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Mackie Messer: Hard To Translate

  1. Mar 1, 2006 #1
    When I was in college I had a recording of The ThreePenny Opera, the well known Broadway/English translation by Marc Blitzstein, and some kids from Germany who'd heard it complained that it was a poor translation: the original was much down and dirtier, more crude and gritty.

    Every once in a while since then I toy with trying to make a "faithful" translation of it. I've never gotten farther than working on the famous "Mack The Knife", though, because that song alone presents so many problems that it is easy to see why Blitzstein didn't so much translate it as "adapt" it into English.

    Here's the first stanza in German:

    Und der Haifisch
    der hat Zahne
    und die tragt er
    im Gesicht
    und MacHeath der
    hat ein Messer
    doch das Messer
    sieht man nicht

    Literally, without trying to rhyme, that translates:

    And the shark
    it has teeth
    and it wears them
    in it's face
    and MacHeath, he
    has a knife
    but the knife
    no one sees.

    So, Blitzstein pulls out the stops and we get:

    "Oh, the shark has
    pretty teeth, dear
    and he shows them
    pearly white.
    Just a jacknife
    Has Macheath, dear,
    and he keeps it
    out of sight."

    That's a good lyric, for sure, but it's quite embellished from the original. He's pretty much rewritten the poem as far as its poetry goes.

    Trying to stick only to the information in the original the very best I've been able to come up with still requires inserting adjectives that aren't in the original just to make it scan right for the music:

    And a shark has
    lots of sharp teeth
    wears them up front
    in his face,
    but though MacHeath
    has a sharp knife
    you won't see it

    I'm wondering if anyone else can see to a simple translation that doesn't require modifying the teeth and knife with adjectives, or adding much of anything for that matter.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 1, 2006 #2
    Now I wish I had my Sinatra and Bobby Darin CDs with me.
  4. Mar 1, 2006 #3
    They both used the Blitzstein.
  5. Mar 1, 2006 #4
    OK, I had an inspiration after I posted and got a version that doesn't modify the teeth or knife:

    And the shark has
    teeth you can't miss
    wears them up front
    in his face
    Yes, and Macheath
    has a knife, but
    you won't see it
  6. Mar 1, 2006 #5


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    The Bobby Darin Version:

    Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
    And it shows them pearly white
    Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe
    And he keeps it … ah … out of sight.

    Ya know when that shark bites, with his teeth, babe
    Scarlet billows start to spread
    Fancy gloves, though, wears old MacHeath, babe
    So there’s nevah, nevah a trace of red.

    Now on the sidewalk … uuh, huh … whoo … sunny mornin’ … uuh, huh
    Lies a body just oozin' life … eeek!
    And someone’s sneakin' ‘round the corner
    Could that someone be Mack the Knife?

    A-there's a tugboat … huh, huh, huh … down by the river don’tcha know
    Where a cement bag’s just a'droopin' on down
    Oh, that cement is just, it's there for the weight, dear
    Five'll get ya ten old Macky’s back in town.

    Now, d'ja hear ‘bout Louie Miller? He disappeared, babe
    After drawin' out all his hard-earned cash
    And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor
    Could it be our boy's done somethin' rash?

    Now … Jenny Diver … ho, ho … yeah … Sukey Tawdry
    Ooh … Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
    Oh, the line forms on the right, babe
    Now that Macky’s back in town.

    Aah … I said Jenny Diver … whoa … Sukey Tawdry
    Look out to Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
    Yes, that line forms on the right, babe
    Now that Macky’s back in town …

    Look out … old Macky is back!!

  7. Mar 1, 2006 #6
    Original German:

    An der Themses
    grunen wasser
    fallen plotzlich
    leute um
    Es ist weder Pest noch Cholera
    doch es heist
    MacHeath geht um.

    My tentative translation:

    There's a rash of
    floating bodies
    in the waters
    of the Themes
    Not the plague
    or other sickness
    It's Macheath's means
    to an end.
  8. Mar 1, 2006 #7


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    Interesting, changed quite a bit.
  9. Mar 1, 2006 #8
    Original German:

    Und Schmul meier
    bleibt verschwunden
    und so mancher
    reiche Mann
    und sein geld hat
    Mackie Messer
    dem man nichts
    beweisen kann.


    And Schmul Meier
    who's still missing
    was a very
    wealthy man
    Mack the knife now
    has his money.
    Try and prove it!
    No one can.
    Last edited: Mar 1, 2006
  10. Mar 1, 2006 #9
    Trouble is, I'm not even sure I've understood the German properly on that verse. There is no tugboat or cement, though.
  11. Mar 1, 2006 #10


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    Changing Shmul Meier to Louie Miller masks the ding at anti-semitism in the original
  12. Mar 1, 2006 #11
    You're right. I was thinking at first that he changed it because "Shmul" is just too weird to American ears, but if that were Blitzstein's concern he could have just changed it to "Sol" or even "Joe" Meier.
  13. Mar 1, 2006 #12
    I know. I just have a craving to listen to it now.
  14. Mar 1, 2006 #13


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    I like Louie Armstrong's version better.:approve:
  15. Mar 1, 2006 #14
    I actually don't care for Sinatra's version much. Especially this part...
  16. Mar 2, 2006 #15
    Original Blitzstein verse:

    Sukey Tawdry, Jenny Diver,
    Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown
    Oh, the line forms on the right, dear
    Now that Mackie's back in town.

