In Tom Kuhn and David Constantine, the poems have found excellent editors and translators, commissioned by Brecht’s daughter Barbara Brecht-Schall, who desired “some unity and consistency of voice”. The book is a central pillar in the project led by Kuhn to establish Brecht’s works in English translation, and his collaboration with Constantine – whose work as a poet and German scholar has long embraced translating German poetry – has already seen the publication of Brecht’s Love Poems (2015). The immense task of translating over 1,200 poems is grounded in a shared approach and ethos, set out in the introduction. While declaring that neither translator is “fond of translation theory”, they nonetheless articulate a persuasive theoretical principle: “our concern has been to render all these amazingly bounteous and various poems in versions that, as far as possible, can stand for themselves, as English poems (and without the Notes), using all the resources of poetry and of language at our disposal”.
So with Brecht, angry or evil? We can guess at what Brecht meant, and if he was around, we could ask him. His response might settle things for some of us. But there is no way of making the word on the page not have, for a given reader, any or all of its meanings in current (or even ancient) usage. Kuhn and Constantine speak eloquently of the ways in which Brecht’s poems ‘are never just the servants of his politics … they exceed his engagement in the particular and necessary cause.’ And they are not entirely the servants of Brecht himself. As the above examples show, translators have to make choices on the behalf of writers, and even in the original language the reader may have a long sliding scale of options.
Tom Kuhn and David Constantine observe in their introduction that Brecht passes the tests of greatness that T S Eliot proposed, possessing ‘abundance, variety, and complete competence’. So he does, so he does...Brecht is truly a poet of the highest order, and it would be wonderful to see a definitive English-language translation of his verse that would assure his position in the Anglophone world, but this book sadly isn’t the one. Kuhn is an outstanding Brechtian scholar and Constantine a fine poet and Germanist, but too many lines are dutiful or stiff in their English. What they give us as editors (such as checking Brecht’s manuscript and finding that a misreading lies behind long-established descriptions of his hospital room at the Charité as ‘white’) they sometimes take away as translators (Brecht’s Krankenzimmer at the Charité was a room, not a ‘hospital ward’). And then, the book weighs in at just under two kilos and isn’t a pleasure to read in an armchair.
...funny and bleak, moralising and wicked, passionate and philosophical, with a rich seam of coal-black humour... feels fresh and alive, whether in tightly knit rhymes, free verse or prose... Students and scholars may feel under-served...but if the translators’ aim was to create a book for the general reader that stands on its own feet, they have succeeded triumphantly... The quality of individual poems may be patchy...but collectively they have the frisson of watching history unfold, moment by moment. Reading from start to end, it becomes a gripping narrative, charting the evolution of an artist, of Germany, and of the early 20th century.
The more than 1,000 entries...are only about half of Brecht’s lyric output. But they give a sense of the fertility of his pristine, unsentimental language and the breadth of subject and form... A collection this size is often said to contain something for everybody. In this one, every reader is sure to find something to take offense at... And yet. “Brecht is a great poet,” the translators write in their introduction, “one of the three or four best in the whole of German literature.” This volume holds enough evidence to support that claim...