Friday 8 February 2008

Je me suis fait tout petit -Video Lyrics Translation

In this song, Georges Brassens describes his total subjection to his partner, Joha Heiman, with whom he shared his life from 1947 until his death in October 1981. This song has been described as a love song, but although it was addressed to a woman whom he loved sincerely, it is hard to find any expression of love in it. A more accurate classification would seem to be "Lament of a hen-pecked husband". It made me think of known relationships that chug along, fuelled by mutual hostility and of good relationships that have bad patches. But then it occurred to me that as Joha would be standing in her usual position in the wings as he sang, if this song was serious,he could expect a number of projectiles from the side. A blogger wrote to tell me that he was sure that Brassens was joking and he made these good points:

"When I listen to the song, the way he sings it, kind of "cosy" , with that warm voice... I believe he is just kidding around. Just as many men joke about how the woman has them "dominated" but in a good way... I do not believe he is really complaining. I think he is saying..."once I was a wolf, now I am a puppy .... but it is because I love you so much, that is why I have changed."
Another comment from Juliette, printed below tells me that French speakers see this as a much lighter  song than appears in my translation Je Me Suis Fait Tout Petit Pour une Poupée.

In the last twenty years of his life, Brassens suffered great pain caused by kidney disease. He had surgery on his kidneys in 1963 and again in 1967. During his many tours in France and across the world, it was obvious that he was a very sick man. This video shows this all too well. It was cancer of the kidneys which caused his death on October 29th 1981

Je n'avais jamais ôté mon chapeau
Devant personne
Maintenant je rampe et je fais le beau(1)
Quand elle me sonne
J'étais chien méchant, elle me fait manger
Dans sa menotte
J'avais des dents d'loup, je les ai changées
Pour des quenottes(2)

Je m'suis fait tout p'tit devant une poupée
Qui ferme les yeux quand on la couche(3)
Je m'suis fait tout p'tit devant une poupée
Qui fait Maman quand on la touche(3)

J'étais dur à cuire(4), elle m'a converti
La fine mouche(5)
Et je suis tombé tout chaud, tout rôti
Contre sa bouche (6)
Qui a des dents de lait quand elle sourit
Quand elle chante
Et des dents de loup quand elle est furie
Qu'elle est méchante

Je m'suis fait tout p'tit devant une poupée
Qui ferme les yeux quand on la couche
Je m'suis fait tout p'tit devant une poupée
Qui fait Maman quand on la touche

Je subis sa loi, je file tout doux(7)
Sous son empire
Bien qu'elle soit jalouse au-delà de tout
Et même pire.
Une jolie pervenche(8) qui m'avait paru
Plus jolie qu'elle
Une jolie pervenche un jour en mourut
A coup d'ombrelle

Je m'suis fait tout p'tit devant une poupée
Qui ferme les yeux quand on la couche
Je m'suis fait tout p'tit devant une poupée
Qui fait Maman quand on la touche

Tous les somnambules(9), tous les mages m'ont
Dit sans malice
Qu'en ses bras en croix, je subirais mon
Dernier supplice.
Il en est de pires il en est d'meilleurs
Mais à tout prendre
Qu'on se pende ici, qu'on se pende ailleurs
S'il faut se pendre.(10)

Je m'suis fait tout p'tit devant une poupée
Qui ferme les yeux quand on la couche
Je m'suis fait tout p'tit devant une poupée
Qui fait Maman quand on la touche
I had never taken off my hat
To anyone
Now I grovel and I sit up and beg
When she calls me.
I was a fierce dog, but she has me eating
From her teeny hand
The wolf teeth I had, I’ve changed them instead
For baby’s peggies

I’ve made myself real small,  up against a doll
Who shuts her eyes when you put her to bed
I’ve made myself real small up'against a doll
Who goes « Mamma » when you touch her.

I was a tough cookie, she’s changed me round
The cunning thing
And I fell all hot, and ready roasted
Against her mouth
Which has nice milk teeth when she smiles
When she sings
And wolf’s teeth when she plays the shrew
How wicked is she.

