Jacques Brel is alive and translated, sort of

I was working on various things while listening to music in the background, and the song "Marathon" came on, from the 1968 cast recording of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. As Wikipedia puts it, the song is "a charming encapsulation of the United States in the 20th century (mentioning, among others, Charles Lindbergh and Sacco and Vanzetti)." (Lyrics)

I've been listening to this album since I was in high school or college, but it never occurred to me until now to wonder: why was a Belgian singer/songwriter in the 1960s writing a song about the American ideas of the various decades of the 20th century?

That seemed possible, but it also seemed possible that the original song was (for example) a European view of those decades, and that the translators had substituted corresponding cultural references.

So I went and checked. And I was startled and amused to learn that in fact the original song had nothing to do with the decades of the 20th century, nor with history or pop culture, American or otherwise.

It's called Les Flamandes (lyrics), and it's about why and how Flemish people dance at different ages/stages of life (or maybe specifically Flemish women, I'm not sure). (I gather that the background of the song is deeply imbedded in Belgian ethnicity-politics--one YouTube commenter says that Brel was making fun of people with negative attitudes toward the Flemish, for example--but that discussion is beyond the scope of this entry.)

The two songs' lyrics both feature dancing, and both cover a century or so, but beyond that there's no resemblance.

I'm always intrigued by translations that take big liberties, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a "translation" that so completely ignores the original; really, this is more like a filk, in the sense of a different set of lyrics to the same tune.

4 Responses to “Jacques Brel is alive and translated, sort of”

  1. jere7my

    You’ve tripped over a pet peeve of mine — a “filk”, properly speaking, has to arise out of the SF-fannish folk tradition; it can be a parody or an original work, funny or serious, but it has to have its roots in fandom. Song parodies long predate the typo that generated the word “filk” — certainly Tom Lehrer, Spike Jones, and Allan Sherman never wrote a filk in their lives.

    This sounds more like repurposing a tune, which is extremely common in folk music (and, for that matter, national anthems).

  2. Jed

    Interesting. I’m not sure I agree; I’ll have to think about how I use the term.

    But regardless, I think we can probably agree on two things:

    1. In most contexts, “filk” does specifically refer to works arising out of sf fandom.

    2. There is plenty of music that, if it had arisen out of sf fandom, would be called filk, and it’s reasonable to refer to that music as being “filk-like” or “similar to filk” or other such phrases.

    So although I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, I would argue that my phrase “more like a filk” (and the rest of that sentence) can be read as saying that the song is filk-like in its lyric substitution, rather than saying that the song is itself a filk or that all replacement lyrics are filks.

    Still, point taken; I’m not sure what precisely I intended by that phrase — it was just an offhand remark, and I probably do sometimes use the term “filk” broadly to refer to things that you wouldn’t classify as filks, so I may have been indirectly doing so here, not sure.

  3. Jed

    Addendum: yeah, true that repurposing tunes happens all the time; so given your definition of filk, I now agree that my mentioning filks would be irrelevant in that sentence.

    So, yeah, I think it just comes down to my using the term more broadly. I may be alone in this usage, but it seems reasonable to me to extend a term from having a specific meaning to applying to a more general context.

    But I’ll have to think about this more. Thanks for the note!

  4. irilyth

    I like “filk” as a term for what we used to call “parody” because “parody” to me implies an element of ridicule or irony (to quote Wiktionary), which I think often isn’t present in e.g. Weird Al songs.


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