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Happy Birthday, Berthold Brecht

I've always admired Brecht for his unflinching stance, even though his work usually strikes me as too polemical, too much from the barricades. Lately, though, I've been coming around to his way of seeing things. At the very least, I'm beginning to understand why he did some things the way he did, even if I don't agree with him that often.

Born in Augsburg in 1898, Brecht is best known for his plays, such as "Mother Courage" and "The Three Penny Opera", but he was a poet as well. He saw action in WW1, became a CommunistSocial Democrat (USPD) in 1929, lived in Denmark and Santa Monica from 1933 to 1948, and died in East Berlin in 1956. He is without a doubt one of Germany's most popular modern poets. In English-speaking countries, he's best known for the duet in the Three Penny Opera, AKA "Mack the Knife".

As a remembrance of his work, I've translated the poem that first made him famous — "Legende vom Totem Soldat" — into English. As always, translating poetry is a bitch, especially when it's slangy and meant to apply to WW1. This loose translation contains some phrases that are update it slightly, but I think it's true to the spirit of the thing.

Brecht always did prefer to spit in the eye of convention, so I'm sure he wouldn't mind.


Legend of the Dead Soldier

In the fourth spring the war
Held forth no hope of peace, and
The soldier suffered the consequences
And he died a hero’s death.

But the war wasn't quite over,
And so the emperor was sorry
That his soldier had died.
It struck him as premature.

The summer crept over the graves
And the soldier was already sleeping
When one night a military medical
Commission arrived.

The medical commission dragged
Itself out to the graveyard
And dug up the fallen soldiers
With consecrated spades.

The doctor examined the soldier closely –
Or what remained of him –
And declared the soldier was able-bodied
And was shirking the dangers of war.

They took the soldier with them immediately.
The night was blue and beautiful –
One could, if one was not wearing a helmet,
See the stars of one’s homeland.

They poured some fiery schnapps
Into his decayed body
And hung two sisters on his arms
And a half exposed woman.

And because a soldier stinks after rotting
They sent a limping priest to walk before him
Swinging a gilded censer
So that he cannot stink.

Onward with music, with a ratatat,
Playing a quick march
And the soldier, just the way he trained it,
Kicks his legs up from his ass.

And two brotherly medics
Walked with their arms around him
To keep him from falling into the dirt.
That wouldn’t be right.

They painted his shroud
With the red white and blue
And carried it before him, and
The colors blotted out the shit.

A gentleman in suit and tie walked before him,
His chest puffed out, knowing
His duty
As a American man.

Thus they went with a ratatatat
Down the dark paved road,
And the soldier tumbled along
Like a snowflake in storm.

The cats and dogs screamed.
The rats whistled wildly in the fields:
They don’t want to be French,
That would be a blot on their good name.

And as they passed through the villages
All the women were there
The trees bow low, the full moon shines
And everything shouts huzzah.

With a ratatatat and a see you later!
With wife and dog and priest!
And smack in the middle the dead soldier
Marched like a drunken ape.

And as they passed through the villages
Well, no one saw him,
He was surrounded by so many others,
All with ratatatats and huzzahs.

So many danced and howled around him
That no one saw him.
One could only see him from directly above
And there was nothing there but the stars.

The stars are not always there
The red light of morning draws near.
But the soldier, just the way he trained it,
Goes to a hero’s death.

translation (c) 2005 Wolfgang Baur

Stick that in your stop-loss and smoke it.

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