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Tom Kuhn: Translating 'Die Maske des Bösen'

This article has previously been published on Campus: The Poetry School

The translation of poetry, as well as being, famously, impossible, is, for the translator, the most wonderful and most punishing form of close reading.

There is no limit to the aspects of the poem at hand to which the translator must desire to be attentive. Form in all its forms, meaning in all its meanings: rhythm, musicality, flow, associations, allusions, hints, the inviting gesture of the opening, the play of ‘dark’ vowels in the second line, the easy poise of the description, the effortful cross-rhythms at the end. Then reconstituting, as a voice, a something that reads as a poem or as an authentic statement in English. The process of translation is a rigorous delight. But the product? As a translator you also always carry with you an anxious awareness of the ways in which you have fallen short. You have seen it, that, at least, you hope; but you have failed to carry it over.

Here is an example: a reflection on the problems posed, in fact, by a single word:


Die Maske des Bösen

An meiner Wand hängt ein japanisches Holzwerk

Maske eines bösen Dämons, bemalt mit Goldlack.

Mitfühlend sehe ich

Die geschwollenen Stirnadern, andeutend

Wie anstrengend es ist, böse zu sein.


This is a very well-known little Brecht poem, from 1942, written during the first phases of the Battle of Stalingrad (that may or may not turn out to be relevant) when Brecht was in the United States – it was actually written on a journey from Santa Monica, where he was living at the time, to New York, where one of his close collaborators and lovers, Ruth Berlau, lived. The poem is well-known in English too, under the title ‘The mask of evil’ in the translation by Hoffman Hays, first published in New York in 1947.


The mask of evil

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving

The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold laquer.

Sympathetically I observe

The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating

What a strain it is to be evil.


When I came to do my own version it was hard to shake off the formulations and cadences of this established English rendition. The idea of ‘the mask of evil’ is familiar even in German readings of the poem, and it is probably the first understanding that comes to the German mind too.

Looking more closely at the title, however, we immediately encounter an interesting ambiguity: ‘des Bösen‘ is an adjectival noun, but we cannot tell from this genitive inflection whether Brecht means ‘das Böse’, which would be the abstract moral category of ‘evil’, or whether he means ‘der Böse’, which would be simply ‘the evil man’ or, in this case, ‘the evil demon’. Moreover, ‘böse‘ can mean, as an adjective, such a huge range of things in German. It can be ‘evil’, ‘bad’, but it can equally be ‘angry’, ‘aggressive’, ‘cross’. Applied to a child, it can even just mean ‘naughty’. There is no similarly ambiguous word in English – so somehow, as a translator, I am going to have to decide.

I’ll give you the whole poem now, in as literal a translation as I can muster, just not – for now! – translating that word ‘böse’:


The mask of Bös

On my wall hangs a Japanese woodwork [carving] // Mask of a bös demon [you see, German is an easy language!], painted with gold lacquer // Withfeelingly [sympathetically or compassionately] I see // The swollen forehead veins, indicating // How effortful/strenuous it is to be böse.


It is in an irregular, unrhymed form, with a lightly elevated register in German – so in some ways not hard to translate – but for that word ‘böse’, which occurs three times, and is of course the key.

I found myself suspicious of Hays’s translation. ‘Evil’ has connotations in English of absolute moral abstraction, and Brecht is not that interested in moral absolutes like ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’. He is not a thoroughgoing moral relativist, but people in Brecht are made ‘bad’ by circumstances, they are not of their nature ‘evil’. As Peachum succinctly puts it in The Threepenny Opera:


We would be good – instead of low

But our condition’s such it can’t be so.

[Another dubious translation, perhaps, but it’ll do – from the Willett/Manheim version published by Methuen Drama. The ‘First Three-Penny Finale’ from the end of Act 1, in an adaptation of Ralph Manheim and John Willett’s translation.]


And think of the whole argument of The Good Person of Szechwan which, by the way, mostly dates from the same period as the poem, the beginning of the 1940s. There, part of Brecht’s central thrust is to disarm the absolute moral injunctions of Christianity and modern bourgeois society, to make us see that our morality is contingent and alterable. There is an important interlude towards the end where Wang, the water-seller, confronts the Gods with his own suggestion for a ‘reduction of the precepts’: ‘For instance, that only good will should be required instead of love, [...] or fairness instead of justice, [...] plain decency instead of honour’.

And just before this, the good person herself, Shen Teh, has confronted Mrs Shin, her rapacious predecessor as proprietor of the tobacconist’s (this is John Willett’s translation): ‘Why are you so unpleasant?’ Ha! ‘unpleasant’! It is actually the same word in German, ‘böse’, but this time John Willett has plumped for quite a different and much weaker English word – rather an English gentleman’s euphemism, one cannot help feeling.


Why are you so unpleasant?

To trample on one’s fellows

Is surely exhausting? Veins in your temples

Stick out with the strenuousness of greed.

[Scene 7 and the subsequent Interlude: BFA 6, pp. 247 and 253; Collected Plays 6, pp. 77 and 84 for Willett’s translation.]


The selfsame image as in the poem.

