Orly – Jacques Brel


By Jacques Brel

Orly is an airport south of Paris (not to be confused with the busier international Charles de Gaulle airport up north). Charles de Gaulle didn’t open until 1974, so until then this was the Paris airport.

This is, for me, one of Brel’s most arresting songs. There is none of the playfulness or mild satire of Madeline or Les Bourgeois. Orly is, instead, pure pathos.

The narrator watches a couple that is saying goodbye and breaking up at the airport. They are almost lost in the bustle and anonymity, and no one but the watcher seems to notice the human drama playing out in front of the crowd.

Listen to a version here.

Ils sont plus de deux mille

Et je ne vois qu`eux deux

La pluie les a soudés

Semble-t-il l`un à l`autre

Ils sont plus de deux mille

Et je ne vois qu`eux deux

Et je les sais qui parlent

Il doit lui dire: je t`aime

Elle doit lui dire: je t`aime

Je crois qu`ils sont en train

De ne rien se promettre

C`est deux-là sont trop maigres

Pour être malhonnêtes

There are more than two thousand people

And I only see those two.

The rain has bound them together

As it were, the one to the other.

There are more than two thousand people

And I only see those two.

And I know what they must be saying

He must tell her, “I love you,”

She must tell him, “I love you,”

But I think that they are in the process[1]

Of promising nothing to each other

Those two there are two thin

To be liars.


Ils sont plus de deux mille

Et je ne vois qu`eux deux

Et brusquement il pleure

Il pleure à gros bouillons

Tout entourés qu`ils sont

D`adipeux en sueur

Et de bouffeurs d`espoir

Qui les montrent du nez

Mais ces deux déchirés

Superbes de chagrin

Abandonnent aux chiens

L`exploir de les juger

There are more than two thousand people

And I only see those two.

And suddenly he weeps

He weeps[2] to boiling over[3]

Surrounded, as they are

By fat sweaty people

And those who gobble hope

Who turn up their noses at them

But these two, torn apart

Magnificent in their grief

Leave to the dogs

The daring feat of judging them.


Mais la vie ne fait pas de cadeau!

Et nom de Dieu!

C`est triste Orly le dimanche

Avec ou sans Bécaud

But life, does not give you gifts![4]

And, by God!

Orly is sad on Sundays

With or without Bécaud.[5]


Et maintenant ils pleurent

Je veux dire tous les deux

Tout à l`heure c`était lui

Lorsque je disais il

Tout encastrés qu`ils sont

Ils n`entendent plus rien

Que les sanglots de l`autre

Et puis infiniment

Comme deux corps qui prient

Infiniment lentement ces deux corps

Se séparent et en se séparant

Ces deux corps se déchirent

Et je vous jure qu`ils crient

And now they weep

I mean both of them

A minute ago, it was him that I meant

When I said “he”.[6]

They are so enmeshed

That they now hear nothing

But the sobs of the other

And then, infinitely

Like two bodies that pray

Infinitely slowly, these two bodies

Separate, and in separating

These two bodies tear each other apart[7]

And I swear to you, they cried out.


Et puis ils se reprennent

Redeviennent un seul

Redeviennent le feu

Et puis se redéchirent

Se tiennent par les yeux

Et puis en reculan

tComme la mer se retire

Il consomme l´adieu

Il bave quelques mots

Agite une vague main

Et brusquement, il fuit

Fuit sans se retourner

Et puis, il disparaît

Bouffé par l´escalier

And then, they rush back together[8]

Become again a single being

Become again the fire

And then re-tear themselves apart

They hold each other by the eyes

And then, backing away

Like the tide recedes

He consummates the adieu[9]

He mumbles something inconsequential[10]

Vaguely waves his hand[11]

And brusquely,[12] he flees

Flight without turning back around

And then, he disappears

Gobbled up by the escalator.[13]


La vie ne fait pas de cadeau!

Et nom de Dieu!

C`est triste Orly le dimanche

Avec ou sans Bécaud

But life, does not give you gifts!

And, by God!

Orly is sad on Sundays

With or without Bécaud.


Et puis il disparaît

Bouffé par l`escalier

Et elle elle reste là

Cœur en croix bouche ouverte

Sans un cri sans un mot

Elle connaît sa mort

Elle vient de la croiser

Voilà qu`elle se retourne

Et se retourne encore

Ses bras vont jusqu`a terre

Ça y est elle a mille ans

La porte est refermée

La voilà sans lumière

Elle tourne sur elle-même

Et déjà elle sait

Qu`elle tournera toujours

And then, he disappears

Gobbled up by the escalator.[14]

And she, she stays there

Heart crucified, mouth open

Without crying out, without a word

She has met her own death

She just crossed[15] paths with it.

And now, she spins herself about[16]

And she spins herself again

Her arms drop to the ground

And that’s it—she’s a thousand years old

The door has been closed again

There she is, without light[17]

She turns upon herself[18]

And already she knows

She’ll turn thus forever.


Elle a perdu des hommes

Mais là elle perd l`amour

L`amour le lui a dit

Revoilà l`inutile

Elle vivra ses projets

Qui ne feront qu`attendre

La revoilà fragile

Avant que d`être à vendre

Je suis là je le suis

Je n`ose rien pour elle

Que la foule grignote

Comme un quelconque fruit

She has lost men before

But just now, she’s lost love itself.

