Unreading Dylan: Francis Cabrel on the Watchtower
by Samuel E. Martin
Les princes ont confisqué
Francis Cabrel’s song “Octobre” has been a favorite of mine ever since the day my high school French teacher played it for our class and had us complete the text in a fill-in-the-blank exercise. I seem to recall her introducing Cabrel as “le Bob Dylan français,” though that may be an invented memory; if she did, it was likely for my benefit. By then I’d learned (I think) to be less of an obnoxious Zimmerman zealot than in middle school – a typical page from my notebook of daily journal entries from 7th-grade English contains a despairing note from Mrs. Herman: “Bob this, Bob that… The man can’t even carry a tune!” – but I still wore my devotion on my sleeve. At any rate, I distinctly remember Mrs. Shipp telling our French class, in a tone both fond and reverential, “Cabrel, c’est un poète.”
Cabrel’s lyrics are a gift for any student trying to get to grips with their French verbs, and “Octobre” is all about the future tense: Le vent fera craquer les branches, la brume viendra dans sa robe blanche (“The wind will make the branches creak, the mist will come robed in white”), and so on. Yet all the future conjugations don’t quite suffice to tell the story. Amid a series of idyllic images that foresee a couple wrapping up snug against the autumn chill, one image stands apart: no doubt, says the singer, there will be some men who lean on benches and remember (Certainement appuyés sur des bancs il y aura quelques hommes qui se souviennent), though there’s no indication of who they are or what they will be remembering. In that one oblique line, “Octobre” becomes a song of anticipated memory, looking forward at looking back, in a vaguely Dylanesque blurring of temporal layers. Cabrel’s prophecy has been borne out; as I listen to the song now, whether or not I happen to be near a bench, I realize I’ve effectively become one of the remembering men, looking back at the singer looking forward and mentally reconjugating the verbs in the imperfect tense. Yes, I think to myself, the October wind was coming…
It was ten Octobers ago that Cabrel released a whole album of Dylan covers that he’d translated into French over several months, Vise le ciel, ou Bob Dylan revisité. The title comes from “On ne va nulle part,” Cabrel’s take on “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Vise le ciel is Cabrel’s inspired rendering of the line “Ride me high” (L 293), though a direct translation back into English would be “aim for the sky”: an apt motto for any artist, however accomplished, setting out to scale Mount Bob – and Cabrel’s summit attempt came a full four Octobers before the 2016 Nobel Prize elevated Dylan even higher into the atmosphere, at least in the eyes of those who set any store by such things. For my part, I can’t say I was (or am) especially bothered one way or another about the Swedish Academy’s definition of literature. What did interest me, however, were the implications of the prize where translation was concerned.
The notoriety of the Nobel invariably brings a surge of critical attention to the recipient’s work, along with an acknowledgment (too often begrudging, tacit, or short-lived) of their translators’ role in disseminating it. One might go so far as to say that the award is implicitly premised on the work’s translatability. What did it mean, then, to recognize a body of work whose spread relies so heavily on performance? Dylan’s lyrics have, of course, been published and widely translated in book form, but I don’t think anyone, not even Mrs. Herman (“The man can’t even carry a tune!”), has claimed seriously that his oeuvre should be read and not heard. With all due respect to Dylan’s translators in print – and much respect indeed is due to their ingenuity – doubtless the best way to ensure that the 2016 Nobel not have been a triumph of monolingualism, the way most in keeping with the spirit of the work itself, is to listen closely to those artists adapting the songs in languages other than English and to apply the same interpretive criteria to their work as to his. Not that one needs any pretext to listen in the first place: after all, the songs, when sung, are pre-texts unto themselves. Listening to a translated Dylan song, as opposed to reading it, doesn’t mean attaching any less importance to the words; it’s just a matter of appreciating that the words are responding to necessities beyond those of a poem on a page.
While Vise le ciel offers a selection of eleven songs spanning a near-thirty-year period, Cabrel largely confines his attentions to Dylan’s early output. Seven of the tracks translate songs first written and recorded in the 1960s, from the starkly tragic “L’histoire d’Hollis Brown” (“Ballad of Hollis Brown”) and the mordant ache of “Tout se finit là, bébé bleu” (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”) to the singalong choruses of “On ne va nulle part” and “Quinn l’esquimau” (“Quinn the Eskimo”). Of the other four, two – “La dignité” (“Dignity”) and “Il faudra que tu serves quelqu’un” (“Gotta Serve Somebody”) – follow a basic accumulative pattern, freeing the translator to reshape and recombine the verses without compromising the songs’ structure. Cabrel has talked about the challenge of pruning Dylan’s images to account for the wordiness of French syntax relative to English – in some verses, he says, he had to pick two images from five – but the clusters that remain have lost none of their piquancy. What’s more, Cabrel puts the two list songs back to back on the album, heightening the pile-up effect. The buoyant piano-driven shuffle of “La dignité” segues into the bluesy slide guitar that carries “Il faudra que tu serves quelqu’un” along in the same key, as though the one were a logical extension of the other.
