Talking Translation with Brecht’s Translator, Eric Bentley

This year’s Copeland Colloquium, themed “Words in Transit: The Cultures of Translation,” has brought to campus a variety of artists and performers who seek to engage their audiences by understanding the use and function of language in our modern society. Established in 1971 with the intention “to bring together people of diverse backgrounds and different perspectives to engage with faculty and students at Amherst College in a way designed to promote the cross-fertilization of ideas,” this year’s theme does exactly that, using an interdisciplinary approach to attempt to understand the art of translation.

Eric Ostling and Karyn Levitt

On March 10th, the German Department will bring Karyn Levitt and Eric Ostling, performers of the translated works of the influential 20th century German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, to campus for a lecture-concert about the composers, translators, and collaborators who worked with Brecht throughout his career in Germany, Denmark and the United States. Throughout the lecture-concert, Karyn will perform various songs from The Brecht-Eisler Song Book, which contains poems by Brecht that were put to music by Hanns Eisler and were translated into English by Brecht’s first and most noted translator, Eric Bentley.

During winter break, I had the opportunity to speak with Eric Bentley about his life and career working with Brecht to translate a variety of plays and songs for an English-speaking audience. A personal friend of Brecht’s, Mr. Bentley is currently 98 years old with the distinction of being considered the world’s preeminent expert on Brecht; Mr. Bentley began a correspondence with Brecht after meeting him at UCLA that eventually evolved into a great collaborative relationship between the two men. I spoke with Mr. Bentley about his insights and process of translation, while learning more about his opinions of the performances of Brecht’s poetry:

PG: What is your translation strategy?

EB: I don’t have a consistent approach, but I have an approach depending on what I’m translating. Let me explain that a little bit. Some Brecht plays come through too diffuse in English if you do literally what’s in the German; an example of that is The Good Woman of Setzuan. What I did was first publish a literal translation, and then I adapted that to the stage for a given actress, which was Uta Hagen, and the second version, the version for the stage was shorter; in other words, I cut a lot of the German sentences. I didn’t just cut things here and there, I cut every page a little bit to say things as we do in English more briefly than the Germans do. And I felt it needed a lot of that, whereas The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which I translated, I felt every word of the German was needed. It was written in a different style, and Brecht was not using a natural over-expressiveness of German, but stripped it like it was already in English, so I tried to translate every word and still have some style of naturalness that a literal translation doesn’t have. In other words, I didn’t translate any shorter than the German – I did every word – but I tried to use English rhythms rather than German ones, which involved being a little less literal, so although [my version] is just as long as the German, it’s not always literally with the German.

I’m talking now about having two different approaches to two plays, according to their nature. Not all of Brecht’s works demanded the same approach, and you have to explore everything in the original that you can; explore not as a scientific translator, but as a fellow writer of English to what it is in German, and get some equivalence in English for what the German is, which will be different from the German way of saying it. So whereas, with The Good Woman of Setzuan, I actually published two different versions, the literal and the abridged; in the case of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, I occasionally altered it, but I didn’t publish two wholly different versions; the later versions were always the early versions with a few, what I considered, improvements in the style of the English. Each of Brecht’s plays has its own style, although there is a common characteristic of Brechtian style; nevertheless, there is a great deal of variety in it that he did according to the subject manner or according to the state of public opinion when he wrote it, so it was always something new.

PG: Can you speak about the role of songs in Brecht’s works?

EB: Brecht, from the beginning, was a poet; I should say that better. He was a poet before he was a playwright, and he remained a poet as a playwright. Nearly all of his plays have songs; in fact, you would expect a Brecht play to have songs. Between operatic works and just plays with songs, the two traditions existed everywhere and nonetheless in the early 20th century. The difference in the operatic is writing for voices with a much wider range and much greater musicality than the plays with music. The plays with music may be better from the poet’s point of view, in that the words are more important, but in opera the music is always the main thing, or tends to be. So [Brecht] had to think that over before, or talk it over with [his collaborator] Kurt Weill; for instance, in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, the big opera of Brecht and Weill, Brecht’s view of it was somewhat different [from Weill’s]. Weill wanted to show the thing as going the whole way towards opera, requiring the four main voices of opera – soprano, tenor, etc. Brecht, in the same work, would arrange for it to be sung by actors for which the music has to be somewhat adapted, made simpler, and transpositions have to happen, particularly from higher to lower keys.

Lotta Lenya, Weill’s wife, who sang many of the leading parts [in his operas], had her own difficulty; she never had a real singer’s voice, and what she did have disappeared before she was middle aged. So she ended up singing certain Weill songs an octave below from what she began with. Even an octave below meant that all of the technicals were very simple, but when you transpose less than an octave, it was very complicated often. Nevertheless, that was done for her. When she outlived Weill and laid down the rules for other singers, she said that Weill opera should be sung as opera and they shouldn’t be singing or transposing down and you shouldn’t hire a singer like herself, who requires to be singing an octave below. So she didn’t agree with her own adaptations; nevertheless, I, as an outsider hearing the opera, liked it better with the transpositions sung by actors, but some of my musician friends don’t agree with me there. A pure musician would prefer the way Weill wrote it.

PG: Was your process of translating the songs any different from the plays and his other works?

EB: Here we get into arguments about translation of all poetry; it’s been said that all poetry is untranslatable, and Robert Frost said that “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” I have to, in justification of translators, take a different view of that, and will point out that everybody accepts certain translations as bearers of the total poetry of the original.

