Jacques Brel Amsterdam – Translation, analysis, explanation, interpretation and meaning of the lyrics

Narrative analysis of 48 song lyrics in french
Narrative analysis of 48 song lyrics in french

 

This page is a translation extracted from our analysis of 48 French song lyrics.

For the original in french, check this page: Jacques Brel – Amsterdam.

 

Dans le port d’Amsterdam

Jacques Brel - Dans le port d'Amsterdam

Dans le port d’Amsterdam is, with Ne me quitte pas, one of the most famous and beautiful songs of the genius songwriter Jacques Brel was.

The song’s success comes from the poetic qualities and dramatic intensity of its lyrics, that we will analyze in this page.

Amsterdam actually rests on the connexion between two very contrasted situations :

  • some sailors of Amsterdam who are partying and flirting in a brothel
  • and a narrator who watches them from a very opposite situation: alone, after a break-up, sad, down, and too lucid.

In short, the pitch would be:

  • A desperate man after a break-up shouts his life-sickness by celebrating a vulgar orgy.

The genius of the song: to have such a song told by such a character-narrator.

One learns much, just contemplating masterworks.

One learns even more, analyzing them!

Amsterdam – Jacques Brel – Song Lyrics and translation

1

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui chantent
There are sailors singing
Les rêves qui les hantent
The dreams that haunt them
Au large d’Amsterdam
Off the coast of Amsterdam

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Y’a des marins qui dorment
There are sailors sleeping
Comme des oriflammes
Like medieval banners
Le long des berges mornes
Along the mournful banks

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Y’a des marins qui meurent
There are sailors dying
Pleins de bière et de drames
Full of beer and dramas
Aux premières lueurs
At the first light of dawn

Mais dans le port d’Amsterdam
But in the port of Amsterdam
Y’a des marins qui naissent
There are sailors
Dans la chaleur épaisse
In the thick heat
Des langueurs océanes
Of the oceans’ langor

2

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Y’a des marins qui mangent
There are sailors eating
Sur des nappes trop blanches
– On-too white napkins –
Des poissons ruisselants
Dripping fishes

Ils vous montrent des dents
They show you teeth
A croquer la fortune
Which can bite into fortune
A décroisser la lune
Or eat half of the moon
A bouffer des haubans
Or gobble some shrouds down

Et ça sent la morue
And it smells like cod
Jusque dans le cœur des frites
Down into the heart of the fries
Que leurs grosses mains invitent
That their big hands welcome
A revenir en plus
To come back to take more

Puis se lèvent en riant
Then they stand up laughing
Dans un bruit de tempête
In a sound of storm
Referment leur braguette
They do up their flybuttons
Et sortent en rotant
And leave in burping

3

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Y’a des marins qui dansent
There are sailors dancing
En se frottant la panse
By rubbing their bellies
Sur la panse des femmes
To women’s bellies

Et ils tournent et ils dansent
And they turn and they dance
Comme des soleils crachés
Like spat suns
Dans le son déchiré
In the tattered sound
D’un accordéon rance
Of a rancid accordion

Ils se tordent le cou
And they twist their necks
Pour mieux s’entendre rire
To hear each other laugh
Jusqu’à ce que tout à coup
Until suddenly
L’accordéon expire
The accordion expires

Alors le geste grave
Then with a serious gesture
Alors le regard fier
Then with proud looks
Ils ramènent leur batave
They bring their batavian woman
Jusqu’en pleine lumière
Back to the full light

4

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Y’a des marins qui boivent
There are sailors drinking
Et qui boivent et reboivent
And drinking and drinking
Et qui reboivent encore
And drinking again

Ils boivent à la santé
They drink to the health
Des putains d’Amsterdam
Of Amsterdam’s whores
De Hambourg ou d’ailleurs
Or Hamburg’s or elsewhere’s
Enfin ils boivent aux dames
Or actually, they drink to the ladies

Qui leur donnent leur joli corps
Who give them their nice body
Qui leur donnent leur vertu
Who give them their virtu
Pour une pièce en or
For a coin of gold
Et quand ils ont bien bu
And when they have drunk enough

Se plantent le nez au ciel
They turn their faces to the sky
Se mouchent dans les étoiles
They blow their noses in the stars
Et ils pissent comme je pleure
And they piss like I cry
Sur les femmes infidèles
On unfaithful women

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam

First approach

Amsterdam has a very strong structure made of 4 couplets in 4 groups of 4 verses each. Regular, the verses have 6 syllables. This mythical song is therefore 384 syllables long. Like what, the concision does not prevent the power and conversely.

Verse 1 sets the scene: the port of Amsterdam, and the main character, Hero: the sailors, who sing their dreams, sleep, die, and are born. All these processes are presented as ordinary phenomena of this world: a bit like rain or shine, there are sailors in Amsterdam who live a cyclic renewal in a timeless present.

Verse 2 shows them this time eating and then leaving the table, bon vivants and vulgar. Still no dramatic action, this action remains usual and static. Symbolically it corresponds to the middle of the adult life perceived as simple organic functioning, normal, constant, repetitive.