I’ve made myself real small up'against a doll
Who shuts her eyes when you put her to bed
I’ve made myself real small up'against a doll
Who goes « Mamma » when you touch her.

I submit to her law, I watch my step
Neath her control
Although she is jealous to the limit
And even beyond.
A flower of a girl ,who had seemed to me
Prettier than her,
A flower of a girl paid for it one day 
Felled by a sun brolly.

I’ve made myself real small up'against a doll
Who shuts her eyes when you put her to bed
I’ve made myself real small up'against a doll
Who goes « Mamma » when you touch her.

All psychics and mediums in their trances, 
Have kindly said
That folded in her arms, I'd undergo
Life's final moments
There are worse ends, and there are better
But, all ‘n all, what gives?
Whether one gets hanged here or somewhere else
If hanged one must be be.

I’ve made myself real small up'against a doll
Who shuts her eyes when you put her to bed
I’ve made myself real small up'against a doll
Who goes « Mamma » when you touch her.


1)      je fais le beau  - faire le beau- for a dog this means to sit up on its hind legs.

2)      Pour des quenottes  - quenottes is child talk for teeth.  In my part of England, we talked of “peggies” to children

3)      Poupée - qui ferme les yeux quand on la couche and Qui fait Maman quand on la touche.  Jn the 1950s, the novelty of the dolls that you bought for litle girls was that their eyes closed when you lay them flat and that there was place on their back, which you squeezed to get a sound like Maa !  In the adult world, we assume that a living doll acting like this is not sexually responsive.

4)      dur à cuire describes some-one’s character : positively it means physically strong/ courageous.  Negativelt, it means obstinate/ uncooperative. Suggested translations are:  hard-boiled/ hard-bitten/ pugnacious.

5)       fine mouche – This is used to describe a person who is cunning and discreet .e. they have the characteristics of a fly which can flit around and not be seen.

6)      tombé tout chaud, tout rôti contre sa bouche  -the cliché used to reprimand some-one who is not helping in the preparation of the cooking would be :  « Alors, tu attends que ton repas te tombe tout rôti dans la bouche!

7)      je file tout doux -  fier doux is to behave nicely/ keep a low profile.

8)      Une jolie pervenche – Brassens is talking of a pretty girl who had come into his life.  By talking of her as a flower, he is softening the drama of what must have been a romantic and domestic crisis.  This is reduced even more by English translation, as “periwinkle” has a very odd ring about it- eccentric rather than romantic.  On the other hand, the name “pervenche” had vivid connotations in French literature.  This was the name given to a peasant girl in a short story written by the poet Maurice Bouchor  (1858- 1929), who tells us that she had been given this name because of her simple trusting eyes, whose soft blue had the  freshness and purity of the flower of the same name.  One reason why Brassens would be familiar with Bouchor’s works was that they were both fervent admirers of François Villon – both have poems that pay tribute to the great medieval French poet.  The obscurity of this reference to a Boucher poem prevents most listeners from understanding the vindictiveness of the attack which the doll made on an innocent girl.   However Brassens’ mention of la Pervenche seems to tell us that he was acutely aware of a cruel act of injustice.

9)      les somnambules – Literally sleepwalkers but Le Petit Robert tells us that it is a term to describe people who speak and, in this case,  make predictions, while in a hypnotic state.

10)   S'il faut se pendre – In dark moments in his songs, Brassens sometimes talks of hanging himself.  If Brassens is joking about the problems of his relationship with Joha, he is pushing the joke a bit far by talking of suicide.
(I think that Juliette puts me right on this- her comment posted below.  She tells me that "to go and get hanged" is a humorous expression in French for "to go and get married" and so this makes it much more light-hearted.  I still think the context suggests a marriage that is a fatal mistake. Thanks for your help Juliette.


Brassens wrote this song in 1955, when he had been in his relationship with Joha Heyman for about eight years. She had come from Estonia to Paris in 1930 to take a post as an au pair. Brassens had seen her first when he was a youth of 18 and he had been captivated by her beauty. The war intervened but they met up again in 1947 and became close. ( I have copied Brassens’ account of their first meetings in “Le Parapluie”.) .

