Jeanette Isabella

Mary Anne decided to learn “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella,” and it's one of my favorite Christmas songs (though I only know the first verse and the tune). So we tried playing it on ocarina and piano and recorder, and we were going to try singing it but we ran into The Translation Problem.

See, the song is originally French. And the English version from Wikipedia, which may well be the standard English version for all I know, is full of bad scansion and awkward phrasing. We were going to go with the Rise Up Singing version (we don't have Rise Up Singing handy, but I think it's the same version as the one from The World's Greatest Songbook), but although we liked the first verse of that, the second verse is missing, and the other two are kind of weak (and are even further departures from accurate translation).

So we set out to re-translate the song from the French, hampered only by the fact that neither of us actually knows French.

But that sort of thing never stops us. Mary Anne knows Spanish, and I know a bunch of bits and pieces and roots of words, and we've got Google Translate and the power of the Interwebs (plus various thesauruses) on our side.

So we came up with a translation. But we would love to get some help and vetting from people who actually speak French. (Especially because there are a couple of phrases that we suspect are idiomatic and that we thus may've misunderstood.)

Some of our goals:

  • Translate fairly closely. Left to my own devices, I would probably opt for looser translation in favor of scansion and rhyme, but I also like this approach.
  • Try to scan as well as possible while keeping to a fairly close translation. We did a lot better with the scansion than most versions I've seen online, but there are still some weak spots where you have to hold a syllable for an extra note, or squeeze an extra “the” in, or where a stress pattern isn't entirely natural.
  • Aim for mildly archaic syntax and diction when feasible.
  • Like all the other English versions, don't worry about rhyme. Which is a shame, because the original has a lovely ABBAAB rhyme scheme, but trying to make that work within our other constraints was beyond us, and nobody else seems to have done it either, so we gave up on it.
  • Keep the bits that we like from other English versions.

Below is our version next to the French version from Wikipedia. Suggestions welcome. (But if we got anything terribly wrong, please be nice about it.)

Bring a torch, Jeanette Isabella;

Bring a torch, to the cradle run.

Christ is born, good folk of the village,

Christ is born and Mary's calling.

Ah, ah, beautiful is the mother;

Ah, ah, beautiful is the Son.

Who has come, to knock on the door?

Who has come, to knock like that?

Open up, we've arranged on a platter

Lovely cakes that we have brought here;

Knock! Knock! Open the door for us,

Knock! Knock! Feast and jubilee!

It's a fault, when the child is sleeping;

It's a fault to talk so loud.

Silence, first, one and another,

Lest your noise should waken Jesus;

Hush, hush, marvellously he slumbers,

Hush, hush, see how he soundly sleeps!

Gently now, unto the stable,

Gently for a moment come!

Enter in! How charming is Jesus,

Fair he is, so pink and rosy;

Hush, hush, see how the Child is sleeping;

Hush, hush, see how he smiles in dreams.

Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle—

Un flambeau! Courons au berceau!

C'est Jésus, bonnes gens du hameau.

Le Christ est né; Marie appelle!

Ah! Ah! Ah! Que la Mère est belle,

Ah! Ah! Ah! Que l'Enfant est beau!

Qui vient la, frappant de la porte?

Qui vient la, en frappant comme ça?

Ouvrez-donc, j'ai pose sur un plat

Des bons gateaux, qu'ici j'apporte

Toc! Toc! Toc! Ouvrons-nous la porte!

Toc! Toc! Toc! Faisons grand gala!

C'est un tort, quand l'Enfant sommeille,

C'est un tort de crier si fort.

Taisez-vous, l'un et l'autre, d'abord!

Au moindre bruit, Jésus s'éveille.

Chut! chut! chut! Il dort à merveille,

Chut! chut! chut! Voyez comme il dort!

Doucement, dans l'étable close,

Doucement, venez un moment!

Approchez! Que Jésus est charmant!

Comme il est blanc! Comme il est rose!

Do! Do! Do! Que l'Enfant repose!

Do! Do! Do! Qu'il rit en dormant!

