UW News

October 10, 2023

“Ways of Knowing” Episode 8: Translation

When you hear a cover of a favorite song, comparisons are inevitable. There are obvious similarities – the lyrics, the melody – but there are also enough differences to make each version unique. Those deviations say more than you might expect.

Click to see the full transcript of the episode

Ways of Knowing 

The World According to Sound 

Episode Eight 



[Nina Simone sings “Ne Me Quitte Pas”] 


Ne me quitte pas
Il faut oublier
Tout peut s’oublier
Qui s’enfuit déjà
Oublier le temps
Des malentendus
Et le temps perdu
À savoir comment 


Chris Hoff: This is Nina Simone singing “Ne Me Quitte Pas” in 1965. 


[Nina Simone continues to sing] 


CH: It’s a cover. The original was written by Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel in 1959. 


[Jacques Brel sings “Ne Me Quitte Pas”] 


CH: Two versions of the same song, made at different times by different people in different cultures. The versions are similar, but clearly not the same. And it’s in that space between the two where interesting things start to emerge. 


[Nina Simone and Jacques Brel sing “Ne Me Quitte Pas” simultaneously] 


Maya Angela Smith: So, I love comparing Jacques Brel and Nina Simone because you have this French-speaking Belgian man and this English-speaking American woman. One is white, one is Black. So, they bring so many different identity markers to this, which in turn gets read differently by the audience. 


CH: Maya Angela Smith is an Italian and French professor at the University of Washington. 

She’s writing a book that follows the journey of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” from the original through many covers and adaptations. She’s interested in showing how different versions of the same piece of art, in this case a song, can bring into focus cultural, social, and political narratives.  There’s this one performance by Nina Simone where the difference between her version and the original is particularly insightful. 


[Nina Simone sings “Ne Me Quitte Pas”] 


CH: It’s December of 1971. Nina Simone is performing in Paris. She’s left the U.S. after getting blowback over her protest songs and role in the Civil Rights movement. She’s been studying French for years, in part to sing this song, which was written by one of her idols. Simone really wanted her French to be perfect, especially in front of this French crowd. But it wasn’t. 


[Nina Simone sings] 


MAS: So right there she says, “où il ne pleut pas,” where it doesn’t rain. But in fact she says, “il ne plus pas,” which is not standard French. Many people would say this is a mistake in her pronunciation. 


[singing continues] 


CH: Throughout the song, you can hear Simone trying to prevent these tiny mistakes, trying to sound like a native French speaker, to pass. 


[singing continues] 


MAS: So you might have noticed a hesitation there where she says, “l’amour sera loi” and she pauses before the “loi” … probably because the lw sound in English is really hard to do, so it seems like she is thinking really hard before she pronounces it. 


[singing continues] 


CH: These are small details. But they reflect Nina Simone’s culture and history, which are being refracted through a song written in a different language by a songwriter from a different culture. 


[singing continues] 


Oh, lord 

Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas

MAS: This is one of my favorite lines in this whole thing. Her voice breaks before the “oh,” and there is this drawn out “oh” before she says “lord.” This is real evidence of code switching. It’s jarring. It reminds us she is an English speaker, a non-native speaker of French. It also evokes a different musical tradition, to me Black spirituals, the mix of sorrow and hope that genre gives you. By code switching, she’s bringing in a whole other world into this song.  


[singing continues] 


CH: These differences aren’t just markers of Simone’s culture and history, but an expression of her individual identity, which she clearly imprints on Jacques Brel’s song. 


[piano plays and singing continues] 


MAS: I love her piano playing. … She’s so breathy there. It’s on the verge of speaking. … There I love the intonation of, “Tu comprendras” — you’ll understand. There’s this lilt there of the question. 


CH: This is an iconic live performance, in part because Nina Simone doesn’t finish the song. Before the final verse, she apologizes to the Parisian crowd for her language mistakes and stops the song abruptly. 


