What were Penguin thinking? "Mother Courage and her Children" is a German-language play set in the 1600s. There is therefore no excuse for having one character turn to another to say "Bob's your uncle" within the opening lines. When reading this play, we are supposed to be hearing the voices of German peasants and soldiers. However, I found myself listening to what sounded like north-of-England coal-miners. (Perhaps this was translator John Willett's clever rendering of the 'Verfremdungseffekt'. If so, it has certainly succeeded in alienating this reader.) Within the first two scenes, we hear Mother Courage herself using such choice verbiage as:
"Talk proper to me, do you mind, and don't you dare say I'm pulling your leg in front of my unsullied children, 'taint decent, I got no time for you. My honest face, that's me licence with the Second Regiment, and if it's too difficult to read there's nowt I can do about it."
Talk proper, indeed. It gets worse. Here is another dollop of Yorkshire pudding for the reader to chew on:
"My eldest boy. It's two years since I lost sight of him, they pinched him from me on the road, must think well of him if the general's asking him to dinner, and what kind of a dinner can you offer? Nowt."
The dinner, it seems, is a dog's dinner. So awful was this translation that I soon wound up buying the Eyre Methuen edition (with Eric Bentley translating). Compare-and-contrast the two translations:
"Stay here. You're never happy till you're in a fight. He has a knife in his boot and he knows how to use it."
"Stop there! You varmint! I know you, nowt but fights. There's a knife down his boot. A slasher, that's what he is."
"Dear God, it's my Eilif!"
"Jesus Christ, it's my Eilif."
"Listen. When a general or a king is stupid and leads his soldiers into a trap. they need the virtue of courage."
"Look, s'pose some general or king is bone stupid and leads his men up shit creek, then those men've got to be fearless, there's another virtue for you."
So it was obvious by the end of Scene 2 that the cause was lost. I skipped to the end to see did it get any better. Nope:
"I hope I can pull the wagon by myself. Yes, I can manage. There's not much inside it now."
"Hope I can pull the cart along by meself. Be all right, nowt much inside it."
But why should we expect any better from this edition? No less than four different writers contribute three prefatory essays before the play has even started. They contain such aeroboard passages as:
"... perhaps no other literary or performative work has so relentlessly and ruthlessly engaged in such a critical-aesthetic experiment on war."
"Brecht understood, well before Anthony Swofford in his 2003 Gulf War I chronicle 'Jarhead', that all performative discourse on war, even the most antiwar, never rises above 'pornography' - hence the dangerous high-wire act Brecht performs with Mother Courage and its setting within the Thirty Years war."
And in case the clanking prose of the first quote didn't make enough of an impression on you, the next page reminds the reader that:
"For such a relentless and ruthlessly intellectual and emotional piece, it is a stunningly simple story."
Leaving aside the fact that Swofford wrote a memoir - which was therefore nothing to do with the 'performative' world, Brecht's "aesthetic and critical enterprise" was clearly about as dangerous as the consumption of a low-fat yoghurt. But the central problem here is the translation. We all know that verisimilitude was hardly Brecht's number one priority: that's no excuse, however, for Willett's trashing of the German language. The most important question facing any reader is how much value they will get from this translation. The answer is: nowt.