Thursday 16 May 2013

Le mauvais sujet repenti-sad story showing society's inconsistent and hypocritical attitudes to the sex trade

This poem is a morality tale- or perhaps more aptly an immorality tale- about prostitution.  The title suggests the traditional, inspiring story of the sinner who sees the light – the story of the bad character who repented.  However Brassens’ title is ironical.

The narrator of the poem was indeed by common judgment a bad character.  He was a pimp.  In contemporary Britain, it is politically correct to be kinder to prostitutes.  They are “sex workers”, but their pimps are still the lowest of the low.  However the moral issues here are shown to be complex.  If the man’s previous life was despicable, his act of repentance was even more despicable. He abandoned the woman with whom he had lived in a passionate relationship- although by mutual agreement shared with many others- , who had made his fortune and he left her to a grim fate.

His personal behaviour was certainly vile, but we note that he and his partner provided a service to clients who were pharmacists, church officials, civil servants and serving police officers.  We are aware that her pitch was close to the Chamber of Deputies. Brassens, the anarchist who rejected all outside interference in personal choice is pointing to the absurd contradictions in legislation which aims to prevent payment for sex.

Le mauvais sujet repenti

Elle avait la taill' faite au tour,(1)
Les hanches pleines,
Et chassait l' mâle aux alentours
De La Mad’leine...(2)

À sa façon d' me dir' : "Mon rat,
Est-c' que j' te tente ?"
Je vis que j'avais affaire à
Un' débutante...

L' avait l' don, c'est vrai, j'en conviens,
L'avait l' génie
Mais sans technique, un don n'est rien
Qu'un' sal' manie...
Certes, on ne se fait pas putain
Comme on s' fait nonne,
C'est du moins c' qu'on prêche, en latin,
À la Sorbonne...

Me sentant rempli de pitié
Pour la donzelle,
J' lui enseignai, de son métier,
Les p'tit's ficelles...
J' lui enseignai l' moyen d' bientôt
Faire fortune,
En bougeant l'endroit où le dos
R'ssemble à la lune...(3)

Car, dans l'art de fair' le trottoir,
Je le confesse,
Le difficile est d' bien savoir
Jouer des fesses...
On n' tortill' pas son popotin
D' la mêm' manière,
Pour un droguiste, un sacristain,
Un fonctionnaire...

Rapidement instruite par
Mes bons offices,
Elle m'investit d'une part
D' ses bénéfices...(4)
On s'aida mutuellement,
Comm' dit l' poète,(5)
Ell' était l' corps, naturell'ment,
Puis moi la tête...

Un soir, à la suite de
Manoeuvres douteuses,
Ell' tomba victim' d'une
Maladie honteuse...
Lors, en tout bien, toute amitié,
En fille probe,
Elle me passa la moitié
De ses microbes...

Après des injections aiguës
J'abandonnai l' métier d' cocu
Elle eut beau pousser des sanglots,
Braire à tue-tête,
Comme je n'étais qu'un salaud,
J' me fis honnête...

Sitôt privé' de ma tutelle,
Ma pauvre amie
Courut essuyer du bordel
Les infamies...
Paraît qu'ell' s' vend même à des flics,
Quell' décadence !
Y'a plus d' moralité publiqu'
Dans notre France...

She had a most shapely figure
Full in the hips,
And hunted for males, roundabout
The Madeleine

From her way of saying : « Darling,
D’you fancy me ? »
I saw that I was dealing with
A raw beginner.

She’d the gift, it’s true, I quite agree,
She'd the genius,
But without technique a gift’s no more
Than a nasty habit…
It’s true you don’t become a whore
Like you do a’nun
That’s at least what they preach, in Latin
At the Sorbonne…

Feeling overwhelmed with pity
For the damsel
I taught her the little secrets
Of her profession
I taught her the method to soon
Make her fortune
By swaying the place where the back
Looks very like the moon

For, in the art of street walking,
I must confess
What’s hard is to rightly know how to
Make play with the bum…
You do not wiggle your bottom
In the same manner
For a chemist, a church warden
A civil servant.

Rapidly instructed by
My good offices
She invested me with a share
Of her profits
We helped each other mutu’lly
As the poet says.
She was the body, natur’lly
Then me the head.

One night following some
Suspect carryings on
She fell the victim of
A shameful illness…
Then, justly, out of true friendship
A forthright girl,
She passed on to me a half
Of her microbes ……

After sev’ral sharp injections
Of antiseptic
I gave up the career of cuckold
In vain was all her deep sighing
Howling at full blast,
As I was nothing but a swine
I turned honest man.

Deprived of me as her guardian,
My poor girl friend
Went straight to submit to the shame
Of the brothel …
Seems she’s even sold to coppers
What decadence !
There’s no public morality now
In this France of ours……

1953 - Les amoureux des bancs publics


1)      fait au tour – le tour is the lathe and so a part of the body that is « fait au tour » is well-turned, shapely.

2)      La Madeleine – The area around the historic building of the Madeleine has long been regarded as a hunting ground for prostitutes.  As their clientele in this area was from a better class, the women would be a better class of prostitute.

3)      Brassens was a great admirer of a rounded female bottom and uses the moon analogy frequently.  See Vénus Callipyge

4)      N.B.The irony of his squalid arrangement  being presented as a standard business contract.

5)      Brassens lived with his book of La Fontaine’s fables.  In La Fontaine’s « L’Aveugle et le Paralytique », there are the lines :

Aidons-nous mutuellement,
La charge des malheurs en sera plus légère.

I am grateful to a French gentleman called Arthur for three amendments he has given me that I have incorporated now in this translation.  It's a great help.  Many thanks.  David Y.


Please click here to return to the full alphabeticallist of my Georges Brassens selection


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Arthur said...

Hello David,

Thanks for your great website and very well-done work!

A few remarks though: "Courut essuyer du bordel les infamies" does not mean "she ran to endure life in brothels; the shame of it!" but "she ran to endure the brothel's vileness". Maybe as an Englishman you will find an even better translation.
A more normal word order would have been "courir essuyer les infamies du bordel".

Also, I would have said "(I've)Heard she sells herself to coppers" rather than "seems" ; I think it is closer to "paraît".

I wouldn't have translated "ma pauvre amie" by "my poor girlfriend", especially in this text!

Last but not least, you did understand "en tout bien toute amitié" but it should be noted that this is a reference to "en tout bien tout honneur" (=with honourable intentions), which has some sexual innuendo. Moreover, Brassens' altered formulation also implies that "honour" played no role in the relationship between the narrator and the girl! :P I don't know if you can obtain these different layers of meaning in English.

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Anonymous said...

Great translation, thank you for sharing! Not many people know, but Brassens had initially one more couplet (after #5), which he later removed, maybe because the lyrics were a bit too violent?
Quand la pauvrette à la maison rentrait bredouille,
Je lui flanquait plus de raison des ratatouilles.
Lui souviendrait-il encore du bidet d'hygiène
Avec lequel j'avais fendu
sa boîte cranienne?
Jean A.

Unknown said...

I think le cocu systématique is the gonococcus