Are you obsessed with Serge Gainsbourg? Do you speak enough French to understand some of what he’s saying — but not really get what’s going on?
You’ve come to the right place.
“Explications de texte,” not singable translations
The goal of this site is to help English speakers understand how Serge’s songs work. How they work in their original French, that is.
Although I do offer English translations of the songs, these are not intended as substitutes for the originals. They don’t replicate the original rhyme scheme or the metre; they’re not meant to be sung. They’re just there to help you better understand what’s going on in Gainsbourg’s French — which is where all the magic is happening.
This sometimes means that I depart from literal translations in order to more clearly convey what’s going on to a present-day English-speaking audience. For instance, in “Ford Mustang” I translate “On se fait des langues” not as “We’re making tongues with one another” but as “We’re blowing smoke up one another’s asses.” The second isn’t accurate as a word-for-word translation, but it better conveys Gainsbourg’s meaning. And I’m not worried about “losing the beauty of the original” since the whole point of my translation is to send you back to the French original with a better sense of how it works. There is no beauty in my translations, or very little. The beauty is in the originals.
For each song, I provide a summary, an annotated version of the French original, a discussion of interesting things happening in the song, and finally an English translation.
The annotated version of the French original is the most important: that’s where you’ll see notes that explain the wordplay and idioms that make Serge’s songs so distinctive.
The “Discussion” provides a readable summary of what I think is interesting in the song, with whatever context is needed to understand these interesting effects.
My notes are meant to help you understand Gainsbourg’s lyrics — not necessarily to help you “appreciate” his lyrics. Although I personally have derived more pleasure from Gainsbourg’s poetry than from anyone else’s (and I’ve read a bunch!) — that doesn’t mean I like all of the songs. Indeed, I find a lot of them pretty gross.
I’m just here to show you how they work. Whether you end up liking them is entirely up to you.
(Note: if you wonder what I mean when I say “Serge” or “Gainsbarre” in my summaries, see this page. I mean something pretty specific.)
Do you need to understand the lyrics to enjoy Gainsbourg’s music?
Let’s consider the cases of two major English-speaking interpreters of Gainsbourg’s work. They both ended up huge fans, but neither initially understood what his lyrics meant.
La première fois que j’ai rencontré Serge, je l’ai trouvé terriblement timide. Avant cela, je l’avais entendu à la radio, je trouvais qu’il avait une voix fascinante et une manière différente de placer les mots ; je chantais ses chansons à tue-tête dans la maison, sans toujours comprendre le sens des paroles. […] Il est venu me voir avec une chanson, c’était “Vilaine fille, mauvais garçon”. J’étais très excitée, il s’est mis à jouer du piano et j’ai entendu cette voix que j’adorais…
The first time I met Serge, I found him incredibly shy. Before that, I’d heard him on the radio, I found he had a fascinating voice and a unique way of placing words; I sang his songs at the top of my lungs, without always understanding the lyrics. […] He came to see me with a song, it was “Vilaine fille, mauvais garçon.” I was really excited, he started playing piano and I heard that voice that I loved…
Petula Clark was able to appreciate Serge’s songs without understanding the lyrics. What she liked about his music was above all the sound, the rhythm, the voice (“une voix fascinante et une manière différente de placer les mots”). She did, eventually, understand the lyrics, but that didn’t seem to increase her appreciation of his work.
Compare that to…
Quand j’ai rencontré Serge en 1968 sur le tournage du film Slogan, j’ai voulu en savoir plus et j’ai foncé dans la première librairie pour m’acheter un recueil de ses textes. Et avec un dictionnaire j’ai essayé de me rendre compte de la beauté et de la difficulté de ses chansons. Une que j’avais surtout adorée c’était “En relisant ta lettre” que j’avais mis un temps fou à déchiffrer avant d’en comprendre toute la drôlerie, parce que Serge écrit sur plusieurs dimensions. D’un coup j’ai compris le grand talent de manipulateur de la langue de ce mec avec qui j’étais en train de tourner tout simplement comme acteur…
When I met Serge in 1967 while filming Slogan, I wanted to know more about him so I went into the first bookstore I saw to buy a collection of his lyrics. With a dictionaries I tried to unpack the beauty and the difficulty of his songs. One that I particularly loved was “En relisant ta lettre,” which I had a hell of a time decoding, before I finally understood all its silliness, because Serge writes on many labels. All at once I understand the huge talent of this wordsmith, who I was treating justlike any other actor…
Jane needed the dictionary to appreciate Gainsbourg’s work. It wasn’t until she’d spent hours decoding one of his trickier songs that she was able to understand that he was somebody special.
Many listeners are like Petula — they can genuinely love Melody Nelson or “Initials B. B.” without understanding a word of what’s actually being said.
Nothing against the Petulas — but they don’t need this site.
“Fluid Makeup” is for the Janes.
Will the Petulas ever love Gainsbourg as much as the Janes? Being a Jane myself (indeed, I literally fell for Serge while listening to “En relisant ta lettre”), I am of course biased. But I would answer that question with another: Which of them ended up marrying the man?
In some cases, aren’t English speakers actually better off not knowing what the French lyrics mean?
Very possibly. One you see what’s going on in the songs, you can’t unsee it.
I personally think that there are some cases — especially on the last three or four albums — where understanding the lyrics may indeed decrease your appreciation. (As I write this paragraph, I have yet to dig deeply into the lyrics of the last two albums myself — but what I have found so far has not been promising.)
In other cases, however, you may find that Gainsbourg’s lyrics are actually less twisted than you expected. For example, most English-speakers imagine utterly debased lyrics in the opening track of Melody Nelson — when in fact he’s just talking about (and to) a hood ornament.
With an artist as committed to provocation as Gainsbourg, some lyrics will no doubt offend. Given shifting cultural norms and sensitivities between Gainsbourg’s period and our own, and differing standards between national and regional cultures, the possibility for offence becomes greater still.
I’m not here to defend Gainsbourg — but I do think it’s my job to explain what’s happening to the best of my ability. Thus my separate page, “How offensive is Gainsbourg?”
In my professional life, I’m an English professor. I’m also a huge music fan — and a huge fan of Gainsbourg.
Put these two things together, and you get something that doesn’t quite add up. My job is analyzing literature — but in a different language than the one Gainsbourg worked in. It helps that Gainsbourg was obsessed with the English language, and a master of franglais. But still, he wrote in French. I’m an outsider in his world.
I grew up in an English-speaking household, but I attended francophone schools from the age of four. So I know the language quite well, but far from perfectly — and I’m particularly bad about idioms and slang, which are everywhere in Gainsbourg’s songs, and which they don’t teach in schools. Translating and annotating Gainsbourg is, in part, a way for me to fill in these gaps — to spend time with a language I love but don’t quite speak fluently.
Listening to Serge’s music in my twenties (I had a download of the massive From Gainsbourg to Gainsbarre boxset on my iPod when I lived in Budapest in 2007, and listened to it religiously) was my first experience of actually enjoying the French language. Finally, I thought: this is why I learned French.
I was motivated to start this site by reading some English-language books about Gainsbourg that seemed to totally misunderstand his lyrics, or else just not to care about them.
My goal is to annotate and translate every single song that Gainsbourg wrote and performed. I’m starting with all the songs on the Gainsbourg Forever CD box set. I haven’t counted them, because I don’t want to scare myself off this project before I begin. If I ever finish them, I may move on to the ones that he wrote for other performers.