Verse 3 makes them dance with women to the sound of the accordion, then verse 4 transforms these women into whores with whom the sailors fuck before going to piss in the sky.

It is clear that all these events in a row, portraying an ordinary day in the life of a sailor, have only limited dramatic force.

There is no drama, no suspense, no need to say or know more, no character structure – in fact there are very few characters: anonymous sailors and prostituted women, that’s all.

In fact, this song is not dramatic (like Comme toi or Le vent nous portera among others). It tells a story that has no other horizon than the daily life of its characters. There is no important goal or antagonist or problem, everything happens as it should.

And yet, this is the epic song we all know.

Its power comes from the swirling, repetitive and tempestuous style that imitates the typical swaying of a ship or the swell, the same grammatical structures that come back to complete in waves the same cyclic portrait of the sailor’s life, and the burlesque side of this saga of small things that take on universal and poetic dimensions.

All the poetry, therefore the beauty of the song is found in the metaphors and other expressions of style that amplify the themes, time and space: these dreams of off the coast of Amsterdam, which already take us far away from the initial scene, these banners that refer to the Middle Ages and thus make us travel in time, these sailors who die romantically in misery, this exotic mystery of the fog, this typical fish cuisine, the world of ships and storms, their somewhat barbaric and raw parties, their drunkenness and their primary sexuality.

Detailed analysis, explanation, meaning and interpretation

Now, let’s replay the song and look at what happens in it a little closer.

1

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam

Information about the space, setting the scene: in the harbor – the preposition in plunges us into an environment, whereas in reality the sailors are at the quay, in the harbor, in a warm tavern. The slightly wrong choice of the preposition dans instead of à thus has the effect of intensifying the identification.

Amsterdam: when the name of this city is pronounced, the first of a long series of repetitions to follow, it carries various connotations. The song will resonate some of them and forget others.

Y a des marins qui chantent
There are sailors singing
Les rêves qui les hantent
The dreams that haunt them

Singing and haunting rhyme, but are antonyms (words in opposite directions) because singing sounds positive and haunting sounds negative. So simultaneous harmony and contrast for maximum dramatic tension.

Moreover, singing dreams is a metaphor with metonymy: one actually sings words that express dreams. The compacting makes the image explosive and striking!

Au large d’Amsterdam
Off the coast of Amsterdam

We are then moved by the imagination far from this point of view that we have just installed, when we were in the port of Amsterdam. This surprising and striking movement sums up the psychology of the sailor, always tending towards the sea and the open sea, the distance.

From the outset, this way of seeing shows us both the world of the sailor with a supposed omniscience, a distance – the narrator is able to see into and out to sea – but at the same time from within a subjectivity. A kind of personal omniscience…

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Y’a des marins qui dorment
There are sailors sleeping
Comme des oriflammes
Like medieval banners
Le long des berges mornes
Along the mournful banks

The rhyming games continue in the flamboyant contrasts: Amsterdam, a city felt to be rather peaceful, rhymes with oriflamme, while dorment is completed by comme des oriflammes – which at first resists comprehension because an oriflamme (a medieval flag, brightly colored, showy) cannot sleep. It is understood that they are dressed in bright colors and therefore vaguely look like oriflammes when they sleep outside in the night.

This whole image portrays the sailors in a paradoxical way. At the same time, the comparison with medieval flags ennobles them, makes them traditional, nostalgic, bearers of the richness of an old culture. At the same time, they are shown asleep because they are too drunk, therefore weak, unaware, vulnerable, in a degrading situation.

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Y’a des marins qui meurent
There are sailors dying
Pleins de bière et de drames
Full of beer and dramas
Aux premières lueurs
At the first light of dawn

The action follows a continuous order, quite logical: we sang, dreamed, slept, now we die at dawn. It is the curve of the life of every human being that appears in filigree.

Mais dans le port d’Amsterdam
But in the port of Amsterdam
Y’a des marins qui naissent
There are sailors
Dans la chaleur épaisse
In the thick heat
Des langueurs océanes
Of the oceans’ langor

We return by contrast to a more positive action, which makes our emotional experience tangible.

The two verses in the thick heat / of ocean languors describe us again the scenery, as in a new exposition.

At the end of this first verse, we have thus reviewed both the simple life of the sailor and a series of indefinite groups of characters occupied with some simple actions, at the same time as we have situated the moment of action in the early morning.

2

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Y’a des marins qui mangent
There are sailors eating
Sur des nappes trop blanches
– On-too white napkins –
Des poissons ruisselants
Dripping fishes

One continues on a new action thematically situated in the trivial and the corporal.

