Tuesday, January 24, 2006

An das Publikum

To the Public (1931)
by Kurt Tucholsky

Dear, dear public,
tell me: Are you really as dumb,
as we hear every day
from all the businessmen?
Directors on their fat behinds
say: "It's what the public wants!"
The men in film: "What can I do?
The public wants these saccharine things!"
Publishers shrug their shoulders and say:
"Good books don't sell!"
Tell me, dear public:
Are you really that dumb?

So dumb, the newspapers, morning and late,
hold less and less to read?
Anxious someone might be offended;
In fear, no one must be incited;
Apprehensive that Müller and Cohn
might threaten with cancellation?
Nervous that finally
some organization will come
and protest and denounce
and demonstrate and litigate...
Tell me, dear public:
Are you really that dumb?

Well then...
On our time weighs
the curse of mediocrity.
Have you such a weak stomache?
Truth disagrees with you?
You'll only eat mush?
Well, then...
Well, you deserve what you get.

David's rendering will follow in a few days. The German original may be read here.

Postscript: I located a quote by Tucholsky online which apparently originates from the first lines of the third stanza, translated somewhat differently: "The burden of our times is the curse of mediocrity." My translation is more literal, in that the original uses a verb (lastet), which was converted here to a noun. Possibly though, burden is a stronger word than weigh. Interesting to see how other people tackle the same text.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Wie dumm die waren

How dumb they were -! (1929)
by Kurt Tucholsky

In golden coaches like these they rode around; just like in fairy tales. Everyone could see right away who was king of the land - everyone was supposed to see. Today it's completely different.

The most powerful man sits in the rear seat of his large automobile, and no one sees him. The automobile is especially elegant, a good make; on its dark door are a few small letters, that is all. The man who sits inside might control the petroleum demand of half the world, but he doesn't have a golden coach. The man who sits inside can start a war and, if business necessitates, peace - but he hasn't decorated his car with peacock feathers. He owns half your country, and you don't see it; you don't even know it. True power is anonymous. When they're out there throwing stones and ready to string up some small evildoer on the lantern post, the man in the car smiles. He knows better. Only a few know him. If he's very clever, the newspapers won't even know his name.

That's why it was easier back then with revolutions: the symbols were so wonderfully convenient. An emperor's palace; the Bastille; golden coaches - please, help yourself. Today...?

David's verse rendering will follow in a few days.

German original:
In solch goldenen Kutschen sind sie nun gefahren: wie im Märchen. Jeder hat gleich sehen können, wer da König im Lande gewesen ist - jeder hat es sehen sollen.
Heute ist das ganz anders.
Der Mächtigste sitzt im Fond seines großen Wagens, und niemand sieht ihn. Der Wagen ist besonders elegant, eine gute Marke; auf der dunklen Tür stehn ein paar kleine Buchstaben, das ist alles. Der drin sitzt, kontrolliert vielleicht den Petroleumbedarf der halben Welt, aber eine goldene Kutsche hat er nicht. Der drin sitzt, kann Krieg machen und, wenn es das Geschäft so mit sich bringt, Frieden - aber Straußenfedern hat er sich nicht auf den Wagen gesteckt. Er besitzt dein halbes Land, und du siehst es nicht; du weißt es gar nicht. Wahre Macht ist anonym. Wenn sie draußen Steine werfen und irgendwelchen kleinen Übeltäter an die Laterne haben wollen, dann lächelt der drin im Wagen. Er weiß es besser. Ihn kennen nur wenige. Wenn er sehr klug ist, kennen die Zeitungen nicht einmal seinen Namen.
Daher man es denn früher mit den Revolutionen einfacher hatte: die Symbole waren so schön bequem. Ein Kaiserschloß; die Bastille; goldene Kutschen — bitte nur zugreifen. Heute...?

"Wie dumm die waren -!" in "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" (1929)

Friday, January 06, 2006

Augen in der Grossstadt

Eyes in the Big City (1930)
by Kurt Tucholsky

When you go to work
early in the morning
when you stand in the station
with all your troubles:
the city shows you
in a funnel of people
a million faces:
Two strange eyes, a quick glance,
the brows, the pupils, the lids -
What was that? Your happiness, perhaps...
gone, passed, no more.

All your life you walk
on a thousand streets;
you see on your way,
those who forgot you.
An eye winks,
the soul rings;
you found it,
only seconds long...
Two strange eyes, a quick glance,
the brows, the pupils, the lids -
What was that? No one turns back the time...
gone, passed, no more.

You're obliged on your way
to wander through cities;
you see for a pulsebeat
the unknown other.
It could be a fiend,
it could be a friend,
or could in the struggle
offer a hand.
A looking over
then passing by...
Two strange eyes, a quick glance,
the brows, the pupils, the lids -
What was that? A piece of grand humanity!
Gone, passed, no more.

David Raphael Israel's rendering of the poem is here.
The German original is here.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Das Laecheln der Mona Lisa

Two significant events occurred in December 2005:
1) Scientists discovered why the Mona Lisa is smiling.
2) The copyright on the German author Kurt Tucholsky expired.

What's the connection? Tucholsky had a poem about Mona Lisa, which I've attempted to translate, with little regard or feeling for poetic form, I'm afraid. But I thought I'd present it here:

The Smile of Mona Lisa (1928)
Kurt Tucholsky (1890 – 1935)

I can't turn my eyes from you
the way you hang over your guardian
with softly folded hands,
and grin.

As famous as the Tower of Pisa
your smile stands for irony.
Yes... why is the Mona Lisa smiling?
Is she laughing at us, about us, despite us, with us
against us -
or some other why?

You silently teach us what must be
because your image, Lisa, proves:
one who has seen much of this world
smiles, lays the hands on the abdomen
and is silent.

Tucholsky was a brilliant and prescient satirist of the Weimar Republic era in Germany who saw exactly where the country was going politically and warned against it. He was so on target, to me it's as if he could actually see the future. I'm not the first person to call his work visionary. I intend to translate some of his shorter pieces sometime soon, just to show how accurate they still are.

I originally translated this to send it to David Raphael Israel as it related to his delightful lyric on Mona Lisa. He took my translation and made a real poem out of it, worthy of the original! We intend to do more of these in the future.

The German original is here.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Introduction and Purpose

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.