So let us return to the poem and look for some other contextual detail to help us decide between the many possible alternative translations of ‘böse’. There is precious little help to be had from within the short poem itself, but it refers to a Noh theatre mask which Brecht himself actually owned. Here it is:

Brecht picks out the ‘geschwollenen Stirnadern’. Swollen veins at the temples are perhaps associated more with anger than with evil. Interestingly, when I showed the mask to other people, some thought it expressive more of terror or intense anxiety than of anything evil. ‘The mask of the intensely anxious man’ – I like that! But it won’t do as a translation of ‘böse’. It is not clear quite how much Brecht knew about the mask, but he was genuinely interested in the theatre traditions of the Far East, so it is reasonable to assume he had some idea. In Noh theatre such masks are worn by fearsome deities or spirits.

It remains unclear precisely what play or what character this mask is for. It shares characteristics with both the Shishi-guchi – lion spirit – and the Akujo-Beshimi – a more fearful aged god). (Thanks to Greg Irvine of the V&A for intelligence about Noh masks.) Generally they are not at all ‘evil’ in that satanic sense, rather they may even be, if we take them back to their Buddhist origins, fierce precisely in order to protect the temple from evil. They may look mean, but their meanness is apotropaic, designed to avert evil.

So I try out some other words for nastiness, to see if any of them seem to hit the mark. You can have fun with a thesaurus: wicked, vicious, choleric, villainous, flagitious … there are so many words for the malign and ireful in English! Another problem arises immediately of course: the word occurs at three points in the poem and whatever we choose has to fit on each occasion – the title, then line two: ‘The mask of a ___ demon’, and the last line: ‘How strenuous it is to be ___’. I quite like ‘malevolence/malevolent’. It’s all right in the first two places, but ponderous in the last line. I quite want to use two different words, but I think that won’t do. Besides, ‘malevolent’ is a quite high register word, whereas ‘böse’ is neutral or even low register, depending on the meaning and context.

Another problem with some of these possible solutions is that this is indeed a mask – it is not ‘the face of evil’ (how different that would be!). ‘Evil’ and ‘wicked’ have in English that sense of an inalienable ‘nature’, rather than of an emotion that can be put on or cast aside. In German you can definitely be ‘böse’ one moment, and friendly the next. Brecht’s emphasis on its mask nature implies that there is another face underneath, just as in The Good Person of Szechwan again. Here is Brecht commenting on an earlier draft of that play in his Journal:

Li Gung has to make strenuous efforts to play the part of Lao Go [that is Shen Teh and Shui Ta in the later version], and is no longer capable of appearing böse when dressed in her own clothes [...]. Herein lies an important lesson: how easy it is for her to be good, how hard to be böse. (Compare Journal 9.08.40 where Brecht comments on an earlier version of the play.)

The idea that this bös mask is something put on can be associated with Brecht’s critique of capitalism, or, by extension, of fascism, which was for Brecht an exaggerated form of capitalism. For him the fascist cult of hatred and cruelty was something which was ultimately harmful to themselves, the perpetrators, as a denial of their humanity.

But there is a stumbling-block, or a constraint to this reading. Interestingly, the poet observes the mask ‘mitfühlend’. Surely that one word makes the familiar ‘evil’ reading rather implausible: how would you feel with (or sympathise with) someone who was simply evil? And ‘Mitgefühl’ is scarcely appropriate to a critique of Nazism either, although it perhaps fits the lesser manifestations and agents of capitalism. Brecht often expresses extraordinary compassion for the common soldiers who served Hitler’s aims, but never for the real Nazis, and similarly for the hapless foot-soldiers of capitalism, but never for the real stewards of finance and big business.

So, after this long diversion, I come back round to the idea of aggressive anger, instead of evil. That makes the poem suddenly reminiscent of another play from only a few years earlier: I am thinking of the scene about ‘short’ and ‘long rage’ in Mother Courage (where the German words are unambiguous: Wut and Zorn). We may not sympathise unambiguously with Courage, but we feel for her certainly; and in this scene she is right about the need for a tenacious anger if protest is to lead anywhere.

In this reading of the poem, to be ‘bös’ might just potentially be a positive thing. Sometimes you have to be aggressive, but it is nonetheless an effort. It costs some pain and may compromise your humanity, but the circumstances demand it. The mask and the poem do not seem at first to express that idea. But perhaps the demon needs to be fierce in order to protect the temple, and perhaps we need to be filled with energetic rage in order to defend humanity against fascism. Think of Stalingrad, if you want to re-inject a note of real contextual seriousness.

By the way, in case anyone should ever think Brecht’s writings are only of historical interest: think again. Most of these readings still work, only too well. Over seventy years on, we still haven’t made all that much progress. We encounter people enough in our sadly twisted societies who feel they have to put on the mask of aggression in order to stay with the late-capitalist programme, at the expense of their own humanity; and we find circumstances enough to provoke that rage which may be necessary to bring about any change or improvement in our social condition. That is the shocking and at the same time wonderful thing about working with Brecht’s poetry: it is a constant provocation to engage with the ethics and politics of the present and of my own condition.

Anyway … eventually … I arrive at a translation, a provisional translation – all translations are provisional – this one subtly and yet also very different from the familiar version by Hoffman Hays:


The mask of the angry one

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving

Mask of an angry demon, lacquered in gold.

Feelingly I observe

The swollen veins at his temples, hinting

What an effort it is to be angry.


I like the idea that this version might exist alongside Hays’s ‘mask of evil’, not supplanting it, but augmenting it, illustrating the play of that range of meanings in Brecht’s original (which I presume Brecht enjoyed) and gesturing eloquently at the untranslatability of poetry. Or perhaps I should say: the only contingent translatability of poetry, the necessarily incomplete act of translation. There are another thousand poems to go – I can’t spend this long on each one!