German Language/German language

Advertisement


Question
In his famous libretto for Die Dreigrosschenoper, Bertolt Brecht says "Erst kommt die Fressen, denn kommt die Morale" (If I've spelled it properly.)

This sentence is quoted a lot in English, typically as abstractions, like "First take care of yourself, then talk morality."

Marc Blitzstein, the best translator of this work into English translated it as "First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong." At least Blitzstein had the proper tone and rhythm. I think "fressen" could be as well translated as "feeding" as "eating".

It has occurred to me that this might refer to a charity "soup kitchen" situation where they feed you and then you have to sit through a sermon. My German isn't good enough to know. What do you think?

Answer
Hello Roger,

thank you a lot for your question.

I had a look at the context this line has in Brecht's play, and I think that the English abstraction comes very close to the original meaning of the quote "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral".

"Fressen" in German describes the way animals eat, to distinguish them from humans. So if this word is used to describe how people eat, it refers to a very wild, rude and rough behavior. In this meaning it should best be translated as to devour or to gorge.

Now, the context in which this line is used tells us a lot about its meaning. The characters Macheath and Jenny talk about how the rich and powerful want to tell poor people how to live their lifes. The rich reproach the poor for stealing or working as prostitutes. However, Macheath and Jenny retort that you can only think about living a morally inoffensive life if you have enough to eat. As long as you have to worry every day if there's enough to eat, you'll do anything to get something.

The song goes on by asking what people actually live off. It concludes that all people only survive because they mistreat other people. This is only possible because people forget that they are people themselves. In the end, the rich who want the poor to stop being criminals also only made their money by unethical behavior, by exploiting people.

So, this song and the quote can be seen as a clear example of Brecht's criticism of the circumstances of life during his lifetime.

I hope this helps.

Kind regards
Janina  

German Language

All Answers


Answers by Expert:


Ask Experts

Volunteer


Janina

Expertise

As a native German speaker working professionally with languages, I can answer questions concerning German grammar, spelling and punctuation. I can also help with understanding and short German-English translations. As I also speak French, I might also be helpful concerning German-French translations. Translation only refers to short texts here.

Experience

I am a German native speaker working as a translator for English and French. I am concerned with language issues as grammar and spelling on a daily basis. I am very interested in these kind of topics, as any good translator should be. I also have a very good insight in the differences between English and German (and also French), so I might be able to give helpful explanations why specific things are the way they are in a specific language.

Organizations
I am a member of the German Translator Association BDÜ.

Publications
My translations are published in form of manuals, company and product presentations, and websites, but you won't find my name there, as translators of technical texts are only rarely featured.

Education/Credentials
I studied translation at the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne (FH Köln), and have been working as a freelance translator for five years now.

Awards and Honors
I haven't received any awards, but receiving awards is really quite rare for translators.

Past/Present Clients
Mostly translation agencies in many different countries.

©2016 About.com. All rights reserved.