Take zat, Pablo Neruda

Something about the French crooner Charles Aznavour is lost in translation

Radio 2’s excellent four-part series on Charles Aznavour (Bonjour Mr Aznavour, which started 22 May, 7pm) has taught us, among other things, that the great man once sold chocolate and stockings to the Nazis. Aznavour, who has since recorded more than a thousand of his own songs in a 60-year career, learned his trade at the feet of Édith Piaf, whom he met at a nightclub in Paris when he was 23 and followed to a party that basically went on round at hers for the next 18 years.

“She was a special person,” said Charles. “You can’t do what she ’as done, drinking like she is drinking, and come on stage like zat and sing for two hours, you just can’t do it . . .”

No Charles, you can’t. This muddling of tenses made him a wonderful interviewee, suggesting a jumping around of the decades, to those tender summers, those faint-hearted winters, that despondent Wednesday afternoon. Your reviewer went quite weak with sentiment.

Still, it seems that nobody really understands from precisely which breeding ground Aznavour gets his ideas, which lucky fairy it was, so to speak, that crashed his particular christening (there was some talk among commentators about his being the Zola de nos jours), but the programme came most alive when the singer simply sang (the confidence! – even when very young, a man seemingly strolling around the museum of his achievements) or spoke for himself: “I give you my heart like a rose and songs like zat . . . And then here comes this guy singing après l’amour – after loving you, when our body relaxes and . . . er . . . uh . . .”

The third episode contemplated how tricky it has been for lyricists to translate Aznavour into other languages (he often sings in German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese). One such translator said: “I may be a slave to the original text and be a dog chained to its master, but . . . not necessarily chained to a leash,” which gave some insight into what it’s like to shadow the mental processes of a man who is impelled essentially to whinge, albeit at the highest levels. I mean, just take the song “You’ve Let Yourself Go”, in which Charles unsmilingly complains about a woman standing with her stockings wrinkled round her ankles, showing him up in front of all his friends. “Your ’air in curlers ’anging down/What can I be sinking of?/I gaze at you in sheer despair/And see your mother standing there.” It’s scarcely Pablo Neruda’s “I cast my sad nets towards your oceanic eyes”.

In another song I had always assumed to be, if not worshipful, then at least as delicate as the padding of cats, Charles turns out to be complaining about having to go out for a slap-up anniversary meal, but then his wife’s zipper breaks and “you’re so cross and abrupt so I don’t say a word/I ’ave seats for a show!/Now I’ve got an ’eadache that’s quickly getting worse!” The lesson being that, with the exception of the song “She”, which is clearly perfect – ingeniously just that touch too short, forcing you to play it over and over, desperately scraping the ice-cream tub clean – one must only ever listen to Aznavour in the foreign.

Else it’s eternally a repeat of the moment that I heard a great aria in La Bohème at Chichester with surtitles and realised that the most passionate line basically translated as: “Who’s at the door? Oh fuck, it’s the landlord.”

Pick of the week

Performance on 3
15 June, 7pm, Radio 3
Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed by the great Canadian interpreter Angela Hewitt.

The Essay
15-19 June, 11pm, Radio 3
Antony Gormley reads a series of essays on five sculptures that have influenced him profoundly.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!