One further note: In the French, apparently there's a comma between “Jeanette” and “Isabelle,” suggesting that they're two names. I think Rise Up Singing has it as “Jeanette Isabella,” so I always assumed it was just one person. But this issue doesn't really have any bearing on the lyrics, so I suppose it can be up to each singer whether they think there's a comma there or not.

(Added later: I meant to note here that we do understand that translation is a difficult task and that we're not professionals. We may well have gotten lots of things wrong. I would never try to, for example, translate a story in a language I don't know; but the song is brief and seemed simple enough, and we had a bunch of loose translations to work from, so we figured it would be fun to try.)

8 Responses to “Jeanette Isabella”

  1. wshaffer

    The French uses the second-person plural verb forms, which implies either two people being addressed, or one person being addressed formally. Since the overall tone of the song is intimate rather than formal, I’d probably go with two people. (Certainly the “one and another” reference in the third verse implies more than one person being addressed, although I don’t think there’s any rule of lyrical unity that demands that a song address a constant number of interlocutors throughout.)

    My French is a bit rusty these days, but I quite like your translation!

  2. jere7my

    One thing jumps out at me: “Qui vient la, frappant de la porte?” is “Who comes there, knocking at the door?” so while you have the sense of it your tenses and moods are a little off. “Who is there, knocking at the door? Who is there, knocking like that?” sounds a bit more friendly-folksy to me, and less like “God sent His only begotten Son to knock on people’s doors.”

  3. irilyth

    I’ve passed this link along to my mom, who has spoken and taught French at various points for many years.

    Do you have a link to an audio version? I’m curious how the tune goes.

  4. mst3kforall

    (I think this time I can get this posted. Also, there is another comment on LJ)

    First of all, excellent job, particularly for two people who don’t know French, even with Spanish and other languages, and even while using translation programs (which are often not used as sensibly as you have)!

    I don’t see anything majorly wrong (although I do not know and did not check the interjections); and I see only three things I wonder about and one typo (And the typo applies only if you are printing the French as well as the English).

    1) typo:

    “Ouvrez-donc, j’ai pose sur un plat,” should be
    “Ouvrez-donc, j’ai posé sur un plat”

    (It’s a past participle and it needs the é to be pronounced, and to differentiate it from the grammatically out-of-place “(je) pose” which is like “I pose” instead of “I have posed”)


    In, “Taisez-vous, l’un et l’autre, d’abord!” I believe that here “d’abord” is in the sense of importance, as in “primarily” rather than “first.” But it could also be first, with the very general meaning of “first, you all shut up” — “Taisez-vous” is pretty much “shut up”, sortof rude, so its inclusion in the otherwise-beautiful French is a little bit of a surprise to me


    “C’est un tort, quand l’Enfant sommeille,” I’ve seen “wrong” for “tort” but I think both “fault” and “wrong” are in the legal sense. I’ve seen “sommeil” as a noun for sleep, but no verb like sommeiller which is what “quand l’Enfant sommeille” would imply. Sommeiller doesn’t appear to actually be correct from the online searches I’ve made (I primarily know “dormir” for sleep, which would be “quand l’Enfant dort.” I don’t understand the source of this one); it seems to have been taken up as a rhyme for “s’éveille” and “à merveille” but to perhaps be wrong (but not on your part)


    “Qu’il rit en dormant!” is “How he laughs in/while sleeping!” (rit is third person singular of rire/to laugh; sourir is to smile; dormir is to sleep; “en dormant” is “in sleeping”) “Hush, hush, see how he smiles in dreams” is beautiful but takes a little more artistic license than the rest; your call


    I love the nuance of language, and I love hearing about different words, so am adding information here (but your translation seems fine to me, so these are just additional tidbits of information for interest’s sake and not corrections. I include your translations for a couple, which I think are beautiful, for comparison)

    “flambeau” can be a torch or a candle

    “ouvrez-donc” means “therefore, open”

    “Qui vient la, frappant de la porte? Qui vient la, en frappant comme ça?” is literally
    “Who comes here, knocking at the door? Who comes here, knocking like this?”

