Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Word of the Month: Der Persilschein

Word of the Month: Index

Persil was the first commercially available "self-activated" laundry detergent (i.e. a cleaner containing both soap and bleach). It was introduced in Germany in 1907 and has remained popular to the present day. The name derives from two of its original ingredients, sodium perborate and silicate. [Source] The text of the vintage poster on the left means in English "For the love of laundry".

A Schein, in this context, is a certificate, and a Persilschein is a document confirming that somebody is "clean" in the sense that there is nothing in the person's past to disqualify him or her from pursuing a career or occupying a position of influence in a certain field. The term is often used ironically, even sarcastically, when there are indications that the certificate has been obtained by means that are not entirely above-board.

There is a reason for this connotation. People who remember the fifties in Germany or know her post-war history still associate the term with the denazification program, efforts initiated by the occupying powers to rid the German bureaucracy and professions of former Nazis and war criminals. A Persilschein obtained under the program was a document confirming that one had never committed a war crime, was not a member of the Nazi party or, at worst, a fellow-traveller. The program was plagued from the start by (i) inconsistencies in its administration across the occupation zones and (ii) a lack of enthusiasm for it on the part of the Germans. As a result, quite a few people got their Persilschein undeservedly.

As to Persil, the detergent, it's now sold in many countries, including the US, in spite of the fact that the name is not always easy to pronounce for non-German speakers. In addition, persil means "parsley" in French!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rainer Maria Rilke: Das Karussell (The Carousel)

Rilke's "Carousel" (1906) is one of the most charming poems in the German language. It tries to capture, through its rhythm and imagery, the fleeting sense impressions a spinning merry-go-round produces—it has become a classic of impressionist poetry. I was reminded of it when I visited yesterday the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, which motivated me to try my hand at a line-by-line translation:

The Carousel—Original and Translation

This is not an exact literal translation. Rilke uses iambic pentameters consistently to render the movement of the carousel. Note especially how it picks up speed in the last stanza, and how the impressions get more blurry—this is masterfully done. Since inflected endings are rarer in English than they are in German, English words tend to be shorter than the corresponding German ones so that a literal translation often produces several stressed syllables in a row; that is, Rilke's iambic line gets lost. But I consider it important that English readers get a sense of the poem's rhythm and therefore added a little padding to recreate it (although I had to be content sometimes with fewer than five feet—adding more padding would have created distortions of its own by making the text wordier than the original).

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Word of the Month: Der Gernegroß

Word of the Month: Index

Gern(e) is an adverb that has no exact equivalent in English. It can sometimes mean "gladly" or "readily", as in Ich helf dir gerne – "I'll gladly help you". At other times, it may have to be replaced by a form of to like followed by an infinitive, as in Ich trinke gerne Bier – "I like to drink beer". Note that this is very different from "I gladly drink beer" (when no wine is available)! Groß is an adjective meaning both "big" and "great". For example, "my big brother" becomes mein großer Bruder in German and "Frederick the Great" Friedrich der Große.

Combining the two words, we get a noun (!) indicating a person who has ambitions that his capabilities don't live up to, or a person who sees herself in a better light than others do. A "show-off" or "braggart" comes close, but these terms refer more to the way a person behaves, while being a Gernegroß is, first of all, a state of mind.

Monday, December 14, 2015

W. G. Sebald in Memoriam

Sebald Rings of Saturn
W. G. Sebald (May 18, 1944 - Dec. 14, 2001) is my favorite German writer of his (and my) generation. He died on this day 14 years ago in a car accident.

I consider Sebald a soul mate (I hope this doesn't sound too presumptuous). We are both expatriates (I do not use the word "immigrants" because it implies a degree of identification with the country I live in that I do not feel), and neither of us can shake a horrified awareness of the atrocities committed by Germans of our parents' generation during the Nazi period. I do not say "memory" because we were too young to have experienced any of this first-hand, but these events become memories for Sebald's protagonists in search of their past and, through them, for the narrator to whom they tell their stories. Through him, a barely disguised Sebald himself, they become like memories also for us, the readers.

It is not surprising that Sebald's temperament appears to be overshadowed by what reviewers have called a deep-seated "melancholy". But it is also important to note that this melancholy can give way to fits of outrage or be lightened, at other times, by a sly sense of humor. What comes across, in the end, is a profound unease about the world he knows, which resounds powerfully with me and has made reading him one of my addictions.

