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Le jour de gloire

Allons enfants de la patrie,
le jour de gloire est arrivé
(opening lines, French national anthem)

I've long been a Francophile, in love with things French. And since my honeymoon at a Club Med in 1970, I've been particularly fond of the French independence day, also called Bastille Day, celebrated on the fourteenth of July. See my blog entry of one year ago entitled Allons enfants de la patrie, which was posted on Thursday, the fourteenth of July, 2011.

This year, July 14 is on a Saturday, two days from now. Just as Americans generally refer to the American independence day as "the fourth of July", the French call their holiday "Le quatorze juillet".

Norma Radoff's French flag cakeYesterday, I hosted a potluck dinner to celebrate the holiday, and the cake shown to the left in the colors of the French flag, created by Norma Radoff, was one of the desserts served. The blue part of the cake is covered in blueberries, the white section is iced, and the red section is covered with strawberries.

At some point in the evening's festivities, we all sang the French national anthem, called La Marseillaise, whose lyrics I had printed and handed out. This was my first singing of La Marseillaise in a two-day period.

Larry leading the singingEarlier this evening, Margie and I participated once again in quatorze juillet festivities, this time at a celebration hosted by Margie's French teacher, Cynthia ("Cindy") Edelman, owner of the French language school French in Acton.

This was our fourth time attending this celebratory dinner, and my second singing of La Marseillaise this year. In only four years, it somehow seems to have become traditional for me to lead the singing at the French in Acton dinner. The picture to the right shows me doing just that, only a few hours ago, waving a French flag with great animation.

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I'm not sure why I was selected to lead the singing. I don't even study with Cindy, Margie does. But when I asked, "Why me", Cindy replied, "Tradition". You can see a video here of Cindy introducing me, and just the first two lines of the song (you need to be able to view a Quicktime video). It was taken by one of our dinner companions, Paul Rowe. My comments in French are on the rather bloody nature of this national anthem.

Below, allow me to translate La Marseillaise, with some comments, because the exercise casts some light on the difficulties of translation in general. First of all, when you translate a song, you need to give up on making the English lyrics fit the music, and you need to give up on making them rhyme. To translate a song to rhyme and fit the music is extremely difficult, usually impossible, and if you do it, the translation will not be very accurate.

Here's my annotated translation of the anthem:

La Marseillaise

 Allons enfants de la patrie,
le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Let's go, children of the fatherland,
the day of glory has arrived!

Fatherland? Sounds German. "Motherland" would be just as good. But "patrie" has no gender. Maybe "homeland", but that lacks the patriotic connotations of "patrie". The fact is, there's really no exact English translation. And that's a problem that haunts all translations.

 Contre nous, de la tyrannie,
L'étendard sanglant est levé,
l'étendard sanglant est levé,
Against us, in tyranny,
the bloody standard is raised,
the bloody standard is raised,

That's simple, if you know what a "standard" is. It's one of those vertical poles with a flag or insignia on top, carried into battle in the old days.

 Entendez-vous, dans les campagnes,
Mugir ces féroces soldats
Do you hear, in the countryside
those ferocious soldiers howl

A different French version used the word farouche instead of féroce, "fierce" instead of "ferocious". A Frenchman I met once referred to someone as a "fou farouche", a marvelous expression meaning, sort of, a "raving madman".

 Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Egorger vos fils,
vos compagnes.
They come right up into your arms
to slit the throats of your sons,
your significant others

Here's where the anthem starts getting bloody.

"Significant others"?? OK, that's a little silly. But I'm trying to emphasize that there really is no exact translation of compagne. Despite its seeming similarity, it doesn't exactly mean just "companion", as one of my dictionaries says. That's a more general term, which doesn't imply lover or partner.

Another dictionary says "consort", which is better, but which in American English sounds a bit archaic. The Wikipedia translation (as of today) finesses the issue by saying "women", assuming the soldiers are all male (certainly accurate for the time). That captures the idea, at least, that compagne is not referring to just any companion, but in fact to a significant companion, most commonly (but not necessarily) of the opposite sex.

 Aux armes citoyens !
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons !
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons.
To arms, citizens!
Form your battalions,
Let's march, let's march,
that an impure blood
might water our furrows!

Sillons here, "furrows", refer to the furrows of a cultivated field. In other words, the song is urging its listeners to spill so much of the enemy's blood that it could be used to water the fields.


Here, on YouTube, is a wonderful scene from the movie Casablanca, in which La Marseillaise is sung by those assembled in Rick's Café, interrupting a group of occupying German soldiers. A look of hatred is directed at the Germans as they sing, "... ces féroces soldats ... Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras".

It gets the café shut down, of course - "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here."

That's the power of La Marseillaise.

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© 2012 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted July 12, 2012, and slightly updated January 3, 2013

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