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Gainsbourg Percussions (1964) Gainsbourg's faves

Pauvre Lola

(For some reason this version with France Gall won’t embed, but it’s the more interesting video.)

Summary

While halfheartedly attempting to seduce a woman named Lola, Serge confuses ends and means, getting caught up with a demanding rhyme scheme demanding endless words ending -endre.

Paroles de Gainsbourg

Faut savoir s’étendre
Sans se répandre
Pauvre Lola
Faut savoir s’étendre
Sans se répandre
C’est délicat

Ne pas la surprendre
Pas l’entreprendre
Pauvre Lola
Ne pas la surprendre
Pas l’entreprendre
De but en bas

Il est des mots tendres
Qu’elle aime entendre
Tendre Lola
Oui quelques mots tendres
Devraient atten’
Drir Lolita

Ce que ça va rendre
Ça va dépendre
Pauvre Lola
Ce que ça va rendre
Ça va dépendre
Un peu de toi

On peut pas te prendre
Tu dois t’en rendre
Compte Lola
On peut pas te prendre
Jusqu’aux calendes
Grecques Lola

Discussion

This is a song that perfectly demonstrates the futility of my enterprise here at Fluid Makeup — at least the translation part.

This is much less a song about seduction than it is a song about Serge’s rhyming prowess.

Other than “Lola,” every terminal word here ends with -endre. This isn’t the most incredible of feats, since that’s one of the most common endings for French verbs in their infinitive form. But still, it’s something.

Particularly interesting are the words in which the -endre comes mid-word, and Serge turns this into line-terminal rhymes by stretching the word across an enjambment (attend-rir — seems like “attendre” (wait, expect) + “rire” (rire) but becomes, in combination, tenderize), or where he extends a compound verb across the line break (“rendre / compte” — seems like return but becomes realize or account for).

Alas, these effects are all pretty much impossible to render (rendre!) in translation. So this is really, truly a song where you should be focused on the annotations to try to see how the original French works, and only use my English translation to get a bare sense of what’s going on content-wise.

The other problem with this song, from my perspective, is that since I did not grow up in a French-speaking country, I am not very familiar with idioms. I am especially badly attuned to sexual innuendo.

What exactly is going on in the opening lines? I assume that “répandre” (spilling over or stretching thin) refers to premature ejaculation — but I really don’t know. Maybe it’s something as innocent as, You need to know how to stretch yourself out without spreading yourself thin (or, is that innocent?). But again, my upbringing doesn’t equip me to catch the precise undercurrent. Maybe French speakers can’t either? Maybe it’s supposed to be suggestively vague? I’ve attempted to preserve some of that ambiguity, anyway, in my translation.

Same with “De but en bas.” At least I know for a fact that French speakers are confused by this one (see this WordReference discussion). This is clearly a pun on the expression “De but en blanc,” which means point-blank in English. It is a military term — specifically, it comes from target practice.

The “but” (a corruption of “butte”) is the abutment on which you place your cannon. The “blanc” is the white centre of the target you’re aiming at.

But here Serge says “De but en bas.” “En bas” means down below. Is he talking about getting into Lola’s pants? Is he picking up on the literal meaning of “but” as goal? Is this something about having the goal of getting down there? I mean, I would think so — but (not in the sense of abutment or butt or goal but just… but) I’m not sure. And I can find no way of reproducing this complicated pun in my translation, so I have pretty much just decided shrug my shoulders.

Similar deal for the final stanza, where the enjambment “rendre / compte” totally overturns the apparent meaning of the stanza.

The first two lines seem to have a pretty straightforward sense: “On peut pas te prendre / Tu dois t’en rendre”: One cannot take you by force; you have to give yourself up willingly. But then we get “compte,” and surrender (“rendre”) becomes realize or account for (“rendre compte”). It’s like Serge initially sets out to say one thing, then loses his nerve, changing his mind at the last second. It’s not One cannot take you by force; you have to give yourself up willingly it’s really One cannot take you by force — and you really have to understand this next bit —…

And what is the next bit? It again plays on a French idiom with no English equivalent: “Remettre quelque chose aux calendes grecques” or To put something off indefinitely (“calendes” are the first days of the month on the Greek calendar — Let’s just put it off to next month). Thus the literal meaning of the those lines is One cannot take you to the Greek calends, Lola or, somewhat less literally, You can’t say no forever, Lola.

How do you render all this in English, with all this nuance, hesitation, and changing of direction?

You just can’t. All you can do is shrug.

In a 1964 interview, Gainsbourg named this as one of the songs he was proudest of. Perhaps that’s because he enjoyed all the nuance and complexity he had created lyrically. Maybe he was pleased in the knowledge that this would frustrate any future attempts to translate his neatly-integrated work.

I like the song well enough, but it’s nowhere near my faves. Partly, from frustration at not really getting what Serge is up to. Partly, because I don’t like France Gall’s strident laughing in the background on the recorded track. Partly, because this is another of the brazenly appropriated melodies and arrangements on Percussions; in this case, it lifts the riff from Miriam Makeba’s “Umquokolo.”

But (goal! abutment!), you know, my task here is to translate all the songs, not just my faves. So I’ll have to keep my sang-froid. After all, you have to know how to stretch out without spilling over.

Or whatever.

Traduction de “Fluid Makeup”

You have to know how to stretch out
Without spilling over,
Poor Lola.
You have to know how to stretch out
Without spilling over.
It’s tricky.

Don’t sneak up on her,
Don’t hit on her,
Poor Lola.
Don’t sneak up on her,
Don’t hit on her,
Point-blank.

It’s sweet words
She wants to hear,
Sweet Lola.
Yes, some sweet words
Should sweeten her up.

Whether this will pay off
Will depend,
Poor Lola.
Whether this will pay off
Will depend
Entirely on you.

One can’t just take you by force —
You’ll have to surrender yourself.
Understand, Lola?
Yet one can’t just take
Forever waiting for you
Either, Lola.

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