Joha was nine years older than Brassens and she stayed with him for 35 years as his eternal fiancée. When she died in 1999, she was buried at his side in the cemetery at Sète.


The song, “Je me suis fait tout petit” is generally taken to be a personal account of the relationship of Georges and Joha. One critic has said that the romance of the song is marred by the mention of hanging himself, but others do not see any romance in the song at all.

The pessimistic interpretation

The objective facts speak of a very unhappy, abusive relationship:
It is a grim picture of how the acquisition of supremacy by one of the two partners in marriage or a similar exclusive relationship can destroy the freedom and dignity of the subservient party so that life no longer has any meaning and death is the ultimate escape. In this case, the man is the victim. A proud and independent human being has been reduced to the status of a poodle responding and performing at his mistress’s beck and call.

Sex has become an instrument of the control of the female partner. She offers sex or more often refuses it at her own whim with no regard to her partner’s wishes. The chorus of the song tells how the woman goes to bed to fall straight to sleep and cries out if he touches her.

The gossip of those who knew Brassens seems to confirm that the love that had begun, passionate and exciting, had now grown cold and that sexual contact was now virtually non-existent. This seemed to be borne out by the couple’s decision never to live under the same roof. And Brassens makes no bones about telling of his sexual deprivation in other songs. In “Fernande” he links himself with those forced to do without intercourse like lighthouse keepers and priests. In “Auprès de mon arbre”, he claims the world record for duration of celibacy.

Although the female partner in the song has no sexual need of the male, she is madly jealous and totally possessive and she drives away any other woman who could offer him consolation. Brassens had noted Joha’s jealousy as early as a first love song written about her. In «J'ai rendez-vous avec vous», he says : « La lumière que je préfère, C'est celle de vos yeux jaloux. ».

As social workers testify, it is easy to irecognise those in an abusive relationship, but it is most difficult to wrest someone free from such total control. Brassens seems to put himself in this victim category in this poem when he says that the hold that she has on him is such that he is reconciled to being tied to her until the moment when he hangs himself.

In this disillusioned view of the union of two people, Brassens is expressing one of his recurring themes: the conviction that stifling domesticity and the imprisonment of two people in a tight relationship such as matrimony kills love and precludes human happiness. The same idea is found in Les amoureux des bancs publics – Auprès de mon Arbre – La non-demande en mariage. Other poems seem to suggest a better alternative. In place of the trials of long-term relationships, brief moments of bliss can be tasted in the ephemeral pleasures of sensual encounters without commitment.
All this previous evidence appears to confirm the impression that the material of the song should be taken seriously.


In contrast with the depiction in the poem of their personal incompatibility., we know that Brassens usually spoke of Joha with great affection and referred to her affectionately as his “Püppchen”, the German diminutive of doll. We know also that Brassens valued lifelong friendships with kindred souls who offered the warmth of their company without infringing on the other’s need for space - Copains d’abord.
In an interview in the last year of his life, he detailed the love and support that Joha gave him :
….il m'apparaît évident que je n'aurais pas pu travailler autant et si bien sans la sérénité, la plénitude, l'épanouissement que procurent amour, tendresse et complicité profonde
He tells of the help she gave him in the six years of hard grind before he achieved success:
Pendant six longues années de vaches maigres, elle était ma compagne attentionnée, ma confidente, ma muse et un précieux support moral et affectif.
In the 35 years they were together, he turned to her first for comment on his new compositions. Also she took care of all his practical arrangements: what he should wear on stage, publicity shots, accommodation, and arrangements for receptions.
Brassens repeatedly said of his Püppchen:
"Ce n'est pas ma femme, c'est ma déesse."


To suggest that Brassens was an embittered and inadequate man, unable to break from the control of another would certainly demean him. This he would be if the tone of this poem was serious. But we have seen in other poems such as “Rien à jeter” that when he talks of Joha, there is a big element of teasing. In this poem, it is all teasing with massive exaggeration consistent throughout. His Püppchen had almost certainly approved of the lyrics of the song and was laughing in the wings at this feast of absurdity.



