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PLAYWRIGHT and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is one of the most significant Marxist literary figures of the last century and it seems appropriate that a new translation of his collected poems has just been published at a time when the centenary of the political assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht is being marked.
This massive joint undertaking by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn is a highly welcome contribution to Brecht’s study and enjoyment in English. Salford-born Constantine, a highly regarded poet in his own right, is an award-winning translator and short-story writer and here he answers questions about this major task and the pleasures and pains of translating poetry.
Why Brecht? Why now?
It’s not exactly now. I’ve been reading Brecht, and he’s been very important to me, for half a century. And I’ve been writing about him and translating his poems likewise for many years — the same goes for Tom [Kuhn].
People tend to view him primarily as a dramatist. Has his poetry been neglected as a result?
In Britain, probably. But he’s one of the three or four best poets in the whole of German literature so, if he has been neglected, it’s high time he got read and enjoyed as he deserves.
What are the problems of defining his poetry?
The songs in his plays are lyric poems in their own right and we translated a good many of them, along with some of his dramatic choruses.
It's worth remembering how much of several of his best plays is written in verse — The Mother, St Joan of the Stockyards and The Caucasian Chalk Circle being examples and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is all pastiche blank verse. He was a thorough poet.
Is everything about his work political?
In the sense that all is more or less influenced by the times and the social order, yes. But you could say that about any writer.
Brecht’s early poetry is that of an individualist anarchic hedonist and it’s a savage response to the first world war and its aftermath, his view of which was much like Thomas Hardy’s: “After two thousand years of mass/We’ve got as far as poison gas.”
In the late 1920s he became what he would remain: a “poete engagé.”
How would you describe the process of translating poetry and what are its frustrations and joys?
It’s the attempt — doomed to failure — to get across exactly what the foreign poem says, in a poem of your own. It’s doomed to failure because translation is an act of service – you serve the foreign text – and to write a poem you need full autonomy.
Still, it is well worth trying.
You always fall short. But the joy of it is colossal – translation is the closest form of close reading. You get to love the foreign poet better, more exactly, when you translate.
Would you describe Brecht as “obscure”?
I wouldn’t say so. He is difficult sometimes, when the subject demands it. And he writes very testingly — he wants to alert the reader to something important, make her or him think and feel more deeply and more exactly.
Has he influenced you as a poet?
Yes, as has Holderlin. Both wanted, in Brecht’s phrase, “circumstances worthy of human beings.” So do I. Both were grievously disappointed. So am I. And in the actual making of lines of verse I have learned a great deal from both.
What areas of his work are particularly appealing?
He is immensely various. That variety is itself very appealing. There are poems in all his modes and voices I shouldn’t want to be without.
We live in troubled times. Does Brecht have messages for us?
Very much so. There has been significant warfare every year somewhere on Earth since 1914 and massive and systematic injustice, a good deal of it in our own Land of Hope and Glory.
The markets work as they please and seem to many — as they did to Brecht — quite unintelligible from any point of view except that of a handful of speculators.
When they collapse, others — not the bankers, not the hedge-fund managers — pick up the pieces. The poor stay poor and the rich get richer.
Brecht and his family became refugees, they lived in exile. They came home to a rubbled city. More or less closely we know about things like that. He’s a poet – not the only one – we can read with our atrocious times in mind.
So now Red Rosa has also passed away
Where she lies none can say.
She told the truth to the poor, that’s why
The rich decided she had to die.
The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht is published by WW Norton and Company, price £35
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