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L'Étonnant Serge Gainsbourg (1961)

En relisant ta lettre

Summary

Serge is reading a letter from a former lover, who is despondent and contemplating suicide. Rather than expressing any sympathy, he heartlessly corrects the letter’s spelling and grammar.

The text of the letter, which Serge reads aloud in a mocking voice, is on the left in italics. His commentary is centred, in roman letters.

Paroles de Gainsbourg

En relisant ta lettre je m’aperçois que l’orthographe et toi, ça fait deux.

C’est toi que j’aimme

Ne prend qu’un M

Par-dessus tout.
Ne me dis point

Il en manque un

Que tu t’en fous.
Je t’en supplie

Point sur le i

Fais-moi confiance.
Je suis l’èsclave

Sans accent grave

Des apparences.
c’est ridicule

C majuscule

C’était si bien.
Tout ça m’affecte

Ça c’est correct

Au plus haut point.
Si tu renounces

Comme ça s’prononce

À m’écouter
Avec la vi

Comme ça s’écrit

J’en finirai.
Pour me gardder

Ne prends qu’un D

Tant de rancune,
T’as pas de cœur,
Y a pas d’errœur

Là y’en a une

J’en mourrirrai

N’est pas français!

N’comprends-tu pas?
Ça s’ra ta faute
Ça s’ra ta faute

Là, y’en a pas

Moi j’te signale
Que Gardénal
Ne prend pas d’E
Mais n’en prend qu’un
Cachet au moins
N’en prend pas deux.
Ça t’calmera
Et tu verras
Tout r’tombe à l’eau
L’cafard, les pleurs
Les peines de cœur
O E dans l’O.

Discussion

I love this song, despite its cruel dynamics. This is one of the songs that hooked me on Gainsbourg — the cleverness, the facility with language, the audacity of writing a song about… the ethics of proofreading.

The crux from an interpretive perspective is whether the song ends with the Serge character encouraging the ex-lover to kill herself. He recommends one tablet of Gardénal, a.k.a. phenobarbital — which calms in a low dose, but is a well-known way to kill yourself if taken in higher doses. The key line seems to be “Tout retombe à l’eau” — it all falls through in the end. On first glance, you might think he’s saying, “Hey, it gets better — this won’t seem so dire once you calm down.” But doesn’t the expression “it all falls through” (it all fails, it all comes to nothing) better match the sense, “Hey, just kill yourself, them you’ll be free of tears, heartaches, hypocrites, and pedants like me”? And then there’s his little slip, “Mais n’en prend qu’un / Cachet au moins” — But only take one / tablet at least. Shouldn’t it be at most? Up to you to decide — but that tension seems to me to hold the song together.

And certainly, the whole song thrives on ambiguity. For example, the last section is clearly written from the perspective of the Serge character… but is delivered in the mocking tones that the narrator uses to read the ex’s letter, not in his own sharp, cutting, ruthless voice. It’s an unresolvable situation; it doesn’t make sense, but there’s nothing you can do with it. (Even in the video posted above, it’s weird: Serge puts down the letter, he’s no longer reading anything, he’s speaking into the camera — but he’s still using that letter-reading voice…)

Putting this post together is very meta: I’m commenting on Serge commenting his ex’s letter. Indeed, I like this harmony so much that I briefly contemplated calling this site “En relisant Serge Gainsbourg” (enrelisant.com was even available…)

This one is basically impossible to translate satisfactorily, since it’s so much about the specific “code” of the French language. But I’ve done my best below to capture the dynamics of the cruelty between the two figures, the suicidal lover and the heartless, pedantic Serge, officer of the Grammar Police. Again, the point of this site is not to provide singable, rhyming translations — it’s to help English speakers with a decent grasp of French to understand and appreciate what Serge is up to with his (French) lyrics.

Traduction de “Liquid Makeup”

While rereading your letter, it struck me that you and spelling exist in different universes.

It’s you I lovve

Only one V

Above all else.
Don’t tell me point-

You’re missing one

blank you don’t give a damn.
I implore you

Dot the I

Confide in me.
I am a slayve

Drop the Y

To appearances.
it’s ridiculous

Capital I

What we had was so good.
It all affects me

That’s done correctly

So much.
If you refeuse

Like it’s pronounced

To listen to me,
I’ll take my lyfe

Like it’s written

and end it.
To harbourr

Only one R

Such a grudge,
You have no heart
Make no misteak

There, you’ve made one

I’ll dye

Doesn’t speak English!

Don’t you understand?
It will be your fault
It will be your fault

There, you’ve committed none.

Listen here,
“Barbiturate”
Takes that second R
But only take one
Pill at least
Don’t take two.
It will calm you down
And you will see
That everything falls through —
Hypocrites, tears
Heartaches,
all one word.

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