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Bertolt Brecht: Modern English Translations, Poems, Quotations and Biography

Bertolt Brecht [1898-1956] was a major and highly influential German poet, playwright, theater director and songwriter. A pioneer of modern epic theater or dialectical theater, with its "alienation effect" (also known as the "distancing effect" or "estrangement effect"), Brecht is  highly regarded today for his poetry, his plays such as Antigone, Baal, The Threepenny Opera and Drums in the Night, and his lyrics to the song "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ("Mack the Knife" in English, a number one hit for Bobby Darin). Brecht fled Germany in 1933, when Hitler assumed power. A number of Brecht's poems were written from the perspective of a man who sees his country becoming increasingly fascist, xenophobic and militaristic. For instance, the first poem below was written by Brecht about Nazi book burnings orchestrated by Hitler's propaganda-meister Joseph Goebbels. The Nazis burned the books of writers they considered to be "decadent," including those of Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and even Helen Keller. Also among the books burned were those of the great German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who in his 1820-1821 play Almansor accurately predicted, “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." ("Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.")

The Burning of the Books
by Bertolt Brecht
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

When the Regime
commanded the unlawful books to be burned,
teams of dull oxen hauled huge cartloads to the bonfires.

Then a banished writer, one of the best,
scanning the list of excommunicated texts,
became enraged — he’d been excluded!

He rushed to his desk, full of contemptuous wrath,
to write fiery letters to the morons in power —
Burn me! he wrote with his blazing pen
Haven’t I always reported the truth?
Now here you are, treating me like a liar!
Burn me!

by Bertolt Brecht
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

We embrace;
my fingers trace
rich cloth
while yours encounter only moth-
eaten fabric.
A quick hug:
you were invited to the gay soiree
while the minions of the "law" relentlessly pursue me.
We talk about the weather
and our eternal friendship's magic.
Anything else would be too bitter,
too tragic.

The Mask of Evil
by Bertolt Brecht
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A Japanese carving hangs on my wall —
the mask of an ancient demon, limned with golden lacquer.
Not altogether unsympathetically, I observe
the bulging veins of its forehead, noting
the grotesque effort it takes to be evil.

Radio Poem
by Bertolt Brecht
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

You, little box, held tightly
to me,
so that your delicate tubes do not break;
carried from house to house, from ship to train,
so that my enemies may continue communicating with me
on land and at sea
and even in my bed, to my pain;
the last thing I hear at night, the first when I awake,
recounting their many conquests and my litany of cares,
promise me not to go silent all of a sudden,

Bertolt Brecht Epigrams and Quotations

Everyone chases the way happiness feels,
unaware that it nips at their heels.
— loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The world of learning takes a crazy turn
when teachers are taught to think, discern!
— loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Unhappy, the land that lacks heroes.
— loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Hungry man, reach for the book:
it's a hook,
a harpoon.
— loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Because things are the way they are,
things can never stay as they were.
— loose translation by Michael R. Burch

War is like love; true ...
it finds a way through.
— loose translation by Michael R. Burch

What happens to the hole
when the cheese is no longer whole?
— loose translation by Michael R. Burch

It is easier to rob by setting up a bank
than by threatening the poor clerk.
— loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Do not fear death so much, or strife,
but rather fear the inadequate life.
— loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Tegner's Drapa
Robert Burns
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky

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