The Democratic Judge, a new translation

Several consecutive hours of document review late at night can set your mind to Bertolt Brecht’s poetry (it’s a complicated thought process, in this case aided by Kulturblog’s discussion of international literature). Thus, I have been thinking of Brecht’s great poem, Der demokratische Richter ("The Democratic Judge"), for a couple of hours and now inflict a new, rough translation of it on the world through this blog. Brecht’s poetry has a charm I’ve not encountered elsewhere.

In Los Angeles vor den Richter, der die Leute examiniert
Die sich bemühen, Bürger der Vereinigten Staaten zu werden
Kam auch ein Italienischer Gastwirt. Nach ernsthafter
Leider behindert durch seiner Unkenntnis der neuen Sprache
Antwortete er im Examen auf die Frage:
Was bedeutet das 8. Amendment? zögernd:
1492. Da das Gesetz die Kenntnis der Landessprache dem
          Bewerber vorschreibt
Wurde er abgewiesen. Wiederkommend
Nach drei Monaten, verbracht mit weiteren Studien
Freilich immer noch behindert durch die Unkenntnis der
          neuen Sprache
Bekam er diesmal die Frage vorgelegt: Wer
War der General, der im Bürgerkrieg siegte? Seine Antwort
1492. (Laut und freundlich erteilt.) Wieder weggeschickt
Und ein drittes Mal wiederkommend, beantwortete er
Eine dritte Frage: Für wie viele Jahre wird der Präsident
Wieder mit: 1492. Nun
Erkannte der Richter, dem der Mann gefiel, daß er die neue
Nicht lernen konnte, erkundigte sich
Wie er lebte, und erfuhr: schwer arbeitend. Und so
Legte ihm der Richter beim vierten Erscheinen die Frage

Wurde Amerika entdeckt: Und auf Grund seiner richtigen
1492, erhielt er die Bürgerschaft.

An Italian barkeep
came once before the judge who examines
those who seek U.S. citizenship in Los Angeles. After earnest
and handicapped by his inability
with the new language
he gave as answer to the question:
What does the Eighth Amendment mean? hesitantly:
1492. Because the law requires of the applicant
          Knowledge of the national tongue
he was rejected. Appearing again
three months later, and armed with further studies
but unfortunately still handicapped by his inability with the
          New language
he was this time given the question: Who
was the victorious general in the Civil War? His answer
1492. (Given in a loud and friendly voice.) Sent away once again
and appearing a third time, he answered
a third question: For how long is a President
again with: 1492. Now
the judge, who liked the man, recognizing that he could not
the new language, asked him,
how he made his living, and learned: through hard labor. And so
when he appeared a fourth time, the judge asked him the

was America discovered: And based on his correct
1492, he was made a U.S. citizen.

(c) John Fowles 2005

10 Responses to The Democratic Judge, a new translation

  1. Sarebear says:

    Pass? Hee. Great poem.

  2. Jonathan Green says:

    John, I’ve been ignoring this post for days because I assumed that “The Democratic Judge” was an anti-constructionist rant. Shame on me for not recognizing the title. I don’t remember this poem, either–it must not have made it into the published selected poems. Too bad.

    Just a few comments, because every poetry translation deserves a serious reading:

    To my ear, “barkeeper” sounds a bit less respectable than “Gastwirt.” How about just a friendly neighborhood “barkeep”?

    I don’t get your capitalization of first lines. It looks like the German capitalizes the first word of every line. In the English translation, you capitalize the beginning of sentences, but you also capitalize the indented single words. Why? I’m not saying it doesn’t work, just trying to get a better sense of your strategy.

    Napoleon Dynamite has “skills”. The Italian Barkeep has no skill with the language. “Lacking skills with the new language” is in any case a construction that occurs twice and is wooden both times. (Also, fix the typo in the fifth line of the German, please.)

    The (c) at the end of the translation would probably cause one of the Br*cht heirs to have a seizure. They’re supposed to be quite assertive about such things.

    Otherwise, I really like the translation, and the poem. Thanks.

  3. john f. says:

    Thanks Jonathan. It’s in the red book. I don’t have it on me right now. (But it is buried somewhere that is not too noticeable.)

    I didn’t capitalize any first lines that weren’t grammatically correct to capitalize in English, which includes words following a colon (sure, some will argue not to capitalize those, but I felt it was okay in this instance). I only capitalized the indented words, mostly on a whim because I thought it looked more catchy, but at least I was consistent. I am surprised that you didn’t take issue with my choice of indented words. You will notice that they are not the same as the German in every case. This was a more complicated matter, and I went with what I felt was the main idea of the line as my basis for which word to indent, but I kept the indentation in the same location spatially.

    I will fix the typo and make some changes incorporating your suggestion. As for the (c), my translation would have been copyrighted anyway, even absent the (c), but the (c) gives clearer notice. I shouldn’t care (and it appalls me to hear that Brecht’s heirs are quite assertive about these things–what hypocrisy considering the content of what the subject matter of their asserted copyright is. Of course, Brecht himself never really minded wealth, despite his aesthetic denouncements of it.) if people use it or copy and paste it and turn it in to their professors in fulfilment of their assignments, but since I took the time I guess I do care.

    Thanks again for your comments. I have always found this poem strangely moving and uncomfortable at the same time.

  4. Great poem. (Not knowing German I’m not qualified to pass judgement on the translation, but it seems good enough in English!)

    The only problem is that it’s marred by the notion that being a barkeep is a worthy occupation. That puts him among the evil and conspiring men in the last days… ;->

  5. john f. says:

    That’s some food for thought, I suppose. . . .

  6. Today my first encounter with this marvelous poem (in German) made me laugh and sobb for at least half an hour. I have never been moved in this way by poetry, and I don’t think it’s mainly because I am about to take my own citizenship interview or only because I’m in Germany and homesick right now for my Distant Beloved America.
    I felt immediately compelled to make my own translation into English, which I did. My version is somewhat similar to yours in choice of words and also in sentence structure (except for the beginning). I used “innkeeper” instead of barkeep which seemed more reputable and still whithin the meaning of “Gastwirt”. For “schwer arbeitend” I used the literal translation “hard working” because this phrase in my mind belongs to the quintessential canon of american values. I translated the phrase “wie er lebte” literally as well, as “how he lived”. Although the term “to make a living” is much more common it’s meaning felt too narrow to me and I wanted to preserve the sense of a broader interest of the judge in the existence of the Italian applicant.

    On the question of indentations: I’m not a scholar or in anyway educated in poetry, nor have I seen Brecht’s autographs, but it seems rather obvious to me that the only reason for the indentations in the German version is simply the lack of space at the end of a long line. Browsing through Brecht’s collected poems in German (Suhrkamp) I cannot find one case of a one- or two-word indentation, which isn’t preceeded by a line running the full width of the page. In other words these (visually annoying) indentations don’t appear to me as structural or expressive devices but as practical but unesthetic choices by the editor. This would also explain why the indentations aren’t capitalized (except when starting with a noun).
    If you do see poetic meaning in the use of the indentations I would love to know about it!
    Best regards,
    Ulrich Eichenauer

  7. john f. says:

    Thanks Ulrich. I’d love to see your translation. I have also translated Goethe’s Erlkönig in case you’re interested in seeing that.

  8. Steve Carr says:

    I might have said ‘tavern owner’, thinking of Mr Martini in “wonderful life”

    You’ve caught the abrupt stops that give the poem pace nicely. I hadn’t realized that some of them need to be re-ordered from the German. The pause before the final ‘Wann’ transcends language.

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