“A Simple Twist of Fate,” from 1975’s much beloved Blood on the Tracks, presents the lyricist with a greater degree of difficulty (L 334). Here, too, there is an accrual of images, but this time they are snapshots of emotional desolation pasted onto a frail narrative skeleton. In Cabrel’s version (“Un simple coup du sort”) as in Dylan’s, the voice is foregrounded against a suitably spare acoustic backdrop. Isolated and vulnerable, the singer tries to shelter behind the use of a third-person subject – Au matin d’un coup d’œil rapide / Il voit bien que la chambre est vide / Il dit que c’est rien, il décide d’ouvrir les fenêtres grand (“He woke up, the room was bare / He didn’t see her anywhere / He told himself he didn’t care, pushed the window open wide”) – until in the last verse the façade crumbles beneath the weight of heartache and the first-person je/I leaves himself fully exposed. Cabrel’s real coup, you might say, consists of adding a final verse that revisits the song’s opening image in the light of that grammatical shift. “They sat together in the park / As the evening sky grew dark / She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones,” in the first French iteration, becomes an image of a couple sitting and watching the boats glide past in the falling dusk: Ils étaient assis dans le parc / À regarder glisser les barques / Jusqu’à ce que soudain il remarque le soir tombant au-dessus d’eux. Six verses on, the setting is recognizably the same, except the singer has reinserted himself into the scene: On était assis sur un banc / On regardait passer les gens / Je revois son rire éclatant dans l’ombre qui nous dissimule (an unmusical translation might read: “We were sitting on a bench / Watching the people go by / I can still see her laugh sparkling through the shadow that covered us”). The spark that passes between the lovers in Dylan’s version, effaced from the first verse in French for the sake of the rhyme scheme, resurfaces in Cabrel’s coda, only for the verse to trail off midway through as the song is absorbed by the night, leaving the singer to his bench and his memories. Sound familiar?…
If a breeze of remembrance blows through “Octobre” and “Un simple coup du sort,” the wind in “D’en haut de la tour du guet,” Cabrel’s reimagining of “All Along the Watchtower” (L 224), is of a different order. Jimi Hendrix left his stamp on Dylan’s tune in 1968, and it’s practically impossible to hear the last line without recalling the way his scream (“And the WIND began to HOWL”) sends the song careening into a climactic tempest of guitar, bass and drums. Cabrel and his accompanists, unsurprisingly, take a more measured approach throughout. Their tempo is faster, but the band don’t deviate from their strict rhythmic and melodic patterns, and by the time the drums kick in at the start of the second verse, the overall effect is of a steady pounding rain rather than the maelstrom of Hendrix’s guitar or the eerie one-note siren of Dylan’s harmonica. Cabrel’s vocal hangs above the storm in a kind of prolonged sigh (we’re far from Hendrix’s irrepressible “NO reason to get exCITED!!”). As he intones the translation of Dylan’s final line – Et le vent commence à hurler – the verb hurler is fainter, breathier, as if partially swallowed by the very wind it summons. It’s a brilliant corollary to another line from a moment earlier; Cabrel translates “life is but a joke” as la vie n’est que du vent – life is nothing but wind.
Many a Dylanologist over the years has reveled in spotting connections between Dylan’s lyrics and the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, “the man with soles of wind,” as his fellow poet and lover Paul Verlaine dubbed him. (Dylan himself alludes to that affair in another song from Blood on the Tracks: “Situations have ended sad / Relationships have all been bad / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud” (L 338).) In Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work, Timothy Hampton gives a particularly compelling account, not of Rimbaud’s direct textual influence on Dylan per se, but rather of the profound artistic affinities that the two men share – and “All Along the Watchtower” is a case in point. With its protean allegorical figures and Rimbaldian “shifts in scenography,” the song, says Hampton, “emblematizes the process through which Dylan’s writing both inscribes and uncovers multiple layers of identity” (BDP 116). Likewise, though it would be a stretch to say that Francis Cabrel’s version of the lyrics reads like a Rimbaud poem, the translation into French uncovers further layers and connections.
