A song of insufficiency

In honor of the United States Congress, I’d like to present Bertolt Brecht’s acerbic little song with the grand title of “The Song about the Insufficiency of Human Striving.”

The video is followed by the German text, with my own loose translation after each stanza.1

Das Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens

(Music begins.)
Policeman: Was ist denn das? (What’s that then?)
Mr. Peachum: Das Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit. Kennen Sie nicht? Können Sie was lernen. (The Song of Insufficiency. Don’t you know it? You could learn something.)

Der Mensch lebt durch den Kopf
Sein Kopf reicht ihm nicht aus
Versuch es nur; von deinem Kopf
lebt höchstens eine Laus.
Denn für dieses Leben
ist der Mensch nicht schlau genug.
Niemals merkt er eben
allen Lug und Trug.2

Man lives by his head, but it doesn’t suffice. Check your own head: a louse, at most, could live on it. ’Cause man is not clever enough for this life. He never catches on to all the lies and cheats.

Ja; mach nur einen Plan
sei nur ein großes Licht!
Und mach dann noch ’nen zweiten Plan
gehn tun sie beide nicht.
Denn für dieses Leben
ist der Mensch nicht schlecht genug:
doch sein höh’res Streben
ist ein schöner Zug.

Yes, make yourself a plan; it just goes up in smoke! just be brilliant! And then make yourself a second plan; they both come to nothing. ’Cause man is not bad enough for this life: still, his lofty striving makes a pretty show.

Ja; renn nur nach dem Glück
doch renne nicht zu sehr!
Denn alle rennen nach dem Glück
Das Glück rennt hinterher.
Denn für dieses Leben
ist der Mensch nicht anspruchslos genug
darum’st all sein Streben
nur ein Selbstbetrug.

Sure, run after good fortune, but don’t run too hard! ’Cause everyone runs after fortune, while fortune runs ’round behind them. ’Cause man is not plain and simple enough for this life. So all his striving is just self-deception.

Der Mensch ist gar nicht gut
drum hau ihn auf den Hut
hast du ihn auf den Hut gehaut
dann wird er vielleicht gut.
Denn für dieses Leben
ist der Mensch nicht gut genug
darum hau ihn eben
ruhig auf den Hut.

Man is not good, so you should knock him on his hat, and once you’ve knocked him on his hat, he’ll probably be good. ’Cause man is not good enough for this life. Therefore, keep on calmly knocking him on his hat.

It’s significant that Peachum, the singer of the Insufficiency Song, is engaged in an act of treachery at the time he sings it. It may be a general rule that cynicism and a sense of futility are conducive to treachery. Often they are disguised as worldliness or so-called realism.

My dedication of this song to the U.S. Congress probably needs no further elaboration. Let me just point out that the song insists that people are neither clever nor simple enough, and neither bad nor good enough, to accomplish anything in life. It’s not unlike the excuses we keep hearing for congressional fatuousness — f’rinstance, how 59 votes out of 100 does not constitute a Senate majority, while less than 50% of surveyed public opinion constitutes the voice of the people and a mandate against health reform. But these are tedious subjects.

1 The song is from Der Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) first performed in the 1920s. The performance also dates from the ’20s and is conducted by composer Kurt Weill. The text as sung here differs slightly from the text I’ve seen published elsewhere. I haven’t found any other English translation online, so maybe mine will be useful. 
2 Instead of allen (“all”), the singer sings what sounds like diesen (“these”).pesen, a verb meaning to run fast in a state of high emotion, like soldiers charging. I guess the line could be interpreted as “He never catches on to the lies and cheats that are tearing around.” I prefer allen. 


7 thoughts on “A song of insufficiency

  1. Vielen danke! I think this is one of the better observations upon the whole, sad, spectacle … perhaps a steady diet of Brecht & Weill piped into the Congress building might at least make ’em blush and squirm … a little

  2. Not a bad translation.

    Don’t worry about ‘allen’. The singer may have sung “diesen” ie this/these. I have never hear or seen “pesen” written in the song.

    “Sei nur ein großes Licht” is in the imperative, so it’s actually telling the listener to “be a great light”, straight after telling them to “make up a plan”. It’s fair to assume Brecht is suggesting that the listener try to plan, and try to be a big “deal”; a big kahuna; a great leader. This is all very tongue in cheek, particularly suggested with the “nurs”.

    1. Thanks, Boris, I think you’re right about diesen instead of pesen. I couldn’t get past the impression that I was hearing an e vowel in that first syllable, even though pesen makes for bad syntax. But diesen makes good sense and doesn’t substantially change the meaning of the verse.

      With Sei nur ein großes Licht! I figured that sei was a casually deployed subjunctive rather than an imperative, and I understood the großes Licht (with apologies to the Rechtschreibreform) as a glaring failure, as in the English expression “a flash in the pan.” (I decided to make it go up in smoke in my translation, though.) But your reading makes a lot of sense. I may have to take this one to the LEO forum and change my translation if it proves to be too loose. Danke zweimalig!

  3. Free effort at cockney scanning:

    Mankind lives from his Nut
    His nut is not enough
    Just look as it; on yours would live
    At most a [tiny] Louse

    Then for all our li-ving
    Mankind’s not smart enough
    He doesn’t ever even spot
    All the lies and tricks

    Yeah, make a little plan
    It will be a guiding light
    And so make still another plan
    Go on and fail at both

    Then for all our living
    A man’s not smart enough
    ‘cos his high-est stri-ving
    Is a love-ly ‘fing

    Yes- it only runs on luck
    And not too much of that
    So all of them run after luck
    And luck ducks round behind

    Then for this our li-ving
    Mankind is [far] too proud
    And in all his stri-ving
    Is foolin’ just himself

    Mankind is just not good
    So bash him on his hat
    [And] If you’ve knocked him on his hat
    Then maybe he’ll be good

    Then for this our li-ving
    Mankind is never good enough
    That’s why you should bash him
    Calmly on his hat

  4. Hi, nice translation. How it was mentioned before, there are some things not being catched right. As a native speaker, I must say, that “Sei nur ein großes Licht!” is the imperative, and dosn’t imply, that a light is turning on or something goes up in smoke. The author intends, that the singer prompts the listener to be or to feel as a smart person. It refers to the German saying “mir geht ein Licht auf”, what means “it suddenly dawned on me”. It has to be understood in a figurative or colloquial way, so that the person should feel smart about its own plan. For a native German speaker this is pretty obvious. Thank you for your work and sorry for my English.

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