doit se revoir
Elle oubliera, j’espère, celui qu’j’étais ce fameux soir
Où j’avais faim et où on était dans son monde.

Elle règne, juste comme une femme.
Elle se donne, comme se donne une femme.
Et elle prie, juste comme une femme.
Elle se brise comme une petite fille.

And here’s my translation of Cabrel’s lyrics without any attempt at rhyming or scansion:

Nobody feels hurt.
At night when I linger beneath the rain.
But everybody’s learnt
That Babe has got new clothes
Long mermaid’s tresses and priceless ribbons
Which she hides – but I’ve found them.

She reigns just like a woman
She gives herself just like a woman
She prays/begs just like a woman
She breaks like a little girl.

Queen Mary must surely know.
Tomorrow I’ll go back to see her again.
Then I’ll wait at her house until Babe is saved.
When she’ll have understood that she is like the rest of humanity
With her pearls, her amphetamines, and her sleepless nights.

She reigns just like a woman
She gives herself just like a woman
She suffers just like a woman
She breaks like a little girl.

It had been raining for a month
I was dying of hunger and so I followed her.
I dreamed of being not so cold
She knew that she would only give me one night.
She said nothing, she betrayed me, and even if today neither of us have any regrets
There, just like that, it’s over.
And if some day by chance we should see each other again
She’ll forget, I hope, who I was that fateful night
When I was hungry and we were in her world.

She reigns just like a woman
She gives herself just like a woman
She prays/begs just like a woman
She breaks like a little girl.

So, why am I bothering with this? It’s just to try to illustrate a problem I have with Cabrel’s translation.

The plotline is different. In Dylan’s version, it’s plain from the beginning that the scales have fallen from the lover’s eyes and he’s seeing his lover in a new tainted way. She’s no longer as innocent as she appeared to him initially (the ribbons have fallen from her curls) and she’s even gone beyond him to a place full of drugs and money, with values that he rejects – he can still go to Mary (Christian values??) but the girl can’t be blessed. The singer is the one who leaves the relationship knowing it was destructive. At the end he begs the woman to be a stranger to him even if they meet again, because the memories of what happened will be too painful, and/or he wants to deny any association with her (implying he’ll be tainted by it himself). The changing of the point of view in the last verse to the second person (addressing the woman), and changing ‘take’ to ‘fake’, is supremely bitter but also personal. He has moved on.

In Cabrel’s version the sexual and personal politics are entirely different. Here it’s the man who has sought out a perfect creature – he has discovered her. She also has a different personality from Dylan’s girl. This one reigns, gives herself, and begs or prays. She’s a somewhat inaccessible and mysterious femme fatale and the man is under her thrall, whereas Dylan’s woman is flawed, selfish – takes – but human (she makes love and aches – so she has real feelings within herself.)

Dylan has occasionally been accused of misogyny in this song (I think, wrongly). Cabrel’s femme fatale is much more of a caricature of femininity. She is both all powerful – reigning – utterly sexually passive – she gives herself – but she also debases herself to beg – or pray, depending on your take on Cabrel’s theme. She doesn’t have a stable identity; her identity is only defined in either a dominant or subordinate relation to the narrator.

For some reason, the breaking like a little girl in Cabrel’s version is slightly incongruous whereas in Dylan’s, the character has been successfully – albeit swiftly, with a handful of words – constructed, and it feels entirely in keeping with the rest of the bitter distanced sadness with which the ex-lover recounts the reality of the illusion, and with the fragility of the person he has portrayed.

Cabrel’s lovelorn narrator is mystified. He goes to Mary to wait passively until Babe is saved. Dylan’s lover, on the other hand, knows the truth about his girlfriend and steps deliberately away to his own (presumably faith-based) consolation, knowing there’s no hope for her until she abandons her lifestyle.

“All the rest” isn’t really all humanity as Cabrel has it. On the contrary: it’s “all the rest” that Dylan’s narrator disdainfully rejects. He’s better than her, and for that reason has to leave her (he doesn’t fit). Whereas Cabrel’s narrator puts himself on a par with the girl. It’s therefore fitting that in the climax to the song, it’s Cabrel’s presumably sex-deprived narrator who, we learn, has talked the inaccessible mystery woman into a one-night-stand. He doesn’t really know why it’s over – it just happens, voila. It’s entirely her fault – it’s a betrayal. The power relations are entirely different. Perhaps it’s no wonder that he doesn’t dare address her in the second person, in the final verse. He skulks off to lick his wounds and hopes she’ll forget him – and there is no such bitter change to ‘fake’ in the final chorus. His opinion of her hasn’t changed.

I should say, though, that I love the way Cabrel managed to find some assonance in French to counterpoint “curse hurts but what’s worse” (dit, trahi, aujourd’hui). Of course, the role of a translator in rhythmic poetry that has to both rhyme and scan to music is horrendously difficult. He has to make all that work before he even starts to consider the subtleties of characterisation…. but I feel this song has lost a lot.

It’s a mini project of mine to look at more of Cabrel’s work in a translatory way, so hopefully I’ll come to that some day.


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