RIP Leonard Cohen. Listen to a Song He Recorded in French! Posted by on Nov 17, 2016 in Culture, Music, Vocabulary

We’ve lost a lot of wonderful singers this year. We’ve said goodbye to Natalie Cole, Otis Clay, Signe Anderson, Frank Sinatra Jr., Prince, and David Bowie, among others. Earlier this month, the legendary Leonard Cohen passed away at the age of 82 in his home in Los Angeles.

Cohen was a soft rock singer known for his poignant lyrics and pleasing bass voice. I promise that even if you don’t know his name, you’ve certainly heard some of his music. His beautiful “Hallelujah” was released in 1984 on his album “Various Positions,” but it didn’t receive the acclaim it deserved until it was covered by Jeff Buckley 10 years later. Since 1991, the piece has been covered over 300 times, and each interpretation brings new meaning to the song.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

This verse is often removed in covers, and this exclusion changes the song. I read a short analysis of that lyrics that says the removal of this verse changes the song’s meaning from a piece about a failed relationship to deeper song about a failed relationship that was worth it despite ending. Certainly a wonderful life lesson brought to us by Mr. Cohen.

Leonard wrote many songs over his 60-year career, but he also covered at least one other work. One of these songs, intitulé Un Canadien errant ( called “A Wandering Canadian”), was written in 1842 by Antoine Gérin-Lajoie after La rébellion du Bas-Canada (The Lower Canada Rebellion). This rebellion, often called the Patriots’ War (la Guerre des patriotes) by Quebecers, was a military conflict between la colonie britannique du Bas-Canada (the British colony of Lower Canada) and the British power. Upper Canada had already started a rebellion (aptly called La Rébellion du Haut-Canada [Upper Canada Rebellion]), and the two joined forces to start Les rébellions de 1837–38 (The Rebellions of 1837-38). You can read more about the rebellions here.

At the request of a friend, Gérin-Lajoie wrote the song in 1842 to the tune of the a song called Derrière chez ma tante. Rather than a fun children’s song like Derrière chez ma tante, this song talks about the turmoil of exile certain Canadian groups were facing during the time of the rebellion. Cohen (also Canadian, if you’re curious) recorded the song in 1979 for his album “Recent Songs.” He would later use the same melody for an original song called “The Faith,” available on his 2004 album called “Dear Heather.”

Below are the lyrics, the translations, and a YouTube video of the song. If you’d prefer to watch Leonard give a translation of the lyrics while listening to the song, you can watch that here. (Want to hear other non-native speakers sing in French and learn from their pronunciation mistakes? Check out this post!)

Un Canadien errant,
A wandering Canadian
Banni des ses foyers,
Exiled from his home
Parcourait en pleurant
Travelled alone and sad
Des pays étrangers
Through unknown lands

Un jour, triste et pensif,
One day, sad and pensive
Assis au bord des flots,
Sitting at the waters’ edge
Au courant fugitif
To the moving current
Il adressa ces mots:
He said these words:

« Si tu vois mon pays,
If you see my country
Mon pays malheureux,
My unhappy country
Va, dis à mes amis
Go tell my friends
Que je me souviens d’eux.
That I remember them.

O jours si pleins d’appas,
O days so full of charm
Vous êtes disparus…
You’ve disappeared
Et ma patrie, helas !
And my fatherland, alas!
Je ne la verrai plus !
I’ll never see it again!

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About the Author: Josh Dougherty

Just your typical francophile. If you have any topics you'd like me to discuss, feel free to let me know!


  1. louise:

    I’m confused. Doesn’t malheureux mean unhappy?

    • Josh Dougherty:

      @louise Holy crap. It sure does. Not sure where my mind was when I translated it that way!

  2. Jaco Strauss:

    “Banni des ses foyers”

    Should it not be translated as “banned from their homes”?

    • Josh Dougherty:

      @Jaco Strauss I think banished or exiled are acceptable translations, but I’m not so sure about banned. Banned is a little more general – you can be banned from a store, for example, but it’s not as strong as being banished from your own country or land. Hope that makes sense!

  3. Jaco Strauss:

    And thanks for the interesting post, by the way!