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Bertolt Brecht: Modern English Translations of Poems with Analysis, Biography and Quotations

Bertolt Brecht [1898-1956] was a major German poet, playwright, theater director and songwriter. He was also a highly influential 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, for his plays such as Antigone, Baal, The Threepenny Opera and Drums in the Night, and for 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 (shades of the United States under Donald Trump today!). For instance, the first poem below was written by Brecht about the 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!


Translator's Notes and Analysis: I take this poem to be Brecht's actual response to Nazi book burnings. Burning a writer's words is like burning him alive at the stake—the fate of many truthtellers at the hands of conformists. What do fascists fear? They fear the truth. So I imagine Brecht to be saying, "I've always reported the truth, so burn my words and burn me in the process!" But of course his words have outlived and vastly outshone his enemies. It is possible that he was thinking of some other banished writer, but I suspect that Brecht had himself in mind. He was, after all, that good.—Michael R. Burch



Parting
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.

Translator's Notes and Analysis: This is another poem that I take literally. I can easily imagine Brecht meeting a friend who remained in favor with the authorities, while he had been reduced to poverty and clandestine flight for resisting. Thus, they exchange a quick hug and a little light talk about the weather, because anything else would be "too tragic." Brecht had begun his resistance at age 16, during World War I, when he was almost expelled from school for arguing that only an empty-headed person could be persuaded to die for his country. Later, he did indeed "part" with Germany, fleeing his country in 1933 after Hitler rose to power.—Michael R. Burch



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.

Translator's Notes and Analysis: I can easily imagine this poem being written about men like Hitler and the Nazis. It would indeed seem to require a "grotesque effort" to be so evil. The demonic mask limned with gold lacquer reminds me of Trump gold-plating his freakin' toilets!—Michael R. Burch



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

You, little box, held tightly
to me,
escaping,
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,
unawares.

Translator's Notes and Analysis: Once again, I find myself reading Brecht's poem literally. I can imagine him fleeing the Nazis with a radio in his possession, using it to receive the news of his enemies' conquests as his "litany of cares" mounted. I felt something similar when I listened to the news of Trump's victory in the 2016 election. I felt shock, horror, revulsion and dread. How is such evil possible? How can anyone vote such men into power?—Michael R. Burch



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
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Sappho
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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