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La Marseillaise: All you need to know about the French national anthem

Aux armes, readers, here's a closer look at the rather bloody song that is so dear to many in France (but not everyone).

La Marseillaise: All you need to know about the French national anthem
Photo: AFP
Chances are you’ve heard the national anthem of France, and chances are that you remember it. 
It’s a powerful revolutionary song with some graphic lyrics (more on this later). 
It’s sung at formal events like citizenship ceremonies and the July 14th celebrations and it’s also played at memorials (a half-speed instrumental version of the anthem is usually used and it’s really quite beautiful).
It’s also sung before international sports matches, and because it is a cracking good song it’s frequently belted out by fans in the stands during the match as a way of urging on les bleus (something that an anthem like God Save the Queen really doesn’t lend itself to).
What does it sound like?
Fair question, and let’s get it out of the way early. Here’s a YouTube clip of the song.
What’s the song about?
It’s a call to arms – a rousing war song to rally French troops battling foreign armies. It’s meant to incite an uprising against tyranny and invasion.
The lyrics are quite strong, and make for an impressive and combative start to an international sports fixture. 
So what about these lyrics then?
The anthem contains lines about “ferocious soldiers” who are  “coming to cut the throats of your sons, your women”. 
The chorus ends with a call for “impure blood to soak our fields”.
Read the first verse and chorus here. 
What’s the history of the song?
It came about, as the story goes, on this day in 1792 when the mayor of Strasbourg, baron Philippe-Frédéric de Dietrich, called for a song to rally France’s soldiers. 
That very same night, his guest Rouget de Lisle wrote and delivered it. A painting of this historic moment exists today, made by Isidore Pils (see below). Sure, the mayor doesn’t look too impressed with the song, but apparently he was. 
Three years later, it was officially passed as the national anthem of France. It has been banned a few times since, notably by Louis XVIII and Charles X, but was reinstated in 1879 and has remained as the national anthem since then.
If it was invented in Strasbourg, shouldn’t it be called the Strasbourgaise?
Great question. The reason it’s called the Marseillaise is because volunteer troops (fédérés) liked to sing it when marching from Marseille to Paris during the French revolution. That’s a march of 750km, by the way, so you can see why they might have needed a pick-me-up.
Have there been other controversies around it?
Of course – did you read those lyrics? Even in recent years some have said the song is no longer appropriate for modern multi-ethnic and peaceful France.
There was a big push in 2014 to change the song, or at least the lyrics. 
“When I hear the words ‘let an impure blood soak our fields’, I am amazed that we continue to sing it,” French actor Lambert Wilson said at the time. 
Various famous French figures from the past have also had issues with the song. Author Victor Hugo, French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, and the singer Serge Gainsbourg, who wrote his own reggae version in 1979, all thought the Marseillaise should be given a makeover.
Does everyone think it’s inappropriate?
Nope. Many people really like it – and will happily argue that there’s nothing wrong with the words. 
“There’s no way the words are racist,” French political expert Jean-Yves Camus told The Local in the past
“They just have to be put in the context of 1792 when France was being besieged by foreign armies. The lyrics are strong, but not racist.”
Lyrics aside, it’s definitely one of the most rousing national anthems out there (although some think Italy’s is better) and hearing 80,000 sports fans belting it out will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
And lastly… How can I sing along if I don’t speak French?
You could try this phonetic guide. 

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Puns, sex and urban legends: How English movie titles are translated into French

If you've ever browsed French cinema listings or Netflix, you will instantly notice that the titles of English-language movies often have quite unexpected translations.

Puns, sex and urban legends: How English movie titles are translated into French

It is of course completely normal for the titles of books, films, TV series and other artworks to be translated in a non-literal way – usually the translator will try and get something that conveys the sense and message of the artwork, rather than going for a word-for-word translation.

But from concepts that get lost in translation to untranslatable puns and – of course – the French fondness for English phrases, some titles may surprise you. 

The untranslatable ones

Some concepts just don’t cross international borders.

Groundhog DayUn jour sans fin (an endless day) – Groundhog day in the US and Canada is a festival celebrated on February 2nd that is said to predict spring weather.

The festival doesn’t exist in France, or in the UK come to that, but while British audiences just had to accept a film with a weird title, in France it was translated as ‘an endless day’, which more accurately describes what the film is all about.  

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking BarrelsArnaques, Crimes et Botanique (scams, crimes and botanicals) – the film’s English title is a pun on the phrase ‘lock, stock and barrel’ which means complete, with ‘smoking barrels’ as a nod to the gun storyline.

Puns are pretty hard to translate in general, but a mixture of two puns obviously had the French translators reaching for the white flag. Instead they’re gone for a three-word list that offers a pretty fair overall summary of what the film is all about. 

The Shawshank RedemptionLes Évadés (The Escaped) – Frank Darabont’s slow-burn classic prison drama based on Stephen King’s short story couldn’t really translate into French, so you can’t blame them for not trying. Instead, they kept it simple.

Home AloneMaman, j’ai raté l’avion (Mummy I missed the plane) – another example of deciding not to bother trying to translate a phrase and just giving a straightforward description of what the film is about comes from Home Alone.

