This blog has the goal of sharing some of the shorter works of Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935), a German author, satirist, poet, song-writer, journalist, with an English speaking audience. There's no sense in my repeating the excellent Wikipedia article
on Tucholsky, so I will concentrate instead on why I want to do this.
I came to Germany in 1987 at the age of 24. At that time I spoke no German, but was faced with the task of learning the laguage from scratch. In doing this I sought out the authors and works that most people have probably heard of outside of Germany, including of course Hermann Hesse's "Steppenwolf" and "Demian," Friedrich Nietzsche's "Also sprach Zarathustra," Goethe's "Faust," Berthold Brecht, etc. I also began reading selections from the works of the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, whom I had remembered from my student years. Later as I became more deeply immersed in the German language I explored the names and works that aren't heard of outside of the German-speaking world, works that were even relatively unknown in modern day Germany. I found that the literature I enjoyed best in German had been written during the 1920's and early 1930's before the Nazis destroyed the rich culture that had blossomed in the language they spoke. The cultural scene in Germany has never quite recovered.
But it wasn't until 1998 that I read anything by Kurt Tucholsky. His name had always been familiar to me - one hears it occasionally - but on my own I had never read anything. While studying for my German masters I met a fellow student, from Italy, who spoke the highest praise for this author, and recommended a selection of his best works ("Zwischen Gestern und Morgen"). I've been using the receipt as a bookmark, and the date on that is November 5th, 1998. So that's when I first read Tucholsky.
A few years later I found the remarkable book "Deutschland, deutschland über alles" (1929). This book was out of print at the time, a sad fate that befalls many of the best German authors who had been verboten and burned during the Nazi era. This was a volume containing a mixture of texts by Kurt Tucholsky and photo montages by John Heartfield
. The work attempted and - I believe - succeeded in capturing the zeitgeist of that time. It was Tucholsky's shot at point blank range in the face of the fascism developing in his country. The points he made are crystal clear, and so compellingly delivered, and so accurate in terms of what actually came to pass, he must have been a prophet. I read these pieces and ask myself, "How could he have known? How could he anticipate all the post-Nazi literature and analyses handling the themes from a historical perspective." Tucholsky despaired that his warnings had gone unheeded, stopped writing and eventually took his own life in Sweden (1935), where he had lived since the 1920's.
Occasionally I have translated works by authors I've enjoyed, 1) to share them with friends who did not speak German, and 2) to gain a deeper appreciation of the work's nuances. When one reads a text for enjoyment, especially in a foreign language, one tends to skip over words one doesn't understand, skim passages, allow the context to help one through the denser sections. When one translates a text, and does an honest job of it, one is forced to face it word for word and understand it, really understand it. I speak German fairly fluently and will do my best to apply that knowledge, and my command of English, to the task of showing how relevant Tucholsky's works are for our modern times.
This project came into being rather spontaneously, by my sending a quick translation of Tucholsky's lyric about Mona Lisa to the poet David Raphael Israel
, whose own poem about Mona Lisa had entertained me some weeks before. My translations of the poetry will not be the work of a poet. I am not a poet, nor do I understand much about poetry. It will be interesting to see how David will render these poems into English based on my literal translations, and a study of the original. So that's what we decided to do. We plan to document this process along the way, so that any insights we gain may be shared with everyone.