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The Sundial, a woman is crying, a man is going away, by George Barbier (1882-1832)

Illustration for an Almanach, 1922
(with permission from Art Resource, NY)

Jacques Brel‘s “Ne me quitte pas” is a song one can never forget.  It has a visceral quality that few singers other than the very intense Brel, its creator, can convey.  Moreover, it is a poem and poems tend to suffer in translation, particularly in a literal translation.  But I am nevertheless providing a literal translation.  The song is translated one paragraph at a time.

Fortunately, Rod McKuen′s rendition of “Ne me quitte pas” is as translations should be, i.e. a rendition.  It goes beyond the words to convey the same despair as Brel’s song.  At times, he uses Brel’s devastating imagery, but at times, he strays from it in order to give the translation a more or less equivalent degree of intensity as the original version.  Jacques Brel was a chansonnier, a singer-songwriter, and so was McKuen.  Moreover, they were kindred spirits, so there is considerable affinity between Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas” and McKuen’s “If you go away.”  We will therefore hear both versions.

McKuen is now 79.  As for Brel, his signature cigarette killed him at 49.


Barbier’s illustration dates back to an age of affluence and composure.  It does not seem to match “Ne me quitte pas,” except remotely and in another mode.  Barbier’s illustration is an Art Deco classic and reminds me of the television episodes of Agatha Christie ‘s Hercule Poirot, her charming Belgian detective. Actor David Suchet has become Poirot’s embodiment.  But I could not resist Chabrier’s red and black illustration: le rouge et le noir ne s’épousent-ils pas?  Unlike Brel’s chanson, which expresses raw grief, the lady’s tears suggest mere sorrow.  But the lady is in a public environment, she is French, and appearances are deceptive.

Ne me quitte pas

Ne me quitte pas / Il faut oublier / Tout peut s’oublier / Qui s’enfuit déjà / Oublier le temps / Des malentendus / Et le temps perdu / À savoir comment / Oublier ces heures / Qui tuaient parfois / À coups de pourquoi / Le cœur du bonheur / Ne me quitte pas (repeated)

Don’t leave me now / We must forget/ All can be forgotten / It escapes  already / Forget the time / The misunderstandings / And the moments lost / We must know how / Forget those hours  / Which killed at times / With each  thrust of ‘why’ / The heart of happiness / Don’t leave me now… (repeated)

Moi je t’offrirai / Des perles de pluie / Venues de pays / Où il ne pleut pas / Je creuserai la terre / Jusqu’après ma mort / Pour couvrir ton corps / D’or et de lumiere / Je ferai un domaine / Où l’amour sera roi / Où l’amour sera loi / Où tu seras reine / Ne me quitte pas…

Me I’ll offer you / Pearls of rain / That come from a country / Where rain  never falls / I would mine [dig into] the earth  / ‘Til after my death / To cover your  body / With gold and with light / I’ll make a kingdom / Where love shall be king / Where love shall be law / Where you shall be queen / Don’t leave me now/ Don’t leave me now / Don’t leave me now…

Ne me quitte pas / Je t’inventerai / Des mots insensés / Que tu comprendras / Je te parlerai / De ces amants-là / Qui ont vu deux fois / Leur cœur s’embraser / Je te raconterai / L’histoire de ce roi / Mort de n’avoir pas / Pu te rencontrer / Ne me quitte pas…

Don’t leave me now / I’ll invent for you / Such [nonsensical] words / That you’ll  understand  / I’ll speak to you / Of those lovers there / Who have seen two times their hearts all ablaze / I will recount for you / The story of that king / Dead for not having the chance to meet you / Don’t leave me now…


On a vu souvent / Rejaillir le feu / D’un ancien volcan / Qu’on croyait trop vieux / Il est paraît-il / Des terres brûlées / Donnant plus de blé / Qu’un meilleur avril / Et quand vient le soir / Pour qu’un ciel flamboie / Le rouge et le noir / Ne s’épousent-ils pas / Ne me quitte pas…

We have often seen / Fire gush out / From an ancient volcano / We thought was too old / There are, it seems / Some scorched fields / That yield more  wheat / Than the best of April / And when evening comes / So that the sky is  blaze / The black and the red / Do they not wed / Don’t leave me now…


Ne me quitte pas / Je ne vais plus pleurer / Je ne vais plus parler / Je me cacherai là / À te regarder / Danser et sourire / Et à t’écouter / Chanter et puis rire / Laisse-moi devenir / L’ombre de ton ombre / L’ombre ta main / L’ombre de ton chien / Ne me quitte pas…

Don’t leave me now / I’ll no longer cry / I’ll no longer speak / I’ll hide right there / Just to look at you / Watch you dance and smile / And listen to you / As you sing and laugh / Let me become / The shadow of your shadow / The shadow of your hand / The shadow of your hound / Don’t leave me now…

Regina Spektor
© Micheline Walker
7 July 2012
Louis Valtat, 1869-1952 
Anemones and Green Jug, ca. 1926
Musée Jean de la Fontaine Chateau-Thierry
(with permisson from Art Resource, NY