Addendum (12/18/15). Our affinities extend to reactions to specific authors or artists. Nabokov seems to have had a specific appeal for Sebald—the writer appears, in person, in several of his stories—and Nabokov is also one of my favorite authors. Furthermore, Sebald appears to be as impressed by the painter Mathias Grünewald as I am. This elusive painter is the subject of one of the three poems in Nach der Natur (After Nature), and one of the protagonists in Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) visits Colmar in France specifically to see Grünewald's masterpiece, the Isenheim Altar. I have been to Colmar for the same purpose, and standing in front of the crucifixion at the center of the altar, I experienced something that I can only describe as an existential shock—it had never happened before and has never happened again when I came across a piece of art.

Carol Jacobs on W. G. Sebald

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Word of the Month: Der Fachidiot

Word of the Month: Index

A Fach is a compartment in a larger container or piece of furniture. In a more figurative sense, the word denotes a specific area of expertise, often acquired through a course of study devoted to this particular field (civil engineering is an example). In the performing arts, Fach denotes the vocal range and related specialization of a singer (for example, lyrical soprano or Heldentenor) or the type of role an actor is particularly suited for (for example, action hero or ingénue).

An Idiot in German is the same as an idiot in English. In combination with Fach, we get a Fachidiot, a person totally focused on or only interested in his special area of expertise while remaining clueless with regard to anything outside that area. Fachidiotin is the female form, but I've heard the masculine form applied to persons of either sex.

Addendum (Dec. 5, 2015). Here's an article that explicitly refers to the German term in connection with one of the hopefuls for the Republican presidential nomination (Ben Carson): The GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowledge.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Word of the Month: Schmunzeln

Word of the Month: Index

My post on Christian Morgenstern from a few days ago suggested to me the current WoM, which is both a verb and a noun (when capitalized). It refers to a close-lipped smile that expresses good-natured joy, amusement, or satisfaction in response to something just encountered or remembered. Because of that, it is more specific than smile (lächeln in German)—you may bare your teeth when someone takes your picture or when you are kissing babies on a campaign stop without enjoying the situation. English "grin" comes close, but schmunzeln is less in-your-face and usually done without malice—nobody would ever tell you to wipe it off your face. "Smirk" is not the same because it always has negative connotations*, and "laugh" is different altogether because it's open-mouthed and usually accompanied by a sound track.

I have to admit that schmunzeln is somewhat old-fashioned, which is too bad because to me, it is the perfect response to a poem by Morgenstern.

As to its etymology, I had supected that it may have entered German via Yiddish, but Duden Online set me straight—it can be traced back to a Middle High German form.
* A friend on Google+, Laura Gibbs, just commented: "Something about smirk: I've noticed that my students often use it with entirely positive connotations, and they are surprised when I tell them it (usually) has negative connotations. So I think something is happening to that word in English...but I am not sure why it is happening. Smile and grin both seem like words in good health! Hmmm..."

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Christian Morgenstern, Humorist

This is a post I should have written in March 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of Christian Morgenstern's death. But I missed the opportunity and must be content with this belated homage.

Morgenstern (1871-1914) was a German humorist (yes, such creatures exist!) attuned to the oddities of life. Especially the idiosyncrasies of German and its use inspired many of his poems: For example, he deliberately used bad rhymes for comic effect or to gently mock the rhyming conventions of poetry1; he spun funny stories from figures of speech taken literally; he described invented creatures with names he got by fooling around with the names of existing ones; and in the introduction to a collection of his poems, he skewered the impenetrability of German academic prose. Since all of this is so tightly bound to a particular language, it's basically untranslatable.

One may have better luck with poems that simply tell a story without linguistic tricks, and that's what I tried with my translation of Morgenstern's poem Der Hecht (The Pike), which can be read as poking fun at vegetarians, or religious orthodoxy, or both (see illustration on the right). The link below will lead you to the German original together with a literal translation and a rhyming Nachdichtung.
Der Hecht: Original and Translations
1He shares this predilection with Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908), another master of German comic verse.
Morgenstern The Pike

St. Anthony preaching to the pike family

Addendum (one day later): Since I posted this, I discovered a poem that
(a) illustrates Morgenstern's penchant for taking figures of speech literally; and
(b) uses a phrase that has an almost exact equivalent in English, a happy coincidence that motivated me to attempt a translation.
And so I added Die beiden Esel to the first poem:
Die beiden Esel (The Two Asses): Original and Translations

Addendum 2 (Nov. 25, 2015): I tried my hand at a third poem, Der Lattenzaun, dear to me because an architect plays a leading role:
Der Lattenzaun (The Picket Fence): Original and Translations

Addendum 3 (Dec. 3, 2015): It seems I'm on a roll:
Das aesthetische Wiesel (The Aesthetic Weasel): Original and Translations

Morgenstern Mondkalb

The moon calf talking to Morgenstern about the aesthetic weasel