Bertold Brecht in North Korea

Well, more like Brecht for North Korea.  North Koreans may need Bibles, but no less, they need the acidic and informed spite, the angular mockery of state power which is offered by the German dramatist and writer Bertold Brecht and, to a lesser but perhaps more visceral degree, the poison-penned irony of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

So with ambitions to get this translated into Korean (if it isn’t already), I spent a few minutes last week translating some of Brecht’s verses from 1933 into English.  Substitute “Dear Leader” (Kim Jong Il) for “Chancellor” (Hitler) and you may see the use.  WordPress remains problematic in its poetry display (line breaks being overly large), so I’ve consolidated things down via the magic of the “poetic slash.”  Open Radio North Korea, here we come…

The Sorrows of the Chancellor

1.

When the Propaganda Minister speaks of the pain of the people /He shudders, holding back, and then comes a scream:/Our Leader / Is getting grey hair!

2.

When the Chancellor bellows into the radio/The people say: See how hard he works, how he strains himself!/If they had strained so mightily for the whole day/ They could not themselves not bellow so.

3.

Everybody knows: the Chancellor is so worried/About the coming war/That he cannot sleep./What would happen/If the Chancellor let himself fall asleep/And no war came?

4.

Those in neighbouring lands/Speak only with caution about our country,/Loudly judging its war economy and forceful actions/Therefore, when the Chancellor reads foreign newspapers,/He often cries./Then the Propaganda Minister urges the people to dry his tears.

5.

Also, when the Chancellor must slaughter his friends/At the urging of his financial backers,/He has to do it so earnestly./When the people have nothing to eat,/His stomach must growl.

6.

Certainly, when he has destroyed our country through war/He will cry like a child./When your sons and husbands fall in the battlefield/He will groan.  When you again have to feed upon grass/He will look on earnestly.

Then you will know/That you have a good Chancellor.

Bertold Brecht, 1933 // translation from the German by Adam Cathcart, 2011

 

The Sorrows of the Chancellor

 

1.

When the Propaganda Minister speaks of the pain of the people

He shudders, holding back, and then comes a scream:

Our Dear Leader

Is getting grey hair!

 

2.

When the Chancellor bellows into the radio

The people say: See how hard he works, how he strains himself!

If they had strained so mightily for the whole day

They could not themselves not bellow so.

 

3.

Everybody knows: the Dear Leader is so worried

About the coming war

That he cannot sleep.

What would happen

If the Chancellor let himself fall asleep

And no war came?

 

4.

Those in neighbouring lands

Speak only with caution about our country,

Loudly judging its war economy and forceful actions.

Therefore, when the Chancellor reads foreign newspapers,

He often cries.

Then the Propaganda Minister urges the people to dry his tears.

 

5.

Also, when the Chancellor must slaughter his friends

At the urging of his financial backers,

He has to do it so earnestly.

When the people have nothing to eat,

His stomach must growl.

 

6.

Certainly, when he has destroyed our country through war

He will cry like a child.

When your sons and husbands fall in the battlefield

He will groan.  When you again have to feed upon grass

He will look on earnestly.

Then you will know

That you have a good Chancellor.

 

Bertold Brecht

9 thoughts on “Bertold Brecht in North Korea

    1. Good question, Chris! I was frankly kind of hoping you of all people might be interested. I have already begun to sketch the themes for some accompanying musical interludes. Basically it’s “The Sorrows of the Chancellor” for Three Narrators, Cello and Piano. So the text itself is not set to music as in a song. It is read, and then the music amplifies the idea (including some quotations from Nazi and North Korean songs). And then I would like to have it broadcast into the DPRK via Open Radio North Korea. (I think it costs something like $50 for the requisite 15 minutes of airtime.) If you or anyone you know is interested in this project I would of course love to know. Thanks for the comment….

    1. Yes, nothing like a good plate of scorpions over some hot coals to get the metabolism going first thing! Better than the grasses referenced in the poem…

  1. I don’t want to come across as a smartass, but the Great Educator’s name spells Bertolt Brecht, methinks.

    Brecht’s predictions were almost completely true, but one may add at hindsight that the Dear Fuehrer neither cried or groaned when the Reich was nearing its end – he said that the German nation didn’t deserve better, as it failed to win the war. I guess this is a trait most dear leaders are sharing, too.

    Sebastian Haffner once referred to that statement as Hitler’s “treason”.

    1. You would never come across as a smartass, JR: after all, spelling is, among other things, a rather important part in the written communication upon which our lives as authors of a sort depends.

      Haffner, eh?

      1. I do, however, have great trust in what you could do with this stuff, the nuance of it…So I started sawing away on the cello the other night and have some sound files which may take a few days to transfer to the desired mp3 format, but in general I will send you whatever notions/ideas I have as soon as they are sufficiently clear.

        One idea is to have a male adult narrator, a female adult narrator, and a child narrator. Which doesn’t change the translation or the text, obviously, but does give some interest in how it is delivered.

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