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Dylan translated into French for the first time

Hugues Aufray

Aufray chante Dylan

Released: June 28th, 1965

7.0
Album Review Hugues Aufray Bob Dylan

The events we write about at Gaslight Records happened in some form or another 50 years ago to the day. Roll along with us and imagine you are back in 1969.

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Released in June 1965, Aufray Chante Dylan presented (to our knowledge) the first French-language adaptations of Bob Dylan’s music. Years earlier, in 1961, Hugues Aufray had visited New York City where he ran across a young Dylan playing at a basket-house called Gerde’s Folk City, in Greenwich Village. He knew immediately that translating Dylan’s music into French was something he "wanted to do on an artistic level as well as a human level."

After his visit to New York, it took several years for Aufray to secure the necessary permissions involved with releasing Dylan’s songs in French. In a 2009 interview, he reported that Dylan’s then manager, Albert Grossman, was especially tedious to deal with.

When authority was eventually granted in early 65, Aufray set to work on recording eleven Dylan covers. To his credit, the tracklist of Aufray Chante Dylan side-steps most of the usual suspects in favor of Dylan’s lesser known work. Had the record opened with a plod (albeit in French) through "Blowin' In The Wind" followed by "Mr. Tambourine Man" or "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall", it might’ve been easy to pass off Aufray’s effort as a deft cash-in job. But it doesn't.

Dylan translated into French for the first time

Chante Dylan opens with a rendition of "Girl From The North Country", in which, Aufray stays mostly faithful to the original, plucking and crooning with clear reverence for Dylan’s sense of phrasing. Aside from the obvious difference (the French lyrics), Aufray’s version really only departs in the swelling string arrangement that appears in the middle of the second verse. It’s a minor but really effective touch that sets the track in an entirely new, more gloomily atmospheric emotional caste. In doing so, the opener lays down the argument for why we should stay here, listening to a Dylan covers record; and it’s not simply because there’s something inherently charming about Dylan songs being translated into French. It’s because Aufray’s "Girl From The North Country" packs a new emotive approach to a classic song which, in turn, makes us hear it with all new ears. All great covers do that. Moreover, the best ones take something we think has been set in stone--like "House Of The Rising Sun" or "All Along The Watchtower", for example--and transform it into something new and unexpected; often even something better. I'm not sure Aufray’s "Girl" outstrips the original, but it does give a fresh and interesting approach in terms of arrangement, instrumentation and emphasis. And, most importantly, it makes us listen to the rest of the album with keen ears and high hopes.

Inevitably, Aufray Chante Dylan doesn’t again reach the heights of the opening track. Track two, "Ce Que Je Veux Surtout" (All I Really Want To Do), lets go of the initial sense that Aufray somehow had the inside track on Dylan’s lyrics; and although the close-mic’d, hushed nature of "C N'était Pas Moi" (It Ain’t Me Babe) strives for something sensual, it ends up feeling a little hollow.

He knew immediately that translating Dylan’s music into French was something he "wanted to do on an artistic level as well as a human level."

"Oxford Town" is where Aufray Chante Dylan really goes awry, though. One of Dylan’s most overtly political songs, "Oxford Town" looks obliquely at the case of James Meredith--the first African-American student to be admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi in 1962. Meredith’s admission, which followed intervention into Mississippi’s tense racial affairs by President John F. Kennedy, was a highly significant moment during the American Civil Rights Movement. None of this solemnity seems to creep into Aufray’s version of "Oxford Town", however. It’s a real lost in translation moment, whereby Aufray and his band gleefully pummel through a song that was presumably intended for anything but.

While there are a few slip ups, Aufray Chante Dylan is still, for the most part, a worthwhile listen. Aufray wears his love for Dylan on his sleeve, and while that’s occasionally misdirected to cringeworthy ends, it just as often delivers a fresh and enjoyable look at Dylan’s songs.

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