Jacques Brel’s ‘Les Timides’: A Tentative Translation

In my last post I talked about musical evocations of shyness. As a follow-on, this month’s post takes the form of my English translation of the Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel’s 1964 song ‘Les Timides’: a playful but poignant homage to life’s ‘shoe-gazers’ – or ‘suitcase-carriers’, to adopt Brel’s imagery. The lyrics are challenging to translate from the off. Despite the American psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s attempt to inaugurate the plural noun ‘shys’ in The Shy Child (‘shys think… shys feel…’), it sounds unnatural in English: I’ve generally opted for ‘shy’ used as an adjective in my translation, but ‘shyness’ for the title. Question marks also arise over the shift from ‘they’ to ‘one’ in the third verse: is the singer beginning to identify with shy individuals, rather than objectify them, and how can we render this possibility in English? What about the riffs on French idioms (du bout des fesses instead of du bout des lèvres, for example), or the curious reference to the rabbit (lapin) in the first verse? Are we meant to read this as an allusion to the reproductive energy of rabbits (in French, être un chaud lapin, or, in a similar vein, to be at it like rabbits in English)? In an article in the journal Vacarme, the philosopher Mathieu Potte-Bonneville thinks not, and suggests it evokes the shy individual’s refusal to ‘jouer l’homme’ (play the hu/man).

Jacques Brel at work, 1963

Brel’s song – and Potte-Bonneville’s essay, too – perpetuates what I currently see as three key themes in the moral, medical, and artistic discourse surrounding shyness. First, it is the shy male who incites the most attention: historically, shyness was – and still is, to an extent – considered most inappropriate, most problematic for men. In cultures in which ideals of masculinity foreground courage and confidence, the shy male is the subject of conflict and consternation (and comedy). Second, there is an animality or non-humanity associated with shyness: to be shy is to be insufficiently socialised, to be wild. Third, discussions of shyness often talk about the propensity of the shy individual for sudden outbursts of pent-up energy which can manifest as flashes of courage, but, alternatively, as frustration and anger. This is suggestive of both the dramatic potential of shyness (it’s a condition of extremes, underneath its mild surface), and the reason psychologists may have worried about it in the past. Brel’s song also illustrates the way shy individuals are frequently treated comically in art (although the lyrics have a decidedly melancholic air as well, given their narrative of inevitable decline).

But, enough discussion. Here’s a recording of Brel singing ‘Les Timides’. French lyrics are available here, and my English translation is below. The translation is literary rather than literal: I’ve tried to recreate the effect of the French source text through rhyme, sound patterning, idiom, and word play. Comments welcome!

Shyness

Shy people
They twist
They twirl
They skip
They swirl
They spin out of control
They curl up in a ball
They’re rabbits
In their dreams.
Doesn’t matter
Where they’re from
But dead leaves
When the wind blows them
Onto our doorsteps
It seems that they’re carrying
A suitcase in each hand.

Shy people
Stick to the shade
The sombre shade
Of their shadow
Only the half-light
Knows the whole
Of their Levantine modesty.
They fold themselves up
They go white
They go yellow
They go pink
Like a prawn
They go red
Like a lobster
A suitcase in each hand.

But shy people
One brave evening
In front of their mirror
Dreaming of space
Put on their armour
Put it in place, and
Let’s go, Paris look out
Vive La Gare
St-Lazare
But getting lost
And frightened
And confused
Let’s be off again
A suitcase in each hand.

Shy people
When they fall
For an Elvire
Heave sighs
Have desires
They desire to speak
But they don’t dare
And their mistresses,
More priestesses
Of drunkenness
Than tenderness,
Leave them one evening
Half-arse-edly
A suitcase in each hand.

So shy people
Age
End their days
Fade away
And when they slip
Into the abyss
I mean, when they die
They daren’t say anything
Daren’t curse anything
Daren’t shiver
Daren’t smile
Just a sigh
And they die
A suitcase on the heart.

 

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