Friday, July 22, 2016

Frere Jacques: The True Story

It's time for my Eclectic Blog to veer off into the
obscure once again.  This time I want to examine
and expose the perils of mis-translation by dissecting
Frere Jacques, the well-known children's song.

This traditional French folksong has been translated
into English for more than 100 years.  The rhyme and
rhythm are pleasing to the ears.

But there is a problem.  The English translation is WRONG!

Pictured below is Brother John (Frere Jacques), sleeping
soundly, while the morning bells are ringing outside.

In English, we are all accustomed to the line
"morning bells are ringing . . . ."
But the French words don't mean that at all!

"Sonnez les matines" actually means
Or more precisely, 
"Ring the bells to signal morning prayer time."
You can see why the translators didn't try to
fit all that into the song.

The French verb "sonner" is a regular verb.
If the songwriter intended to say "Morning bells
are ringing" he would have said

"Les matines sonnent." (3rd person plural).
But the verb sonnez that is used is the second person
form, as in "YOU sound the bells" (a command).
The French, like Americans, often use the verb
without the subject (which is understood) when 
giving a command.  The command is "ring or sound
the bells."
If the writer had said "Vous sonnez les matines"
it would have meant "You ARE RINGING the bells."
But that is not the intent of the song.

So a prosaic way to state the meaning of the song
would be:
"Brother John!  Are you still asleep?!
Get up and ring those morning bells
or no one will know it's time for prayer!"
(This admonition would have to be spoken
by an omniscient unseen character, but not by
 a second monk, priest, or friar as is pictured).

In conclusion, I'm not offering these thoughts
to be critical of the translator (RIP) or the artist, 
who mistakenly shows a second monk, priest, or
friar ringing the bells.

Rather, I want to point out the pitfalls of translation.
In a children's song there's no harm done.
But in weightier matters, such as international 
treaties, speech translations, or Biblical translations,
great care needs to be taken for accuracy.

Now, for old time's sake,
sing "Frere Jacques" from memory
in both French AND English and reward yourself
suitable later today.  And if you really want a challenge,
try to persuade two or more friends to join you in
singing the venerable old song as a round!
Let me know if you take the challenge.