Love itself told her

There she is again, useless

She’ll plan a future

That never starts[19]

There she is again, fragile

Before she’s even for sale

I am there, I follow after her

I dare hope nothing for her

Whom the crowd slurps down[20]

Like some scrap of fruit.[21]

[1] A great example of the verb tense “present progressive.” It’s very easy to form—conjugate the verb être (to be) and add “en train de” (in the process of) and a verb in the infinitive. Bam! An entire new tense, with nothing else to learn.

[2] The French as sung can be a bit ambiguous. It can sound like “he weeps” or “they weep”—one on-line transcription I found even made the error of making it “they.” Brel follows up this ambiguity by using a plural form, since ils sont is clearly plural, and the singular he would not use the same conjugation sont. So, Brel is really setting us up, in a way. That it is clearly “he” is revealed in a line to come—this is typical of Brel’s intertextuality and flair for language. See footnote 6 below.

[3] The phrase “faire cuire à gros bouillons,” is literally “to make cook with fat bubbles,” to bring to a heavy, rolling boil—so, the tears are compared to a pot boiling over, welling up violently. It’s a lovely image and lovely way of invoking that image.

[4] Literally, “life does not make presents.”

[5] This is a reference to Gilbert Bécaud, who in 1963 wrote a much more peppy song called “Dimanche à Orly” (Sunday at Orly). Listen to it here, and the lyrics are here. For Bécaud, Orly is a happy, romantic, adventurous place. He lives in a “very cool apartment,” where his mother does the cleaning and his father watches sports on TV. On Sundays, he goes to Orly, where he watches planes leave for foreign parts. This gives him fodder for his dreams. He and his girlfriend go out to watch them, at night the Boeings are something he “loves,” they are his “birds of the night.” He dreams of one day leaving on those planes. So, Bécaud’s view is romantic and sunny; Brel is shooting back that what he sees at Orly is simply sad and tragic, with or without Bécaud’s rosy view. It’s a wonderful put-down.

[6] Any English translation will lose this gem completely. In French, il = he; ils = them. The “s” is silent, and so Brel plays on this phenomenon of the language. You can’t tell, necessarily, by listening whether he means il in the singular or ils in the plural sense. So, he now widens the tragedy. First we thought both were crying, but now we realize that things have gotten worse and now both are crying. This plays on the anonymity and lack of attention paid to the couple by everyone around them—we can’t even tell if one or both are crying unless the narrator draws it to our attention. See footnote 2 for the initial use of il to which Brel refers.

[7] The verb déchirer is “to tear”—so, the couple started out as “torn,” and now their bodies literally tear themselves as they separate from their embrace. It’s as if they are one thing, ripping itself apart. They are physically enacting what’s happening internally and to their romance.

[8] Literally “retake each other” (in their arms). It could be slow, I suppose, but I like the image of the slow rip apart, and then the quick resumption of the embrace.

[9] Adieu means literally “until God”—it is a farewell that implies one will not see the person again in this life. (This is distinct from au revoir which means “until we re-see each other”.) So, this is a final and complete breakup or tearing apart. There is no hope for reconstitution. “Consummating” an adieu is also a brilliant bit of word subversion—typically lovers consummate their relationship physically, not their forever separation.

[10] Literally he “baves a few words.” The verb “baver” means to drool, but idiomatically it implies one is speaking, but in a trivial or idiotic sense. “Qu’est-ce que tu baves?” means “What are you yammering, babbling [drooling] on about?” Hence my translation which implies the low content and importance of what his last words to his lover are going to be.

[11] “Waves a vague hand,” – as with his trivial words, the wave good-bye is anticlimactic. Note too that Brel is also playing on the il or ils thing here—again, some transcriptions have it as “they,” but it clearly isn’t in context, as the next verse will show.

[12] The same word for how he flees is used to describe how he brusquely or suddenly breaks into sobs initially.

[13] The same word which described the indifferent crowd who “gobble up” hope is now used for the equally indifferent escalator, who takes him out of sight (and, with him, hope that this tableau might have a happy, appropriately romantic ending).

[14] A two line repetition, perhaps to remind us where we left off.

[15] The crucified heart and the “crossing” death are a play on the same root word.

[16] In French, she turns again, or re-turns (not in the sense of return, going back somewhere). So, maybe “spins herself around” as if she’s lost her centre or sense of direction gives you the right flavor.

[17] A nice image—lack of hope as the door is reslammed shut, leaving her ancient and alone.

[18] Remember, this use of “turn” ties into the re-turning or turning again of footnote 16.

[19] Literally, she will “live projects that do nothing but make one wait.”

[20] The verb grignoter means to “nibble or snack.” The implication which I’ve tried to capture is the trivial, inconsequential way in which this happens.

[21] “Quelconque fruit” means “some kind of fruit”—I’m again here trying to capture the triviality of her state at the end. The “scrap” idea is not in the original, but hopefully conveys something of the inconsequentiality. One translation I saw says “any old fruit,” which isn’t bad either. But I like mine better.