Take, for instance, Cabrel’s rendering of the line “There’s too much confusion”: Tout n’est que désordre et délire – all is disorder and delirium. The désordre immediately puts me in mind of the not-yet-seventeen-year-old Rimbaud’s celebrated letter to Paul Demeny from May 1871 in which he outlines his poetic credo. Mark Polizzotti, who knows a thing or two about Dylan, translates one of the letter’s best-known sentences as follows: “The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, massive, and reasoned disordering of all the senses” (TDB 230). (The letter’s even more famous proclamation, “Je est un autre,” is on Timothy Hampton’s radar in his commentary of “Watchtower,” where he says the listener can see “the metaphoric energy of Rimbaud’s ‘I is someone else’ at work” (BDP 115).) And délire! Now there’s a Rimbaldian word if ever there were one. The plural, Délires, provides the title for two successive chapters of Une saison en enfer (1873): the first presents a pair of allegorical characters, the Foolish Virgin and the Infernal Bridegroom, often taken to be versions of Rimbaud and Verlaine, while the second is the self-scornful retrospective tale of Rimbaud’s poetic project, his “disordering of all the senses.” There’s every chance that Cabrel’s double translation of “confusion” as désordre et délire was dictated primarily by his search of a rhyme for the opening line (Y a sûrement moyen d’en sortir, “There must be some way out of here”), but whatever his reasons, the words reverberate loudly in the Dylan-Rimbaud echo chamber.
Talking of lines whose answer for the need to rhyme leads to unexpected places, I’ve always been intrigued by Dylan’s “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view.” Kept the view? “Lookout” would obviously be a syllable too many, and “watch,” even supposing it hadn’t already occurred just a few words earlier, would be much less euphonious coming at the end of a line – but does “keep the view” mean the same thing as the more idiomatic alternatives? Cabrel sticks close to the end sound of Dylan’s line while pushing the semantics further out: Les princes ont confisqué les longues-vues (“The princes have confiscated the telescopes”). The confiscatory gesture is reminiscent of Rimbaud in Délires II when he declares “Je réservais la traduction” (translated by Mark Polizzotti as “I reserved translation rights” (TDP 125)). And yet Cabrel, of course, is not confiscating or reserving anything: on the contrary. By taking a songwriter’s approach to translating Dylan, he gives us new possibilities to ponder. The princes in “D’en haut de la tour du guet” may be withholding the telescopes, but the listener remains clear- and farsighted. Cabrel even insists on it: whereas the line that precedes the howling wind in Dylan’s version simply runs “Two riders were approaching,” Cabrel’s translation implicates us in the story that is suddenly unfolding in the present tense: On peut voir deux cavaliers qui s’avancent (“We can see two riders approaching”). The listener is become a seer, gazing out into the distance – and into past and future, too, for just as in “Un simple coup du sort,” Cabrel cycles back to the first verse of the song as if to set everything in motion once more. This time around, he prefers confusion to désordre in the second line… but délire remains.
Shoshana Felman argues superbly in La Folie et la chose littéraire that Rimbaud’s relentless use of the negational prefix dé– (désordre, dérèglement, etc.) is a vital element of his poetics and must be pushed to its logical, “reasoned” conclusion: the word dé-lire, when broken up, appears to be inciting the reader to un-read. It’s what I imagine Bob Dylan replying snidely to the French journalist who asks in a promotional video for Vise le ciel if Francis Cabrel manages to offer a “new reading” of Dylan’s songs: No, he unreads them. The question to ask of any serious cover album is what it dis-covers; in the case of Cabrel’s disc, quite a lot, as it turns out.
Francis Cabrel, Samedi soir sur la terre, Columbia, 1994.
——, Vise le ciel, ou Bob Dylan revisité, Columbia, 2012.
Bob Dylan, The Lyrics 1961-2012, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2016 (abbreviated as L).
Shoshana Felman, La Folie et la chose littéraire, Paris, Seuil, 1978.
Timothy Hampton, Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work, New York, Zone Books, 2019 (abbreviated as BDP).
Arthur Rimbaud, The Drunken Boat: Selected Writings, translated by Mark Polizzotti, New York, NYRB/Poets, 2022 (abbreviated as TDB).
Samuel Martin teaches French at the University of Pennsylvania. He has translated works by several contemporary writers including Jean-Christophe Bailly and Georges Didi-Huberman; his translation of Didi-Huberman’s Bark was a co-winner of the French-American Foundation Translation Prize and was longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, October 11, 2022