    Darrin throws "Lotte Lenya" in there because, of course, she was the wife of the composer, Kurt Weil, and sang the role of Pirate Jenny in many productions of the show, not to mention major roles in most of his collaborations with Brecht.

    However, this whole list-of-women verse doesn't exist at all in the original script. Instead there is a translation-baffling verse whose meaning I can't decipher:

    Und die minderjahr'ge Witwe
    deren namen jeder weis
    Wachte auf und war geshandet
    Mackie welches war Dein Preis!

    Wachte auf und war geschandet
    Mackie welches war Dein Preis!

    Which, as near as I can figure out, means something vaguely to the effect:

    And the under-aged widow
    whose name everyone knows
    woke up and was shamed
    Which, Mackie, was your price!

    woke up and was shamed
    Which, Mackie, was your price!

    What the heck is an "under-aged widow"? I can't make sense of it. Is it some kind of slang? "minderjahrige" means "underaged, minor". I can't make sense of this.

    Anyway, she was shamed, so it probably means he seduced her. It could mean he got her pregnant. But it is completely unclear to me what the implications of it being Mackie's "price" are. I need someone who's sensitive to the colloquial of the original to explain what's being said here.
  17. Mar 3, 2006 #16
    I found a site that explains the history of the opera starting with "The Beggars Opera". Here it explains the scene from the ThreePenny Opera where the song ends and Mackie is introduced to the stage...
    It seems that it is leaving it up to the imagination of the viewers what MacHeath may have done in that house he just left and as he starts down the way walking after Polly. It seems the idea may be that he just killed a young woman's husband and raped her or perhaps made her think that he was her husband in bed with her. "Underage Widow" may be a way of saying that she was young to be a widow. "Mackies Price", now that we see him following Polly, may be some sort of foreshadowing of what "The price for dealing with Mackie" is.

    Had to run.
    Here's the link...
    The essay is pretty lengthy but interesting. For some reason the spelling is messed up quite a bit and some of the words are repeatedly written in short hand. "cl" and "cles" for "class" and "classes" among other things.

    So to continue Brecht was apparently very anti-capitalist and I believe MacHeath in his version was a personification of the seedy underbelly of capitalism. The "I get what I want how ever I can take it" so that may also be a reason for Brecht's usage of the word "price" if we assume that he intended this to mean "the price for dealing with such people".

    Next after Brecht a french film company made a movie of the ThreePenny Opera and the site cites a translation of the same portion of the song...
    I've never seen any version of this so I'm just going from what I have read. I still have no idea what the line "The one whose name we know so well" means.

    ---edit edit---
    Oh and ofcourse that translation may well have been from french lyrics that were changed from Brecht's version.
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2006
  18. Mar 3, 2006 #17
    And a translation in the bibliography of the same site...
    Liberty taken here too.
  19. Mar 3, 2006 #18
    I'm sure the implication is not vague in the original to a German speaker, based on the degree of pointedness of other verses. For instance, even though it's a vague thing to say "Schmul Meier is still missing" it's clear by the end of the verse that we're supposed to infer MacHeath killed him and stole his money, not that anyone can prove it.
    Something like this is a strong possibility. "Underaged" could well be being employed here in the sense of "premature". This is where a German speaker conversant with the coloquialisms of the era, or who understands how Brecht used language, is needed.
    Yes, that's another good possibility, a kind of: "Screw with Mackie: pay the price."
    This was very important to Brecht. The Blitzstein translation pretty much paints MacHeath as a gangster. Brecht wanted him to be seen as an embodyment of Capitalism. That was probably alot clearer in Germany between the wars when this was written, and/but it would be a hard notion to sell to a modern American audience.
    Very poor translation. I can tell the original is much more pointed.
    "Deren namen jeder weis" = "whose name everyone knows" = "you all know who I'm talking about". This line doesn't baffle me: it's meaning is clear in the context of the song since other verses have similar allusions to everyone knowing what MacHeath is up to, but no one daring to point directly at him. In fact the song isn't so much about his crimes as about the fact he gets away with them despite it being common knowledge he's the perpetrator.

    Just like the French one I'm sure this is missing important, pointed implications that would tie it in with the rest of the song. This translation mostly confuses everything.
  20. Mar 3, 2006 #19


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    A bit OT, but when I read this I thought of 50 Cent in his autobio film Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Very close to this view of Mackie. And in that case too, the double image: gangster/capitalist.
  21. Mar 3, 2006 #20
    Gangsters all over the world refer to themselves as "businessmen". There is certainly alot of confusion in their minds about the difference between being a gangster and a capitalist. When Brecht was writing, of course, big business resorted to many gangster-like tactics all the time: hired thugs to break up picket lines, and worse. That continued to a large extent into the '60's or '70's. Now big buisness has gotten more subtle.
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