Translatable but Debatable - Song Foreignization

Song Foreignization

The other day at Bar-Ilan University, chairing the mini-conference on translation, Evan Fallenberg mentioned the constant challenge of balancing localization versus foreignization. On the one hand, we want our translation to speak to the local reader in terms that the reader understands; on the other hand, we can’t pretend to the reader that people who speak other languages explain their thoughts, or even think their thoughts, in exactly the same way that the reader would. Wikipedia calls the alternatives “domestication and foreignization” and considers that foreignizing the text “involves deliberately breaking the conventions of the target language to preserve its meaning.” I suppose that would happen in Hebrew to English if someone asks “How was your day?” and the answer is “Flat on its face.” Colorful, and accurate, but not idiomatic in the target language.

The issue reminded me of the case of “The Three Bells,” although the translators there stopped far short of breaking any language conventions. As “Les Trois Cloches,” the song had an interesting history before it was adopted by Edith Piaf and recorded. The original French lyrics recount, in three somewhat lengthy sections, the birth, marriage, and death of a fellow with the paradigmatically ordinary French name of Jean-François Nicot.

Apparently the English translation, by Bert Reisfeld, was first recorded by a group named the Melody Maids, gaining little notice and currently unavailable on YouTube. A subsequent recording by the Andrews Sisters seems to have reduced the length of the song slightly, but it was only a more drastically cut-down version, sung by the Browns, that successfully appealed to the English-speaking public.

The English translation is localized: Jean-François Nicot becomes Jimmy Brown. There are other differences too, which may be cultural. In French, the boy is born in a place that is “like a lost village, almost unknown.” In English, it is “among the pine trees, half forlorn.” It could be that Reisfeld the translator, being Viennese, was thinking of “forlorn” as a straight translation of “lost” (like “verloren” in German), but a place can resemble a lost village without suffering the melancholy that’s implied by “half forlorn.” Maybe Reisfeld feels the need to compensate for that melancholy, for he has Jimmy Brown born on a sunny morning while the French calls it a starry night.

In the French original, the church bell then calls out: “This is for Jean-François Nicot. It’s to welcome a soul, a flower that will open out one day.” When the bells chime for his wedding, it’s the priest who makes the announcement: “A single heart, a single soul, and may you always be a pure flame rising to proclaim the greatness of your love.” For the funeral it’s the bell again that speaks to the mourners: “One day God will give you a sign. Under his wing you will find, together with eternal life, the eternity of love.” Those remarks — by the priest in one case, by the supernaturally speaking bell in the others — dramatically conclude each section of the song.

The French, of course, are traditionally Catholic, with a religion that channels God’s authority down to the people through the priest. Though the English translation does briefly mention a priest, it replaces the concluding lines for the birth, marriage, and death with prayers by “the little congregation,” taking a more democratic, bottom-up, Protestant-friendly attitude toward religion.

When the man dies, once more on a starry night, the French takes the opportunity for some Solomonic reflection: “All flesh is like the grass. It is like the flower of the field. The grain, the ripe fruits, the bouquets, and the garlands — alas — all wither and depart.” The English does not philosophize so grimly. It does choose a “rainy morning dark and grey” to replace the starry night this time, but it considers that Jimmy Brown’s life “had been like a flower: budding, blooming till the end” rather than withering. The consolation is in the life that “good old Jimmy Brown” led before his “soul winged its way to Heaven,” rather than in an assurance of eternal life for all the mourners. They pray that “his soul find the salvation of thy great eternal love;” but for themselves, as in the other two verses, they pray “Lead us not into temptation” (which is not in the French) as people who feel the responsibility of finding their own way.

There are two Hebrew translations of “Les Trois Cloches” — one by Ehud Manor and one by Avi Koren. I regret to say that for one I can find only the text, and for the other only a clip. Unlike the English translation, both Hebrew translations leave Jean-François Nicot a Frenchman. They don’t localize him, they foreignize him. I imagine that in Israel there was a strong pre-existing consciousness of “Les Trois Cloches” as a French song, so that a Jewish version might have struck listeners as peculiar, whereas in America the French version was less well known.

From the starry night of the French version, both Hebrew translators chose to draw the image of a single star to go with the birth — perhaps an unfortunate choice, because Jean-François is supposed to be an ordinary person, not a predestined favorite. Koren has Jean-François married at nineteen, like the original French, whereas Manor prefers to bump him up to twenty, which is Jimmy Brown’s age in the English.

Unlike the French, Manor’s Hebrew explicitly mentions that the bell is in a church steeple. Maybe he felt that the Israeli imagination would benefit from a little extra help where a Christian environment is concerned. And for some reason, Manor takes it upon himself to position a lake beside Jean-François’ village. Personally, I like the symbolism of the valley as a place to be born and I think it’s complete without the lake, but maybe Manor had a reason for that too.

The Hebrew translators are pleased with the idea of attributing speech to the bell, and they use it as an opportunity to de-foreignize by leaving out the priest. Manor does find a way to end with the promise to everyone of finding the eternity of love in the celestial afterlife. Koren is a little less generous, contenting himself with the observation that the life of Jean-François is eternal and that love is eternal.

The German translation, the length of which is based on the shortened English, takes almost nothing from the French except that bells ring and love lasts as time passes. You can read it here and listen here.

(An update: The song is in Yiddish at, translated by Marty Green. He transfers it to the synagogue of a shtetl in Poland.)

As usual, comments are welcome below if they relate to the topic at hand, and if you’d like to suggest a different topic — normally, a particular word or phrase that’s a challenge to the Hebrew-to-English translator — you’re welcome to write to me at .