Ils vous montrent des dents
They show you teeth
A croquer la fortune
Which can bite into fortune
A décroisser la lune
Or eat half of the moon
A bouffer des haubans
Or gobble some shrouds down

This quatrain by contrast has gone from the most concrete to the most abstract, with several transgressions and figures of speech in the process:

Double meaning of ils vous montrent des dents (they show you the teeth + they point at you)
Neologism in décroisser la lune
And metaphor of eating shrouds (in the sense of “to climb the cables that tighten the mast by force of arms”)

Et ça sent la morue
And it smells like cod
Jusque dans le cœur des frites
Down into the heart of the fries
Que leurs grosses mains invitent
That their big hands welcome
A revenir en plus
To come back to take more

While passing from the scale of Amsterdam then of the moon to that of the heart of the French fries one carries out a vertiginous zoom, accompanied by the evocation as sensual as vulgar of the double perfume of the French fries and the cod.

Puis se lèvent en riant
Then they stand up laughing
Dans un bruit de tempête
In a sound of storm
Referment leur braguette
They do up their flybuttons
Et sortent en rotant
And leave in burping

We go back to pure triviality in the theme and we reach a negative peak in 3 levels: storm (with its echoing pun: a noise of farting…), fly (sex is taboo) and burping (it is rude).

3

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Y’a des marins qui dansent
There are sailors dancing
En se frottant la panse
By rubbing their bellies
Sur la panse des femmes
To women’s bellies

With the arrival of the themes of the dance and the women, one changes universe, that becomes sensual.

With the term belly, we are thematically in the animal.

Et ils tournent et ils dansent
And they turn and they dance
Comme des soleils crachés
Like spat suns
Dans le son déchiré
In the tattered sound
D’un accordéon rance
Of a rancid accordion

Again, this second part of the verse transposes the concrete into abstract poetry, with adjectives in strong contrast or oxymoron with the noun they qualify. (Oxymoron = a figure of speech that associates one thing with its exact opposite. The classic example of oxymoron is this expression borrowed from Charles Baudelaire: the black sun of melancholy).

The accordion calls this time to the hearing, after the taste of French fries and cod, the various noises, the bright colors. One more element in the list of sensualities of this very strong piece.

Ils se tordent le cou
And they twist their necks
Pour mieux s’entendre rire
To hear each other laugh
Jusqu’à ce que tout à coup
Until suddenly
L’accordéon expire
The accordion expires

We find a pattern of life and death alternating.

Nice metaphor also which assimilates the twist of the neck of the sailors who laugh to the twist of the accordion which makes them dance and makes them happy.

Alors le geste grave
Then with a serious gesture
Alors le regard fier
Then with proud looks
Ils ramènent leur batave
They bring their batavian woman
Jusqu’en pleine lumière
Back to the full light

The expression full light after the vulgar term their batavia makes think of the antonym “the shallows”. The scene shows the paradox of glory at the bottom of the social ladder, which is a symbolic form of oxymoron.

4

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Y’a des marins qui boivent
There are sailors drinking

Another verse based on a trivial and corporal action, in total thematic contrast with the sublime poetry. It is a poet’s soul that tells us this debauchery.

Et qui boivent et reboivent
And drinking and drinking
Et qui reboivent encore
And drinking again

The repetition of boivent imitates in a funny way the stupid and nasty drinking. In fact, the song advances by 3 verses thanks to this joke.

Ils boivent à la santé
They drink to the health
Des putains d’Amsterdam
Of Amsterdam’s whores
De Hambourg ou d’ailleurs
Or Hamburg’s or elsewhere’s
Enfin ils boivent aux dames
Or actually, they drink to the ladies

The false politeness (drinking to someone’s health) also sounds like a joke and enhances a thematic property of these characters: their supposed correctness.

Qui leur donnent leur joli corps
Who give them their nice body
Qui leur donnent leur vertu
Who give them their virtu
Pour une pièce en or
For a coin of gold
Et quand ils ont bien bu
And when they have drunk enough

This little scene is a simple paraphrase since the word “whore” has already been used, and we guessed it before.

Se plantent le nez au ciel
They turn their faces to the sky
Se mouchent dans les étoiles
They blow their noses in the stars
Et ils pissent comme je pleure
And they piss like I cry
Sur les femmes infidèles
On unfaithful women

We finish the list of vulgar actions with blow their noses and piss that make 2 peaks in the negative of the thematic curve.

As I cry on the unfaithful women makes a moving and very unexpected end, because until now the narrator had not revealed his identity. We understand that he has come to get drunk to drown a heartache…

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam

Conclusion

As one sees Amsterdam is a very written song which accumulates the figures of style and rhetoric.

Its dramatic canvas shows a living picture, developed just enough to make a simple and solid framework, on which Brel connects the poetic effects. These metaphors, comparisons, repetitions, energize the story and enrich it with nuances, comments, jokes, shock effects, without telling any “Hero’s Journey“.

The presence in filigree of a personified narrator, this poet in a sad mood who needs an orgy to cheer himself up – and the deep contrast between the baseness of the theme and of the characters, and the greatness of soul of the lyrics and of the narrator, give most of its power to the song.

Did this excerpt interest you? Read the rest of our French song lyrics analysis.

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