Con airLes ailes de l’enfer (the wings of hell) – the 1997 US film centres on a prison break aboard the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System aircraft, nicknamed ‘con air’, with ‘con’ the English abbreviation for convict (prisoner). Not having an exact French-language equivalent, the translators went for the frankly much more poetic ‘the wings of hell’.

Die HardPiège de cristal (The Crystal Trap) – Bruce Willis’s famously festive film gets a completely different name in French – and Spanish and Italian, come to that.

It gave French distributors a bit of a problem when the sequels came out, but they solved it by ignoring any links between the first film and those that followed completely. Die Hard 2: Die Harder translated to 58 Minutes Pour Vivre (58 Minutes to Live), while Die Hard with a Vengeance – which, in English, also pretty much glossed over Die Hard 2 for aesthetic reasons –  became Une journée en enfer (A Day in Hell)

The totally different 

TwilightLe saga du désir interdit (the story of forbidden desire) – Stephanie Meyer’s series of teen vampire romance novels, later turned into a film franchise, appeared in the English-speaking world with the series name ‘twilight’.

A French translation of this time of day of course exists (crépuscule) but instead French translators decided to spell out the theme of the series – forbidden desire. The books appeared in France under the titles of Fascination (fascination) Tentation (temptation) Hésitation (hesitation) Révélation (revelation) L’Appel du sang (the call of blood) and Midnight Sun.

The A TeamL’agence tous risques (the risk-all agency) – similarly with The A Team, French film distributors apparently decided that audiences needed to be clearly informed of the premise – a group of agents who would take on any mission, even the most risky.

Airplane!Y a-t-il un pilote dans l’avion? (Is there a pilot on the plane?) – they kept the name of the 1980 disaster movie spoof, surely? No, the French decided to rename that, too  … and don’t call me Shirley.

The improvements

No time to dieMourir peut attendre (death can wait) – if you didn’t know better you might assume that the cool, classy ‘death can wait’ was the original title of the latest James Bond film and ‘no time to die’ the awkward translation. In fact, it was the other way round.  

JawsLes dents de la mer (the sea’s teeth) – the title of the Spielberg movie in English just refers to the shark, but the title in French refers to both the shark itself and the greater sense of the unknown dangers of the deep. 

The weird and/or sexist  

Mean GirlsLolita malgré moi (Lolita despite myself) – French schoolgirls are mean, bitchy and cliquey too, so there are plenty of options in French for a near-literal translation of the title of high-school drama Mean Girls.

Instead the translator went for the fairly problematic option of ‘Lolita despite myself’ – by which we can assume he never read Nabakov’s classic novel (first published in France, incidentally) telling the story of the paedophile Humbert Humbert and his victim Lolita.

Little WomenLes 4 filles du docteur March (the four daughters of Dr March) – it’s a film (based on a book) entirely about the lives of women, the four March sisters and their mother. Dr March barely features (because he’s away fighting in the American Civil War) but that doesn’t stop the French version from deciding that it’s all about him.  

The inexplicably sexy ones 

Sometimes English language movie titles remain in English but with different titles – for example The Hangover in France is Very Bad Trip. But there is also a distinct trend to just add the word ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ to an English language title to, well, sex it up a bit . . .

Not Another Scary Movie – Sex Academy 

Out Cold – Snow, Sex and Sun

Wild Things – Sex Crimes

Euro Trip – Sex Trip

The English titles for French films

With all the effort that goes into translating English titles into French, you might get a surprise when you start viewing something with an English title, only to find that it’s as French as a snail-filled baguette.

Family Business – the Netflix series about a Paris family who get drawn into international drug smuggling is smart, funny and completely French – it just has an English title.

LOL – although there is an American remake of the teen film LOL, the French version (starring Sophie Marceau) came first.

In France people use the acronym MDR (mort de rire or died laughing) in text speak, but the filmmakers obviously reckoned that the English acronym was well enough known for the title.

The film is entirely in French, with only a very brief foray into English when the characters go on a school trip to London (and experience rain and horrible food, naturally).

MILF – the American acronym MILF (Mom I’d like to F**k) really hit the mainstream thanks to the 2003 film American Pie and by 2018 French film-makers were confident that it was well enough known even in France to use as the title of a French movie.

The film depicts three older women who take a road trip to try and rediscover their youth and friendship – no prizes for guessing what they end up doing.

We asked our French friends if there is a French equivalent of MILF and no-one could suggest one. 


For all that French cinema distributors are happy to have the odd partially or wholly English title, strict language rules in French-speaking Canada mean that movies there often have completely different titles.

For example American Pie – released under its English name in France – became Folies de graduation (graduation madness) in Quebec, while Ghost also kept its original title in France but was released as Mon Fantôme d’amour (My ghost love) in Quebec.

. . . and the myth

There’s an urban legend that The Matrix appeared in France as Les jeunes qui traversent des dimensions en portant des lunettes de soleil (young people who travel in dimensions while wearing sunglasses) but in fact the film appeared in France as Matrix, although it was La Matrice in Quebec.