In English this time: a Marseillaise for our age

Sometimes it is better not to know French. You will never quite get what Voltaire, Molière, Beauvoir, Zola, Hugo and Proust really mean and what Carmen and Faust really sing. But at least you will not find out what the Marseillaise really says. It is France’s national anthem and, according to a site dedicated to it, marseillaise.org, “believed by many to be the most stirring of all anthems“. Stirring, sure. Until you pay attention to the words.

I wrote an article on this blog, in French, proposing to shed the Marseillaise from its worst parts. A few people asked me to provide an English version; here it is. A rendition rather than a translation.

July the 14th, “Bastille day”, was France’s national holiday, and the opportunity for singing the Marseillaise. Politicians in towns large and small make a point of intoning it, in tune or (more often) out of it. One assumes — rather, one hopes — that occasionally they feel some embarrassment. You see, they understand French. The rest of the world hears the music, apparently good enough to have led such diverse composers as Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Beethoven to cite it in their own works, and has the luxury of ignoring the words. Better so. Here are some of the gems (in my almost literal translation, all those I found on the Web are awful):

It’s us versus tyranny
We have raised our blood-stained flag

and

Do you hear, in the countryside,
The howling of these ferocious soldiers?
They come to snatch our sons and wives from our arms
And slit their throats

and the triumphal part of the chorus:

Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak the grooves of our fields!

So kind and welcoming.

What makes someone’s blood so impure that every patriot must take as his sacred duty to spill floods of it?

As a matter of fact, it happened, three quarters of a century ago. Hundreds of thousands of French people learned that their blood was now officially non-conformant. There are a few more episodes of that kind in the country’s history. They are not, to put it politely, the most glorious, and not the most appropriate to recall for celebration in the national anthem.

In the days before the festivities, hearing a 7-year old sing (in tune) the impure blood that must soak the grooves, I wondered what kind of thoughts such slogans can evoke among schoolchildren, who are instructed to memorize them and sing along. What about the blood-stained flag? What about the tyrants (Matteo Renzi? Mario Draghi?) who unleash on us their ferocious soldiers, not only to howl, but to snatch, from our arms, our sons and our wives, and slit their throats?

It is time to reform this racist and hateful song.

We need not quarrel about history. The song had a role. The revolution faced enemies, it was defending itself. When we commemorate that revolution today, we think not of Robespierre and the murder of Lavoisier (the creator of modern chemistry, whose executors famously explained that “the republic has no use for scientists“); we think of its message of liberty and fraternity. Enough blood, battles, ferocity. Sing what unites us today.

A national anthem should not, of course, be changed every year as a response to changes in fashion. By nature, it will always be a bit off. But after two hundred and thirteen years of existence, including one hundred and thirty-six of service as national anthem, it is time to shed the Marseillaise of the most shameful remnants of its original text. The music will stay; but the words must adapt to today’s France, which does not whine about a troubled past but looks forward to a bright future.

Only weak peoples seek unity only through the detestation of others. Their songs are full of rejection and negation. Strong peoples, for their part, invoke positive images. Which phrase better projects the proud attitude of a nation that believes in its destiny: “it’s us versus tyranny“, or “with us, marches democracy”? “Their impure blood” or “our pure hearts”? “Slit throats” or “admire”? Be the judge.

There have been proposals for alternative Marseillaises before, but they tend to be mirror images of the original, falling into their own excesses, such as a rabidly anti-militaristic version which can only exacerbate divisions. We will not gain anything by replacing ancient grievances by modern insults.

The following version, illustrated below by the first verse and the chorus (and given in a literal English translation not meant for singing, whereas the French text respects the prosody and versification of the original Marseillaise) pursues a different goal: not antagonizing people, but uniting them; highlighting not differences, but affinities; and allowing everyone to bellow it: with no shame; instead, with pride.

Children of the fatherland, come along
The day of glory has come
With us, marches democracy
We have raised our shining flag.
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The murmur of those envious peoples?
They come to our towns and mountains
And cannot stop admiring them.

(Chorus)

Together, citizens!
Let us make our union stronger!
Let our pure hearts
Vibrate in unison.

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2 Comments

  1. pishev says:

    It might be more fun to revisit Serge Gainsbourg’s approach: « Aux armes et cætera »

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  2. Jim Plamondon says:

    Australia’s national anthem is much more subtly racist. My favorite verse is this:

    While other nations of the globe
    Behold us from afar,
    We’ll rise to high renown and shine
    Like our glorious southern star;
    From England, Scotia, Erin’s Isle,
    Who come our lot to share,
    Let all combine with heart and hand
    To advance Australia fair!

    That is: “We’re so open-minded that we’ll accept migrants from anywhere…even Ireland!” In 1878, the author could not think beyond the British Empire. Yet it wasn’t adopted as the national anthem until 1984. Happily, the version accepted as the national anthem excludes the above-cited verse. So…change is possible. ;-)

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