Workers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose in translation


Billy Bragg had a 24-hour job at a moment’s notice.

He was not going to get paid for his overtime.

But he was on a mission.

And he made the deadline.

Hear him tell the story and sing his translation.

The Internationale has a long and chequered history. The author, Eugène Pottier, attended the first international congress of socialist parties in 1864, and wrote the song 7 years later to commemorate the short-lived rule of the Paris Commune.

One international song has a multitude of adaptations. There are several Chinese versions, and the protesters in Tiananmen Square sang it. The German version was also used by anti-Stalinist workers in prison in 1953 and by the 1989 protesters. The Finnish version of 1905 (sung by KOM Teatteri) has four co-authors. The 3 on the copyright list had political careers, but the fourth was forgotten until last year. Bertil Favén/ Pertti Uotila joined the whites in Finland’s civil war of 1918 and published a folk song collection in 1925. An unaccompanied choir is the way to sing Thomas Nicholas’ Welsh translation, like Côr Cochion Caerdydd (Cardiff Reds Choir). But Filipinos sing it with guitar accompaniment. These and many more are on the Russian national anthems site, as the Internationale was the Soviet Union anthem from 1922-1942.

What about Billy Bragg’s translation? There’s a British and an American English version of the Internationale. Billy Bragg was challenged by US folk singer Pete Seeger to come up with a modern and singable version for a concert at Vancouver Folk Festival in 1989. Seeger wanted to commemorate the Tianenmen Square protesters who had died a few days ago and asked Bragg to sing a verse at the closing concert the next day. Bragg said “but the lyrics are terrible,” so Seeger started to sing the original French, writing it down in English as he sang. He gave the text to Bragg, and said “there you go, you’ve got 24 hours” to make a decent text.

And Bragg did it: as you can see below.

These and other lyrics are available on WikiSource with notes here. The image is from “bicycles against tanks” a Polish memorial to the Tiananmen Square protesters by Julo.

French lyrics (Eugène Pottier) Literal English translation British English (attributed to Pottier) American English

(Charles Hope Kerr)

Billy Bragg’s Revision[21]
Debout, les damnés de la terre
Debout, les forçats de la faim
La raison tonne en son cratère
C’est l’éruption de la fin
Du passé faisons table rase
Foule esclave, debout, debout
Le monde va changer de base
Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout
|: C’est la lutte finale
Groupons-nous, et demain
Sera le genre humain 😐
Stand up, damned of the Earth
Stand up, prisoners of starvation
Reason thunders in its volcano
This is the eruption of the end.
Of the past let us make a clean slate
Enslaved masses, stand up, stand up.
The world is about to change its foundation
We are nothing, let us be all.
|: This is the final struggle
Let us group together, and tomorrow
The Internationale
Will be the human race. 😐
Arise, ye workers from your slumber,
Arise, ye prisoners of want.
For reason in revolt now thunders,
and at last ends the age of cant!
Away with all your superstitions,
Servile masses, arise, arise!
We’ll change henceforth the old tradition,
And spurn the dust to win the prize!
So comrades, come rally,
And the last fight let us face.
The Internationale
Unites the human race.
So comrades, come rally,
And the last fight let us face.
The Internationale
Unites the human race.
Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise, ye wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation:
A better world’s in birth!
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us;
Arise, ye slaves, no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations:
We have been nought, we shall be all!
‘Tis the final conflict;
Let each stand in his place.
The International working class Shall be the human race!
‘Tis the final conflict;
Let each stand in his place.
The International working class   Shall be the human race!
Stand up, all victims of oppression,
For the tyrants fear your might!
Don’t cling so hard to your possessions,
For you have nothing if you have no rights!
Let racist ignorance be ended,
For respect makes the empires fall!
Freedom is merely privilege extended,
Unless enjoyed by one and all.
So come brothers and sisters,
For the struggle carries on.
The Internationale
Unites the world in song.
So comrades, come rally,
For this is the time and place!
The international ideal
Unites the human race.

Translator, editor, writer, reader

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Posted in international, translation

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