B is for Bertolt Brecht


I know, I could have chosen an easy one like Dave Barry or L. Frank Baum.  Instead, I’m going with Brecht, for one reason only: “Mack the Knife.”

Just about everyone has heard the legendary Bobby Darin:

Maybe you’ve sung along.  I think I’ve performed a few karaoke versions of it myself.  So how does Bobby Darin singing “Mack the Knife” relate to Bertolt Brecht, a German playwright who died in 1956?  Brecht wrote the song lyrics to what translates as “The Murder Ballad of Mackie Messer” for a German musical drama called Die Dreigroschenoper, or The Threepenny Opera.   In it, the character is a horrible person, committing murder, arson, rape, and robbery.  Listening to Bobby Darin sing, you’re more caught up in his stage presence, and perhaps you don’t hear the lyrics.  The shark has white teeth.  When he bites, scarlet billows (of blood) spread.  But he always wears gloves, so no tracing back to old Mack.  By the way, Mack, or Macheath, goes way, way back to another opera, The Beggar’s Opera, written in the early 1700s.

Meanwhile, Mack the Knife has struck again, because on a lovely Sunday morning, a body lies on the sidewalk, just oozing life.  Louie Miller withdrew cash and then suddenly disappeared.  Now, Mack is spending money like there’s no tomorrow.  Hmmm.

So Miss Jenny Diver, Miss Sukey Tawdry (what a great name), Miss Lotte Lenye, and Miss Lucy Brown – you all better watch out.  Mack’s back in town.

There’s another verse, written by Brecht when The Threepenny Opera was made into a movie in 1930 (this is the translation):

There are some who are in the darkness, and the others are in the light.  And you see the ones in brightness, those in darkness drop from sight.

Lost in Translation (or, leber is not liebe)


It’s happened to the best of us, and usually at the worst possible moment.  Misunderstanding a foreign word or phrase can have hilarious or disastrous results, but when you make a mistake, you’ll remember it for a long time.

“Let’s stop and eat.”

My mother and I were somewhere between Landquart and Chur, in eastern Switzerland.  I’d wanted her to see the country I loved so much, and we were enjoying a week of travel by rail, the best way to see Switzerland.  Having started from Zurich, we thought we might go all the way to Bellinzona, in the sunny canton of Ticino, where Italian is the main language spoken.  I’d been thinking about Italian food all morning, but my mom was hungry at the moment and really wanted to stop for lunch.

Outside the snow was falling, fast and heavy.  My mother’s face was bright like a child’s as she gazed in wonderment at the scenery beyond the train window.  We were as high as the treetops, and watched the snow fall from steel-gray skies as we descended into the valley approaching Chur.  I checked the timetables and figured we could grab a lunch at the station in Chur and still get a train to Bellinzona, arriving in the afternoon.

“Okay, we’re here.  We’ll cross the street and eat at the station café,” I said.  Every train station has a café, either within the station itself or just outside.  In our case, we had only to cross the deserted, snow-covered street to enter the warmth of the café.

This was German-speaking country.  I don’t speak German.  Even after a year in Fribourg, where both French and Swiss-German are spoken, I had concentrated on French, so reading a menu was a bit of a challenge.  I knew just a few words.

“Look, schweinen leber.  That’s pig, so it’s either ham or pork, and comes with frites (fries).  Sound good?”  My mother nodded happily and we ordered two lunch specials, plus a couple of beers.

Our plates arrived, and the pork or ham didn’t look like either pork or ham.  The thin slices of meat were covered with a brown gravy.  My mom took a bite and make a face.  “A little gamey,” she said, and picked up her glass of beer for a long swallow.  I tried mine.  Ugh.  Mom was right (of course!).  We ate fries and drank beer.  The schweinen leber remained on the plate.

Before boarding the train to lovely, sunny Bellinzona, I bought some chocolate and a German-English pocket dictionary on display at the kiosk.  Back on the train, I opened the dictionary to look for the word leberLeber, I should have guessed, means liver.