For instance, the Bible contains books of poetry, especially the Psalms, which I’m sure a lot of people think that the Psalms of David were written in perfect English, because that’s what they’ve always heard, and they didn’t think of them as translations because they’re so eloquent in English. Linguists might ask if their eloquence is the same as in the original, and experts will find that it’s not the same, but nevertheless, it is poetic. So translation of poetry, whether or not it’s been close to the original, has to be itself poetic and have poetic power, if the original has poetic power.

The point I’m making about translation now could be made in a different way; for instance, if there’s a joke in the dialogue, and when you translate it, it isn’t funny, you have to substitute a joke that is funny in the language you’re speaking. If you carry that principle out, it justifies altering a lot; I think that our ancestors understood that, because people who can compare the Psalms [in English] with the Psalms in Hebrew will find the differences of not just tense, but differences of meter, versification, which are very radical differences.

Another thought in English would be the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which has a famous English translation by the Victorian poet [Edward] FitzGerald. It’s such a good poem in English that you feel it must be the original to a very great extent, but people who know the original version, which I don’t, say they are very different. In other words, I would say it’s the poem by FitzGerald based on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam… I’ve read translations that are said to be much more literal. They’re not as good English, so probably it’s FitzGerald’s talent that makes the difference and it stands out as an English poem, I would say, based on a foreign one.

I don’t believe that Brecht offers different problems from other poets; all poetry is hard to translate, and some people think it’s impossible to translate. I don’t agree with them, but I do think that there has to be new elements that a literal translation won’t get that poetic quality. It is particularly difficult for people to discuss Brecht because his dialogue seems so natural and obvious that you feel it must be the same in English as it was in German, but if you compare one translation with another, you find that that isn’t so. The differences are subtle, and they’re important, and they exist, and I think the answer is steeping oneself into the work to get a sense of its aesthetic quality, stylistic quality, and not thinking about the translation as such. You have to get something of this quality, and I don’t think that Brecht is any more difficult than the other great German poets [to translate]; I don’t think, in other words, that they present all that many special qualities; they all present them. I’ve tried to translate other German poets as well as poets of other nationalities, and I find them all impossibly difficult, but sometimes you arrive at a result that is horribly close to the original but has its own power as a piece of new writing.

PG: Can you speak a little more about how you got into translation?

EB: I came to America from England as a graduate student at Yale, and the graduate school demanded [that I know] three foreign languages, and I only had two, English and Latin. So I decided to study German; my original study of it was academic, just to pass their exams at Yale. But later on I met both Brecht and other refugee writers [from Germany during the Nazi regime] at my first job, which was at UCLA. I slightly later married a German woman, and I went from academic German, or literary German, to actual current German, conversational German, with her. We talked German a lot together, and I learned a lot, bringing me nearer to Brecht because he uses a lot of colloquialism. My training of the older German would not have been enough to enable me to translate Brecht, but what made the difference, was that I was able, in Los Angeles, to communicate, first with my then wife, and second with many German refugees that I met there and also in New York. So I went from literary German to ordinary German and with the two together, I managed to translate Brecht quite by chance – I was introduced to Brecht, as I tell in my Brecht Memoir in Bentley on Brecht.

My first connection with a Brechtian text, more than a poem, in other words, a full length play, was in New York, and the play, which we did under the title The Private Life of the Master Race, was being produced in German in New York in a hotel. And I got to know the director of it, as mentioned in my book, and he gave me a copy of the German script. That was my first contact with full length Brecht, and that was the first whole play that I translated after seeing it in German and taking it over. So my contact was always very intimate with the German original and its context in the theater when it had a context in the theater. And that was all during World War II, I think the production of The Private Life of the Master Race was in the last month of the war, in 1945, in an auditorium belonging to Hunter College in New York.

When I went on to other plays, which Brecht supplied me with in manuscript, because they weren’t published in German yet, such as The Good Woman of Setzuan, [my wife] Maya did a literal translation, complete before I touched it, of the play, so that was one way in which [I translated]. I only did that with one play and subsequently published two different versions of it. With Brecht himself, I had contact, as I described in the Brecht Memoir section, in Switzerland and in Berlin, and after the War in the late 40s and 50s. Then Brecht died in 1956, and I had translated quite a few things by then, and I’m not sure how carefully he read them because [with] inquiries to him, I’d write him asking the meaning of something or a word I didn’t understand, and I would always get a reply and it was written by his secretaries and his collaborators. I don’t know how close [an eye] he kept on translation, but he had his assistant point out my mistakes and things like that.

Mr. Bentley shares here many of his thoughts about translation that I find evident in my own language classes here at Amherst: that translation is not perfect. Certain words, especially idiomatic phrases, have meaning specific to a particular language, and through translation, that meaning is lost. As Mr. Bentley describes, translation is not an art, nor is it a science; finding that suitable joke to substitute for the original one because of lost meaning in the translation certainly is a challenge, albeit a rewarding one.

Karyn and Eric’s performance of Brecht’s songs brings a new meaning to the text, adding value to the original words by conveying emotion, drama, and tone through the music while interacting with the audience to engage them with their art. My sister and I enjoyed meeting Karyn and Eric during winter break and seeing one of their performances; it was quite fun. While singing a folk song about a young couple, Karyn pointed to my sister and I in the audience as if we were the song’s Jack and Jill, leading many others in the audience to marvel at the great coincidence that two people with the same exact orange hair ended up being in a relationship. All in good fun, and for the audience’s enjoyment, this interaction is typical of Karyn and Eric’s powerful performances that bring to life literary masterpieces.

Karyn Levitt and Eric Ostling will perform in Porter House at Amherst College on March 10th, 2015 at 4:30pm with light refreshments to follow. For more information, please visit