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Translation and Literature 15.2 (2006) 203-237

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Bertolt Brecht:

Selected Rhymed Poems

Translated by Timothy Adès

Bertolt Brecht is more widely known to English speakers as a playwright than as a poet. Yet his poems have the same hammering, mesmeric, purposeful power as his plays. In both media he is in the front rank. His plays are better known because, given the complexity and financial demands of theatrical production, he and others had no choice butto give them priority, and they have understandably received more attention ever since.

This is a selection of rhymed poems, most of which are not already collected in English, or at least not in the fine collection made by the late John Willett and Ralph Manheim, with many other hands. This selection is offered without any particular proposition or argument. Brecht's sonnets, especially those on literary themes, are quite well represented. The poems of exile are not, because a selection by the present translator has appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, third series no. 4 (2005).

Brecht wrote on great public themes in a manner that could reach a large audience. His use of rhyme is distinctive and powerful. The rhyme-word very often is the most significant in the line; it very often closes the sense, so that he can dispense with punctuation altogether. Enjambement, often held to be subtle and graceful, is correspondingly rare.

A translator gains a few easy rhymes when the English and German words are similar. However, the translator cannot usually marry sense to rhyme and rhythm just as Brecht has done. The effects described above cannot often be reproduced without paraphrasing. This translator has tried, by preferring colourful (and not necessarily Anglo-Saxon) terms as rhyme words, to preserve the power that might otherwise be lost.

Brecht texts are taken from the 1997 Suhrkamp edition Die Gedichte von Bertolt Brecht in einem Band. Thanks for copyright permission are due to Mr Stefan Brecht and the Brecht Estate, Suhrkamp Verlag, and Methuen Ltd. The translator wishes to acknowledge invaluable advice from Iain Galbraith, acting as reader for this journal.

Auch Der Himmel

Auch der Himmel bricht manchmal ein
Indem Sterne auf die Erde fallen.
Sie zerschlagen sie mit uns allen.
Das kann morgen sein.

Von Den Grossen MÄnnern

Die großen Männer sagen viele dumme Sachen
Sie halten alle Leute für dumm
Und die Leute sagen nichts und lassen sie machen
Dabei geht die Zeit herum.

Die großen Männer essen aber und trinken
und füllen sich den Bauch
Und die andern Leute hören von ihren Taten
Und essen und trinken auch.

Der große Alexander, um zu leben
Brauchte die Großstadt Babylon
Und es hat andere Leute gegeben
Die brauchten sie nicht. Du bist einer davon.

Der große Kopernikus ging nicht schlafen
Er hatte ein Fernrohr in der Hand
Und rechnete aus: die Erde drehe sich um die Sonne
Und glaubte nun, daß er den Himmel verstand.

Der große Bert Brecht verstand nicht die einfachsten Dinge
Und dachte nach über die schwierigsten, wie zum Beispiel das Gras
Und lobte den großen Napoleon
Weil er auch aß.

Die großen Männer tun, als ob sie weise wären
Und reden sehr laut - wie die Tauben.
Die großen Männer sollte man ehren
Aber man sollte ihnen nicht glauben. [End Page 204]

Even Heaven

Even heaven can collapse
When on earth stars fall,
Smash it up and smash us all.
Tomorrow, perhaps.

Of Great Men

Great men say many stupid things
They think we're silly asses
And we keep quiet and leave them to it
And that's the way time passes.

Great men keep eating and drinking
Until their bellies are full
The rest of us hear of their doings
Keep eating and drinking as well.

The great Alexander, in order to live
Needed that great city, Babylon.
Which various people haven't
Needed. Of these, you are one.

The great Copernicus never slept
Held a telescope in his hand


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