Jacques Brel – Amsterdam, a new translation

New Translation by Jillian Greenwood

This is much better than the Bowie lyrics I provided in an earlier post. I guess I’ll have to do it then… It’s still pure art and emotion. Watch out for the woman with the hat in the audience.

Info from a Youtube posting:

Brel worked on the song at his house overlooking the Mediterranean at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, the house he shared with Sylvie Rivet,a publicist for Philips, in the place she had made known to him in 1960. It was the ideal place for him to create, and to indulge his passion for boats and planes. One morning at six o’clock he read the words of Amsterdam to Fernand, a restauranteur who was about to set off fishing for scorpion fish and conger eels for the bouillabaisse. Overcome, Fernand broke out in sobs and cut open some sea urchins to help control his emotion.

Jaques Brel – Amsterdam

David Bowie – Amsterdam

Paroles françaises

English Lyrics

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui chantent
Les rêves qui les hantent
Au large d’Amsterdam
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui dorment
Comme des oriflammes
Le long des berges mornes
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui meurent
Pleins de bière et de drames
Aux premières lueurs
Mais dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui naissent
Dans la chaleur épaisse
Des langueurs océanes
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui mangent
Sur des nappes trop blanches
Des poissons ruisselants
Ils vous montrent des dents
A croquer la fortune
A décroisser la lune
A bouffer des haubans
Et ça sent la morue
Jusque dans le coeur des frites
Que leurs grosses mains invitent
A revenir en plus
Puis se lèvent en riant
Dans un bruit de tempête
Referment leur braguette
Et sortent en rotant
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui dansent
En se frottant la panse
Sur la panse des femmes
Et ils tournent et ils dansent
Comme des soleils crachés
Dans le son déchiré
D’un accordéon rance
Ils se tordent le cou
Pour mieux s’entendre rire
Jusqu’à ce que tout à coup
L’accordéon expire
Alors le geste grave
Alors le regard fier
Ils ramènent leur batave
Jusqu’en pleine lumière
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui boivent
Et qui boivent et reboivent
Et qui reboivent encore
Ils boivent à la santé
Des putains d’Amsterdam
De Hambourg ou d’ailleurs
Enfin ils boivent aux dames
Qui leur donnent leur joli corps
Qui leur donnent leur vertu
Pour une pièce en or
Et quand ils ont bien bu
Se plantent le nez au ciel
Se mouchent dans les étoiles
Et ils pissent comme je pleure
Sur les femmes infidèles
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Dans le port d’Amsterdam.
In the port of Amsterdam,
the sailors sing
Of the dreams that haunt them
in the great barging coasts.
In the port of Amsterdam,
The sailors sleep
like ancient willows that weep
Along mournful riverbanks.
In the port of Amsterdam,
sailors are dying,
bulging with beer and catastrophe
at the first light of dawn.
But in the port of Amsterdam,
There are sailors being born
in the suffocating heat
of groaning doldrums.
In the port of Amsterdam,
The sailors eat
Streaming fish
On too-white napkins;
they flash their teeth
that can crush fortunes,
That can swallow the moon
and devour its shroud.
And the place stinks of cod,
seeping into the heart of chips
that their huge hands welcome
only to come back for more.
Then they stand up and laugh
like the roar of storms,
zip up their flies
And leave with a swagger.
In the port of Amsterdam,
the sailors dance,
rubbing their paunches
against women’s bellies.
And they turn and they dance
Like suns spat
From the ragged sound
Of a rancid accordion.
They twist their necks
The better to hear each other laugh
Till with a sudden jolt,
the accordion expires.
So with this doleful sign,
so with proud looks,
they go home with their sluts
till the full light of dawn.
In the port of Amsterdam,
The sailors drink
And drink and drink again,
And drink one for the road.
They drink to the health
of the whores of Amsterdam
or of Hamburg or elsewhere.
In fact they drink to the ladies
Who give them their beautiful bodies
Who give them their innocence
For a coin of gold.
And when they have drunk enough,
They turn their faces to the sky,
They blow their noses in the stars,
And they piss like I cry
On our unfaithful wives.
In the port of Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam

By Strangely

Founding member of the gifted & talented band, "The Crawling Chaos" from the North-East of England.


  1. Dude, can you at least spell Brel’s name right? Don’t lose all credibility after your hard work.
    J.A.C.Q.U.E.S. It’s not rocket science, and it will bode well for your endeavors.
    And thanks for that great translation. -B

    1. @John
      Live is always best for true power. I too do the NIN track, currently in the style of The Stranglers….

      As for the Brel song, I hadn't heard that cover before. However, I've heard it done that way before. You have to appreciate that in France, it's almost de rigeur to do this song and people treat it in an almost reverential way. I've heard it on campsites and in bars.
      One absolutely surprising rendition was by a French guy called Thierry Amiel on the French version of "Pop Idol" a few years back. Now Cowell et al, is just an insipid saccharin show, all marshalled and corralled to "fit" a tight pattern with very little artistic merit – after all, all they do is covers!

      However, I came across this track on YouTube some years back and listened to it with very low expectations…. It's starts much as you'd expect. The rent-a-crowd are doing their thing; swaying in their girly ways, whooping, cheering, waving banners, etc…. But then, you start to hear the guy's perfect voice and you think, "will he make it?", "what will he do now?"… (Remember, everyone in France knows this song. They know what to expect. It's part of their psyche)

      Then, the crowd stop swaying so much, when normally they'd all have been whipped into a choreographed frenzy.

      Some in the crowd have "that look" on their face, the look when they are swallowed up by a performance and realise that they are witness to something really special, really great, that may not be so easily repeated. The camera rapidly swings off these people because it doesn't fit with the programmed hysteria that they like to project.

      As you can gather, I'm not a fan of these shows, but this is special. See what you think.


  2. I love this song. I think this man is a real poet, and at that far more 'real' than so much great poetry.

    Thank you for the excellent translation

    1. You are not wrong there @Alice!

      I love the power and the intensity – it's a pure art that we see very rarely in these xFactored days. The angst-ridden gestures of most 'pop' stars have nothing, absolutely nothing on this immaculate, emotional piece.

      Please contact Jillian Greenwood (Greenwood) about this, as she did the newer translation, which, although not having the same cadence as the original, is probably a more accurate translation due to her skills in that area, which are immense.

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