The Marseillaise

We all know and thrill to the tune of the Marseillaise, but how many of us anglophones know, or even can translate, all its revolutionary words, even those of the first verse?  We can do the first two lines, probably, and perhaps the first couplet of the refrain, and of course Marchons! Marchons!;  but how much more?

Here they are, to enable us all — especially our Australian and New Zealand mates — to sing along with the French team at the start of the Rugby World Cup semi-finals next weekend:

Allons ! Enfants de la Patrie !
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L'étendard sanglant est levé ! (Bis)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats ?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes.

Aux armes, citoyens !
Formez vos bataillons !
Marchons, marchons !
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons !

    Arise! Children of our homeland!
    Our day of glory is here!
    Against us the bloodstained banner
    Of tyranny has been raised! (repeat)
    Do you hear in our fields
    These fierce soldiers bellowing?
    They came right here into your midst
    To cut the throats of your sons, your companions.

    To arms, citizens!
    Form your battalions!
    March on, march on!
    Let their impure blood
    Water our fields!
Sung by the immortal Mireille Mathieu :


6 Responses

  1. Well, I was on the metro in Paris last night and it seemed as though the entire city was singing it. I'm not sure everyone knew all the words though… 😉

    Brian writes:  Good heavens.  I assumed that the French knew the words to the last homme, femme et enfant.  It was us English-speakers whom I suspected of not knowing most of it.  (Incidentally, producing a reasonably accurate translation into English that doesn't look as if it's from a French original would be a bit of a challenge!)

  2. Martin says:


    I would imagine "patrie" translates more directly as "Fatherland" than homeland"; and it's interesting to see good old "gloire" in there. Very Louis XIV, in its own way.

    Brian writes: I hesitated for some time about 'homeland' versus 'fatherland' versus 'motherland' (la France being universally seen as female — cf. Marianne).  I decided against 'motherland', though, as not accurately reflecting the paternal undertones of 'patrie', and against 'fatherland' as not reflecting France's femininity, leaving 'homeland' as the least objectionable translation.  ('Country' doesn't quite get it, somehow: too emotionally neutral.)  Harrap translates 'patrie' as 'One's native land or country; fatherland; one's birthplace', but also translates 'motherland' as 'patrie', which takes us back to square one!  I'm interested to see that (which I didn't consult before doing my own translation) gives all three of my options as translations of 'patrie'.  

    I agree that it's good to see 'la gloire' there in pride of place.  We sing about our 'land of hope and glory', but — unlike the French, I think — generally with conscious post-modernist irony, e.g. the boisterous self-parody at the Last Night of the Proms.

  3. Well, to be fair, at the time I was in the 16th arondissement (i.e. right near the Eiffel tower) so maybe not all of them were French. Plus, they were certainly not all entirely sober…
    For my part, thanks to this post, I was humming and singing it all evening. I’d never realised how bloodthirsty it was.

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    It's one of the more bloody anthems, along with the Irish one (The Soldier's Song). The Basque anthem is called The Hymn of the Basque Soldier, which sounds bloody enough though I haven't seen the words. At the other extreme, the Spanish anthem has no words — so naturally Something is Being Done about that extremely pleasant and sensible state of affairs at the behest of, would you believe it, the country's Olympic Committee! They want their heroes to be able to sing along when they get their medals.  It's also worth mentioning that until ten years ago the Spanish State didn't own the copyright of its own national anthem, and therefore had to pay a royalty fee every time it was played.

    The motto of the Spanish armed forces is Todo por la patria, the equivalent of Tout pour la patrie in French and practically impossible to translate.

    Brian writes:  Thanks for this, Peter.  I wouldn't envy the task of anyone trying to translate the words of our own national anthem into a foreign language, which would require making sense of them:  Send her victorious happy and glorious what?  Is 'send' used on the pattern of "sends him crazy"?  It would be tricky to reproduce the dreadful rhyme effect in a foreign language, too:  "Long to reign orious…"  But the tune is good. 

  5. Peter Harvey says:

    I have always assumed that it is an elliptical repetition of the third-person subjunctive imperative of the first line: [May] God save the Queen … [May God] send her victorious etc. — presumably wherever she wishes to go. The other interpretation is that it is a second-person imperative from the subjects of the British monarch telling the Almighty how to treat him or her. But surely not …

    Brian writes:  I had never thought of your first interpretation:  although it still leaves open the question, Where is God hoped to send her?  'Send' short for 'send on her way', I suppose.  Well, it's ingenious.  I had always assumed that it was indeed an imperative, an order to God, as I suppose most prayers are in essence, although sometimes more tactfully expressed.  'God help us!'  That could be subjunctive, I suppose, although it has an imperious ring; a comma would settle that ('God, help us!').  I once heard that the words of the anthem were an incompetent amalgamation of two earlier and incompatible versions, which would explain a lot. 

  6. Peter Harvey says:

    Last night Spain played Denmark at football. Before the match the wordless Spanish anthem was played to silence from the crowd. Then we had the Danish anthem sung, for some odd reason, a cappella. It wasn’t a great success!

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