An English translation of ‘Les Copains d’Abord’ for singing

3 min readFeb 4, 2021

Georges Brassens was a French musician and poet who is cherished as both a balladeer and humorist. “Les Copains d’Abord,” one of Brassens most celebrated songs, sails along with his particular balance of sentiment and fun. Originally written for a film, it has become a classic that is sung often by others and studied by students learning French. The song tells the story of a group of friends on an ill-fated boat outing, and it apparently has some grain of truth to events in Brassens’ own life.

With this translation, I’ve attempted a version of “Les Copains d’Abord” to be sung in English. The few translations that I could find were literal and clunky (with the exception of Andrew Kelly and Graeme Allwright’s 1985 version). I hope that this version preserves the original story but also conveys something of the original spirit. Many of the references remain, but the lines have been optimized for English rhythm and rhyme. Inevitably some French nuance and jokes are lost, but English provides new opportunities for puns and phrases which nod to the original and the nautical theme.

Les Copains D’Abord, by Georges Brassens, translation by Andrew Crago

No, it wasn’t like the raft
Of the Medusa, this old craft
As they said down at the ports
Down at the ports
She sailed ever placidly
On the duck pond or the sea
She’s called Les Copains d’Abord
Les Copains d’Abord

They said “Fluctuat nec mergitur”
Was not only literature
To the prophets of doom
Prophets of doom
But the captain and his crew
Not a bastard ‘mong the few
First-rate shipmates port to port
Les Copains d’Abord

Our men weren’t yet chummy guys
Like the Brothers Gemini
Or those that lived in Sodom
And Gomorrah
They hadn’t fraternity
Like Montaigne and La Boetie
So they knocked-about aboard
Les Copains d’Abord

Well they weren’t much of angels
Not versed in the gospels
But their love did spread its sails
Did spread its sails
With John, Paul, and company
It was their litany
Their creed, their chorus
Les Copains d’Abord

No doubt headed for Trafalgar
With the bearing of old sailors
They leaned on their rapport
To find true north
Never chancing much distress
Their arms formed S.O.S.
In basic semaphore
Les Copains d’Abord

When the mates would rendez-vous
All hands joined their old crew
Except for those keeled over
Across the bar
They’d toast each watery grave
Lest it sink beneath the waves
‘Fore a hundred years or more
Les Copains d’Abord

I’ve sailed many a ship before
And the only to hold her course
Tacked true to the bitter end
To the bitter end
She sailed ever placidly
On the duck pond or the sea
She’s called Les Copains d’Abord
Les Copains d’Abord

I recorded a version of the song with the English lyrics (see closed captions).

Of course no one does it better than Georges, and here is Georges Brassens performing the song live in the late 1960s.