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In Bach's St Matthew Passion there is an aria in which the lines

„sein Mund, der mit Milch und Honig fließet, hat den Grund und des Leidens herbe Schmach durch den ersten Trunk versüßet“

are usually translated as something like

"For his mouth, which flows with milk and honey, has made the cause/ground(s) and bitter taste of suffering become sweet through first drinking (himself)."

In the multiple translations I have found, „des Leidens herbe Schmach“ is translated as "bitter taste of suffering". Is Schmach not 'disgrace' rather than 'taste', which would be 'Geschmack'? Even if this is trying to be more idiomatic, I'm surprised that some of the translations I have seen that are more literal would also use this phrasing.

If a secondary question would be allowed, what would you think the best translation/meaning here for 'Grund' would be?

The full aria:

Gerne will ich mich bequemen,
Kreuz und Becher anzunehmen,
Trink ich doch dem Heiland nach.
Denn sein Mund,
Der mit Milch und Honig fließet,
Hat den Grund
Und des Leidens herbe Schmach
Durch den ersten Trunk versüßet.

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    This is mostly a guess on my part, so I'll keep it as a comment instead of an answer. Maybe someone with better sources at hand can build on it. As we see in the first sentence, the speaker intends to follow Christ: "Trink ich doch dem Heiland nach". At Jesus' time, crucifixion was not only a intentionally cruel method of execution, but also an especially shameful and degrading one. So, in following Christ, the speaker expects to not only suffer, but also to be humiliated by his suffering (one would assume he doesn't go literally through with the crucifixion, though). Sep 16, 2023 at 12:04
  • Thanks, yes indeed. My question is more that it seems that 'Schmack' is often being translated as 'taste' rather than 'disgrace/shame'. I think this must be a choice by one translator made to emphasise the act of drinking, though it is not actually in the text, and the choice has been copied by others.
    – criollo
    Sep 16, 2023 at 14:04
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    Schmach is not Geschmack Sep 16, 2023 at 19:42

2 Answers 2

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Is Schmach not 'disgrace' rather than 'taste', which would be 'Geschmack'?

First off: yes, you are - somewhat - right. But ....

Translating from one language to another is not only replacing words and changing the sentence structure. Quite often it is also a projection from one cultural background to another. A word has not only a meaning, but is also a representative of a certain way of thinking about reality, a concept. e.g. there is no genuine german word for "fairness" and there is not genuine english word for "Fleiß". Yes, both can be translated literally, but none of those translations would really convey the meaning the respective words have in their original language.

Having said this, let us come back to the example at hand:

des Leidens herbe Schmach

"Schmach" might in some cases be translated with "disgrace", but here the better translation would be "humiliation", IMHO. To better explain what "Schmach" means, here is another translation: the famous monologue of Hamlet, in the translation of August Wilhelm von Schlegel:

The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

Den Übermut der Ämter und die Schmach,
Die Unwert schweigendem Verdienst erweist
,

You may, as an aside, notice that "patient merit" is translated "schweigendem Verdienst", not "geduldigem Verdienst" - for the same reasons I explained above. You may also notice that "patient", "patience" comes from the latin root "patientia", the willingness/ability to suffer or endure (misfortune) and to suffer loudmouthed idiots without saying anything is a quite fitting picture of "patientia", don't you think?

Now, have a look at the (german) word "herb". "Herb" is an Adjektiv and can be translated with "dry" or "tart" (for wines), "austere", "bitter", "harsh", "acetous" and so on. You will notice that all these translations circle around taste impressions. This is the original meaning of the word: a certain taste or class of tastes. Yes, the word "herb" can be (and is) used figuratively as well and sometimes the figurative and direct meaning meet in the translation, like in:

die herbe Schmach der Niederlage
the bitter taste of defeat

a phrase you might find in a newspaper after your famous football team lost against a perceivedly abysmal opponent.

Putting that all together: Jesus was (according to christian hagiography) tried unlawfully and sentenced to death on phony charges. So, his treatment could be called "herb" (here the figurative meaning) and because he was not just suffering, but unjustifiedly so his suffering is not called simply "suffering" ("Leiden"), but called "Schmach", in a similar meaning as in the Shakespeare quote.

The speaker does the same, claiming that, because Jesus did it originally and he follows him, all will go well in the end. Here the "herb" and the "versüßen" (to sweeten) create an opposite, a common figure of speech. It was bitter before but in the end it will be sweet.

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The only reason for translating Schmach by Geschmack is, that herb as well as versüßen originate in taste scope. They both are today used in other meanings as well and possibly even more often, compare herber Schlag, herbe/bittere Niederlage, bittere Pille; and many other similar phrases exist.

To address one aspect not already touched:

Hat den Grund und des Leidens herbe Schmach

mostly likely means den Grund des Leidens und die herbe Schmach des Leidens. It is a consequence of the verse requirement, that the ellipsis (i. e. not repeating des Leidens) is somewhat obscured by the unusual word order.

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