We don’t get a lot of French up here. We learn English and Danish in primary school, and in secondary school we get to choose between French or German in addition. I chose German and flunked it. Had I picked French, as many guys do because the French classes have more girls, I would no doubt have flunked that too. But German still seems a more approachable language, being more closely related to both Danish and Icelandic. And we all grew up watching the German cop show Derrick on TV.
But we don’t get a lot of French up here. So a lot of great French 20th Century Music has passed us by. Or come to us through English. I stumbled upon one of my current favourites, Jacques Brel, through listening to David Bowie perform his songs “My Death” and “Port of Amsterdam” in English. I have since sought out other English language translations by Scott Walker and Rod McKuen. There’s even a version of “If You Go Away” by Icelandic songstress Emiliana Torrini. Again, of course, in English.
Getting within Inches of Piaf
But now the theatre is skipping the middle man and translating some of the French greats directly to Icelandic. Last spring, the theatre group “The Theatre on the Scene” staged a production based on the poetry of Jacques Prévert, some of it in French, some of it in Icelandic, but the title ironically in English. The album is still available in record stores.
The Icelandic translations of are by a man named Sigurður Pálsson, who translated Prévert’s poetry collection Paroles in 1987. Pálsson studied at Sorbonne and was president of Alliance Française in the late 70’s. He has translated numerous other works from French and has written plays of his own. His latest work is a play on the life of Edith Piaf, which premiered last spring at the National Theatre and has been playing for a full house ever since.
Again, the lyrics are partly in French and partly in Icelandic. Thanks to leading lady Brynhildur Guðjónsdóttir, you can come within inches of the French songstress’s delivery, and for those of us better versed in Icelandic than French, get the lyrics as well. It’s about time we got to appreciate one of the great voices of the 20th Century up here. But what is she singing about?
Born in the midst of World War 1 onto a policeman’s coat outside of a house in Paris’ poor quarter and raised in a brothel, Edith always sang as if her life depended on it because by and large it did.
The album starts with the French language La vie en rose, before moving onto Icelandic with L’accordéoniste, The Accordion Player. Deciphered, it is about the sheer love of music, intertwined the love of a man, the accordion player who is sent off to war, leaving her all alone.
But the song is not about love everlasting, this is not music for teenagers on the make. Who can believe in love that lasts forever anyway but those who are new to it? As soon as her man is gone she finds another who can do the things that he did, and she is once again lost in song. Nothing lasts forever, it is all in the moment.
The next song, Marguerite Monnot, Love Psalm, is in both French and Icelandic. This time, the subject is love, all-consuming. Written by Edith herself, it details the sacrifices a woman is willing to make for love. Like most poets, she offers the moon to her lover if but only she could. That’s of course an empty promise, but in the next verse she promises not to care if people laugh at her for being with him, a much more potent expression of love as it deals with real sacrifice.
On the next track she does battle with the faceless masses again. Performed solely in Icelandic, La foule (The Crowd), details being swept through a maddening crowd and into the arms of a stranger, before the crowd sweeps her away again. People go from being strangers to being soul mates to being strangers again, and you can never clasp them close enough, at least not for more than a moment.
Milord is again in Icelandic and French. A girl from the harbour area sees a man in
love and then proposes to comfort him as the lover leaves. Touchingly, she speaks of what he has lost. Has rebound ever been better proposed?
Love Gone Away
But the moment will not, can not last, and in Mon dieu she offers a prayer to God himself for just a little more time. But the prayer goes unanswered, the years pass by, and you’re left with nothing but the memories and the pain, expressed in Padam
Padam. A voice “whispers of youth and love/ And threatens; now you must suffer,” to the simpleton who once believed. La ville inconnue (In a Foreign City) continues the theme of loneliness, but here it is unrelenting, there is not even so much as a moment to live for. Finally, we reach some sort of acceptance, with Non, je ne regrette rien (I Don’t Regret a Thing). But the acceptance is not found in comforting herself with the memories, for what good are memories of things that have gone away? No, she banishes those memories to begin anew.
For those who want to renew the memories of one of the greats of the 20th Century, the play Edith Piaf is being performed in the National Theatre and the album is available in 12 Tónar record store on Skólavörðustígur 15.
Edith Piaf, National Theatre, Hverfisgata 19, 101 Reykjavík
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