[Nina Simone sings then speaks] 


Ne me quitte pas 


Sorry about the words, ya’ll 


Ne me quitte pas 

Ne me quitte pas 


[song ends] 


CH: These subtle observations—the imperfections in Nina Simone’s French, the way she performs the song, her decision to stop abruptly—they reflect larger racial, cultural and political forces. 


MAS: By doing this close reading, you get to these larger issues, which is something we do in the humanities. It’s supposed to sort of better understand the human condition by looking at various kinds of cultural production. 


CH: This kind of translational analysis can be applied to much more than different versions of a song. It is an entire framework for considering culture and society. 


MAS: Everything is a translation. This notion that people have original ideas? That’s not really true, right? You’re borrowing from someone else. You’re translating something you experienced into a different medium. 


CH: The examples are endless. “Ne Me Quitte Pas” alone has some 1,600 covers and adaptations — 1,600 other versions that could be analyzed to gain insight into the people who made them, the audiences that received them and the cultures they came from. 


[music plays] 


CH: Maya’s work on “Ne Me Quitte Pas” is an analysis of translation in the broadest possible sense…comparing not just languages, but everything from the form and content, to the author, reception, context, history, and legacy. This wide-ranging consideration of similarities and differences is the essence of translation studies, an academic field focused on the theory, description, and application of translation. It is a helpful framework for considering the relationship between multiple versions of the same thing, as Maya has done with “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” But it can be applied more broadly to gain insight on the way different things and ideas spread. As Maya said, one can argue that everything is a translation of something. 


Further Reading 


Here are five texts that will help you learn more about Translation Studies as a way of knowing. 


 “Translation Studies” by Susan Bassnett 


Bassnett traces the history of translation and its role in the modern world. This is a great primer on translation studies, especially discussions about what gets lost and gained in translation.  


 “The Translation Studies Reader” edited by Laurence Venuti 


This collection is a survey of the most important developments in translation theory. Each essay is an example of this theory in action on a wide variety of source material. 


Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound” by Daphne A. Brooks 


Brooks explores more than a century of music, and examines the critics, collectors, and listeners who determined public perceptions of Black female musicians. 


 “Hearing Sexism: Gender in the Sound of Popular Music” by LJ Müller 


Müller does a feminist reading of pop music by analyzing the sound of different singer’s voices, from Kurt Cobain to Björk and Kate Bush.  


I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone” by Nina Simone and Stephen Cleary 


Nina Simone: Une Vie” by David Brun-Lambert 


Two biographies about Simone: in one she tells her story, in another, we get insights on how a French audience received her. 


Finally, there’s Maya Smith’s book about “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” which is being published by Duke University Press. 


CH: Ways of Knowing is a production of The World According to Sound. This season is about the different interpretative and analytical methods in the humanities. It was made in collaboration with the University of Washington and its College of Arts & Sciences. All the interviews with UW faculty were conducted on campus in Seattle. Music provided by Ketsa, and our friends, Matmos. 


Sam Harnett: The World According to Sound is made by Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett. 








Maya Angela Eipe Smith, associate professor of French

Maya Angela Eipe Smith, associate professor of French

Maya Angela Smith, associate of professor of French at the University of Washington, introduces translation studies through the lens of the song “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” Originally recorded by Jacques Brel — a French-speaking Belgian man — the song has been covered multiple times, including by American singer and pianist Nina Simone. Smith discusses how the artists “bring different identity markers” to the piece, so each version of the same song highlights distinct political, social and cultural narratives. “Everything is a translation,” Smith says. “This notion that people have original ideas, that’s not really true.”

This is the eighth and final episode of “Ways of Knowing,” a podcast highlighting how studies of the humanities can reflect everyday life. Through a partnership between The World According to Sound and the University of Washington, each episode features a faculty member from the UW College of Arts & Sciences, the work that inspires them, and suggested resources for learning more about the topic.