Anonymous said...

When I listen to the song, the way he sings it, kind of "cozy" , with that warm voice... I believe he is just kidding around. Just as many men joke about how the woman has them "dominated" but in a good way... I do not believe he is really complaining. I think he is saying..."once I was a wolf, now I am a puppy .... but it is because I love you so much, that is why I have changed"

Anonymous said...

The english translation on the video is very different from yours. Which is the most accurate?

Anonymous said...

First, Brassens really says " Je Me Suis Fait Tout Petit Devant Une Poupée."

In my opinion also, this is a true love song. The melody is so sweet. And I always thought that Brassens playfully likens his real Puppchen to the toy dolls (so common in those days) with moving eyelids that closed when you put them down on their back (Qui ferme les yeux quand on la couche). Some of them also made a noise resembling Maman when you touched their tummies.

I also think that Brassens ends the last verse with a statement about the inevitability of death, not about hanging himself. Isn't it nice that he knows Puppchen will be with him until the end?

Christopher said...

! I am just beginning to make a page on google translating Brassens' songs into English. I'm not surprised that other people like you have done it, still I'm going to have a great time translating his songs. I look forward to corresponding with you over subtle issues of translation in the future!

juliette said...

nonon! sorry but" hanging" here is used in old french slang, it means getting married. for example:
"Pour se pendre et se marier, il n'y faut pas longtemps penser."
you don't understand the subtility of the language and the translation sounds way darker and heavy than the real french lyrics.
I dont think it's possible to give a sense of what it's like for a french native speaker. because it's very cultural. i guess yes it's a cosy, witty language. the song is a love song for sure. He is amused by the way she changed him, because he used to be rude and insenstive.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Juliette's comments. I also am French and take the song to be a playful way to say that he was bewitched, rendered powerless and transformed by love...

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I am also a native french speaker and I disagree with Juliette. I think your interpretation is spot-on. This is not a love song, it's a man describing his relationship with a shrewish woman, and ultimately deciding to stay with her anyway. This is not to say that this is Brassens's view of Puppchen; I can't comment on that. But he doesn't need to be in an abusive relationship to write about one. I for one think he is simply exaggerating the truth. Isn't that part of the poet's art?

Vincent said...

I once heard a first-hand report from a close friend of Brassens, that he was for a long, long time in love with a woman, with so much desire and tension and difficulties that when they eventually got to bed together, he was impotent.
Hence a very concrete interpretation, among others, of "Je me suis fait tout petit devant une poupée". That was Brassens' secret sense of the verse.

Anonymous said...

The "jolie pervenche" is a reference to Rousseau's Confessions, livre 6.

toots said...

Just for what it's worth, I'm also French and, after taking some time to think about those lyrics, I do think that they are indeed pretty dark, if you look at it from the perspective of someone who's been in an abusive relationship, at least.

The hanging part can be taken lightly but it's important to stress out that sometimes these get overlooked simply because we're used to sing them without paying too much attention. Same thing happened when I showed my friend a translation of "Le Gorille". Anal rape of an elder judge didn't exactly look light hearted to him although I've singed this song multiple times quite joyfully with friends ;-)

That's essentially the beauty of this song to me, making the theme so ambiguous, it's a sweet'n'sour kind of song!

Sam said...

Thank you so much, your work let's me appreciate and understand this song 100x more that I could've! Merci!

Dan said...

I disagree with what you've said about the reference to the doll meaning that she is unresponsive, I think it's just the opposite. He's like a little kid with a toy and she's his toy. He takes his toy to bed and she lies down and closes her eyes. When he touches her she makes noises. This is about sex. The whole song is about sex. He dies in her arms, you could even say he's talking about 'la petite mort', a euphemism for orgasm. The song speaks about their relationship. She's jealous and fiery, but also sweet. He's enchanted by her, he's a tough man but goes soft when he wants to get her into bed.

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