Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Better Lyrics for Brel

I perform with the band more or less weekly at Greenpoint Church, and about once a month I lead the music, meaning I pick the music. I'm always trying to come up with fresh stuff, and over the years I've brought in arrangements of Bob Marley tunes ("Thank You Lord"), the Psalm 23 theme from The Vicar of Dibley, and a bunch of tunes from Goodbye Babylon.

Last week, Pastor Jen told me she'd be preaching on the golden calf, idolatry, and placing our trust in what really matters, and I thought of "If We Only Have Love," the Jacques Brel tune, of which I've got a recording from the so-so Off-Broadway revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris 2006 (which I reviewed for Newsday). I accordingly found the lyrics online and picked out the tune on guitar. I ran the lyrics by Pastor Jen, and she was satisfied that they fit the theme.

I wasn't quite satisfied with them, though. There were false rhymes and odd images, as in the closing lines:
Then with nothing at all
But the little we are
We'll have conquered all time
All space, the sun, and the stars
Really? I thought that might sound a little strange in church, and even the lyric's references to Jerusalem and drinking from the Grail felt a little odd to me. Then I remembered this passage from Sondheim on Music:
I fell in love with Jacques Brel's music long before that revue [Jacques Is Alive and Well]. In fact, I got all the French records. It was Judy Prince who introduced me to Brel's stuff, and I just bought every record I get...When I went to see Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, I loathed the lyrics, and that would have turned me off, if anything. Even though I don't understand Flemish or French very well, I'm so glad that I heard it first with him singing his lyrics, and read a translation on the LP albums, or had Judy translate them for me. That had the real flavor. I don't think the English lyrics carry the flavor well at all.
Digging around on the web some more, I learned that Brel's widow much preferred the translations of Arnold Johnston, a professor at Western Michigan University, but these translations aren't findable online. I was, however, able to track down a literal translation of Brel's "Quand on n'a que l'amour" here. Though these weren't singable in English, they were so much simpler, clearer, and more forceful than the ones by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. No mention of Jerusalem or the Grail, for the one thing, and two details struck me: Where Blau and Shuman's version had the hippie-dippie image, "If we only have love/We can melt all the guns," Brel's had the more poetic, "When we've nothing but love/To talk back to a gun." And the closing lines? Nothing about conquering the universe with love, but instead this beautiful statement:
So, while having nothing
But the force of loving
We will have in our hands, friends
The entire world
So I burned some midnight oil turning this literal translation into singable English lyrics, and I thought I'd share them with the Internet.

When We’ve Nothing But Love
By Jacques Brel

When we’ve nothing but love
As the gift that we bear
Then the path that we’re walking
Is the passion we share

When we’ve nothing but love
Between lovers and friends
Then each day is a voyage
And the trip never ends

When we’ve nothing but love
As the promise we give
And our treasure is faith
Every day that we live

When we’ve nothing but love
To enliven our days
And to brighten the dark
In this city of grays

When we’ve nothing but love
As our reason and mind
And the song that we sing
And the help that we find

When we’ve nothing but love
To serve food to the poor
To give clothes to the naked
When they knock at the door

When we’ve nothing but love
That we offer in prayer
To the evil that rages
In the world everywhere

When we’ve nothing but love
When we answer the call
Of the people who struggle
Just to go on at all

When we’ve nothing but love
As our compass and guide
To discern the best path
When beset on each side

When we’ve nothing but love
To talk back to a gun
And we’ve only got songs
To convince war it's done

So we’ve nothing but love
What is all this love worth?
My friends, barely nothing
Just the whole blessed earth


  1. Hi, I really liked your English lyrics for Jacques Brel song. I've decided to use them for my blog post. I've put your name down and link leading to this blog. Please take a look - http://yourcloudhasasilverlining.blogspot.com/2012/06/love-song.html.
    If you're ok with them I'll leave them in the post, if not please let me know. Thanks.

  2. WHEN WE’VE NOTHING BUT LOVE (Quand on n’a que l’amour)

    When we’ve nothing but love
    To share as we start
    On the greatest of journeys,
    The quest of the heart
    When we’ve nothing but love
    We’ll be giddy and gay
    My love, you and I
    Every hour of the day
    When we’ve nothing but love
    To see promises through
    With no other wealth
    Than a faith that is true
    When we’ve nothing but love
    Then the ugliest place
    Will be covered with light
    Will be furnished with grace
    When we’ve nothing but love
    One single relief
    One single song
    One single belief

    When we’ve nothing but love
    To clothe in the dawn
    The poor and the weak
    In a mantle of lawn
    When we’ve nothing but love
    To pray for each wrong
    Of the damned of the earth
    In one simple song
    When we’ve nothing but love
    To offer that one
    Who struggles alone
    To see one more dawn

    When we’ve nothing but love
    To chart every strait
    To show us the way
    At each crossroads of Fate
    When we’ve nothing but love
    To face down the guns
    And only a song
    To silence the drums

    Then with only love’s power
    Like a banner unfurled
    We’ll be brothers at last
    All over the world

    English lyrics copyright Arnold Johnston

    1. Arnold Johnston's lyrics are amazing! Thanks for posting.

  3. This is brilliant. I greatly prefer both sets of lyrics to the received version. It is too powerful a melody, and theme, to suffer from Blau/Shuman's seemingly off-the-cuff lyric discorancies. Thank you both.

  4. Loved this! Check my blog sometime, there are a few English translations of French and Spanish lyrics. letrascantadas.blogspot.com