    “qu’ici j’apporte” is “which here I bring” (present tense) but “that we have brought here” is fine

    “Ouvrons-nous la porte!” I agree with the previous LJ commenter is more like “let us open the door” rather than asking someone to open it for us

    “Faisons grand gala!” is like let us make/have a great gala/party, but “Feast and jubilee” is fine

    “C’est un tort de crier si fort” crier is to cry or shout, but talk might be ok — seems a contradiction to the exhortations to make a grand fête of it all

    “Au moindre bruit, Jésus s’éveille” I believe is “at the least/slightest noise, Jesus wakes,” but “Lest your noise should waken Jesus” is better IMO

    “Il dort à merveille” appears to be more like “He sleeps with wonder/marvelling,” but as far as I know, “marvellously he slumbers” ambiguously means either one, he marvelling in his sleep or we marvelling at his sleep. The next line “Chut! chut! chut! Voyez comme il dort” containing “see how he sleeps” could also imply either meaning so you’re fine there

    “voyait comme il dort” is “see how he sleeps” but see how soundly he sleeps is fine

    “Doucement, dans l’étable close” “doucement” is sweetly, but gently is fine. “Dans” is generally “inside” and I haven’t seen “close” in French, but “Gently now, unto the stable” seems fine

    “Comme il est blanc! Comme il est rose” is how he is white, how he is pink, but “fair he is, so pink and rosy” is fine

  5. maryanne.mohanraj

    Thanks so much for the comments, everyone! I’m in the midst of grading, and Jed’s sleeping, so I won’t try to mess with the translation more right now, but I did want to make an interpretation note. You may not agree on this, but I see the song as a call and response. Like this:

    Announcer (possibly an angel, as is traditional):
    Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella;
    Bring a torch, to the cradle run.
    Christ is born, good folk of the village,
    Christ is born and Mary’s calling.
    Ah, ah, beautiful is the mother,
    Ah, ah, beautiful is the Son.

    Who has come, to knock on the door?
    Who has come, to knock like that?

    Open up, we’ve arranged on a platter
    Lovely cakes that we have brought here
    Knock! Knock! Open the door for us
    Knock! Knock! Feast and jubilee!

    It’s a fault, when the child is sleeping,
    it’s a fault to talk so loud.
    Silence, first, one and another
    Lest your noise should waken Jesus
    Hush, hush, marvellously he slumbers
    Hush, hush, see how he soundly sleeps!

    Gently now, unto the stable
    Gently for a moment come!
    Enter in!

    How charming is Jesus,
    Fair he is, so pink and rosy
    Hush, hush, see how the Child is sleeping;
    Hush, hush, see how he smiles in dreams.

    Somehow, it pleases me, thinking of the song that way. You could even break it up like that if you were singing with a group, which might be fun. 🙂

  6. maryanne.mohanraj

    And irilyth, here’s two cute guys playing guitar and singing the “Rise Up Singing” version, which we mostly kept for the first verse:


    Last week I was online glancing at stuff about writing, and stumbled upon your explanation of the info-dump–a concept quite useful to me at the moment. Then in the sidebar I saw “Jeannette Isabella” and immediately began singing this French Christmas carol I learned in high school many years ago. When I followed the link I found four or five stanzas of what I learned as a two-stanza song (probably because the presumption that listeners will tire of more than two stanzas of any one song is traditional). I think your translation is fine, and the only comments I’d make had already been made, so I bookmarked it and moved on. But several times I’ve caught myself singing the song. Today I was visiting my next-door neighbor, who played Bach’s cello sonatas while we drank tea. As we came to the end of the album we came also to part 6, the Gigue, from Sonata #6 in D major. Suddenly I found myself singing “Jeanette, Isabella” along with the cello. My neighbor’s mouth fell open. This particular movement of this particular sonata had long been a favorite of his, and he’d studied it in depth and never heard what I was hearing. Neither had I, for that matter; but as I sang we both realized that Bach had taken that carol, found the jig in it, and then broken down the tune with fugues–I guess–rooted in the structure of the carol. We were both astonished about the series of coincidences that had led to that moment of discovery. Seriously. Bach’s Solo Cello Sonata #6 in D major, Part 6, “Gigue.” Give it a good listen and tell me it’s not based on this carol.


    Also, check “Jeanette, Isabella” on Wikipedia. Translations, links to covers, painting by la Tour.


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