Thursday, September 13, 2007


(Popular translation by Johnny Mercer)
The falling leaves
Drift by the window
The autumn leaves
Of red and gold
I see your lips
The summer kisses
The sunburned hands
I used to hold
Since you went away
The days grew long
And soon I'll hear
Old winter's song
But I miss you most of all
My darling
When autumn leaves
Start to fall

This is a familiar song to most of us, having been performed by a number of famous American recording artists.

I do enjoy this song - the melody, the evocation of falling leaves drifting by a window, and the thought that the lover will miss his darling most of all "when autumn leaves start to fall."

However, this song is a translation of a French song called, "Les Feuilles Mortes." And I learned it in French. So where Mercer wrote about sunburned hands and lips, I learned "Les feuilles mortes se remassent a la pelle, Les souvenirs and les regrets aussi". Loosely translated, with nearly 40 years between me and my last French class, this means: "The dead leaves are gathered on the rake; the memories and the regrets as well." (Dear Kristen, my French-major daughter, I can visualize you grimacing. So please if you have time send me a proper translation of the song or at least of the few lines above.)

I found several English translations of "Les Feuilles Mortes" on the web. One, by a Frenchman, is extremely literal, awkward and inept. ("I loved you so much, you was so pretty.") By the way, this translation recites that the leaves are gathered by a shovel. The correct translation of "la pelle" is shovel, but I am sticking with rake as it is what I learned, and it sounds so much nicer.

The other translation is by Coby Lubliner, who has some interesting things to say about translating lyrics in general, and in particular, the practice of creating a virtually new song with only vague connections with the original: "One of the most egregious examples of this practice is the poignant, bittersweet French song Les Feuilles Mortes, whose lyrics are by the great poet (and screenwriter) Jacques Prevert and which made a star of Yves Montand. The American music industry, alas, amputated this song of its verses and published only the refrain as the ballad Autumn Leaves, with typically mawkish lyrics by Johnny Mercer. But since this version was recorded by the likes of Nat "King" Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and their ilk, not to mention countless instrumental performances, it has, like the north wind, swept the original song into oblivion's icy night, except perhaps in French-speaking cultures. I have modestly tried to remedy this (in my opinion) travesty."

I am re-printing Lubliner's version below. I think he keeps pretty well to the spirit of the song, if not the letter, if my shaky French is any indication. But he strays too far sometimes. He avoids the whole shovel/rake quandary and instead makes it "Dead leaves are gathering as in December." The word December does NOT appear in this song! I'll forgive him, however, because he uses December to rhyme with "remember". He is successful in rhyming the English translation, which is extremely difficult to do when moving from one language to another.

Oh, I would like you so much to remember
Those happy days when we were friends, and how
Life in those times was more lovely and tender,
Even the sun shone more brightly than now.
Dead leaves are gathering as in December
You see how one never forgets ...
Dead leaves are gathering as in December
Just like the memories and regrets.
And then the north wind comes and sweeps them
Into oblivion's icy night.
You see how I never forget
That old song that you sang for me.
A song like us, birds of a feather,
You loving me, me loving you,
And we lived happily together,
You loving me, me loving you.
But life tears apart gentle lovers
Who quietly obey their heart,
And the sea invades the sand and covers
The footsteps of those torn apart.
Dead leaves are gathering, dead leaves are piling
Up just like memories and like regrets.
But still my love goes on quietly smiling
Thankful for life and for all that it gets.
I loved you so, you were ever so lovely,
How can I forget? Tell me how!
Life in those times was more sweet and beguiling,
Even the sun shone more brightly than now.
You were my most sweet friend and lover,
But regret is all that I can do,
And I'll keep on hearing the song
That I used to hear sung by you."
But to me, forever, the French version is the most beautiful:
"Les feuilles mortes se remassent a la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi
Et le vent du nord les importe
Dan la nuit froide de l'oublie
Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublie
La chanson que me me chantais."
Talk about bittersweet!
Added Friday morning:
My eyesight must really be getting bad. I just noticed that this beautiful painting of trees in autumn contains Eeyore, Pooh, and is that Piglet too? All of a sudden, the painting isn't quite right for this post about bittersweet love. But I'm going to keep it. We all need a little Eeyore and Pooh in our lives.

1 comment:

Carole Burant said...

LOL until you mentioned it, I hadn't realized that the Pooh characters were on the painting!! I was just admiring the beautiful Autumn colours on it and thinking how much I can't wait until all our trees have changed colours like that. A beautiful song and being French, I understood all the words:-) xox