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Monday, July 21, 2008

The awful German language

In a thriller I recently read, the author describes people waiting at an airport and speaking in "ugly German". This was an aside, of no consequence to anything in the plot: It's simply understood that German is ugly. I have encountered this attitude many times while living in the US, and it has motivated me to launch this post.

It's true that German can be ugly. We have our share of poetic hacks who butcher their syntax to make their sentences fit some strict meter or rhyme scheme. German academic prose has a bad reputation that is not entirely undeserved: There are indeed professors (and others) who consider unreadabilty a sign of profundity—I've seen sentences that do not yield their meaning even after a third parsing. But then there are the masters, and it is they who show us how expressive and musical German can be. One would not try to assess the beauty of (American) football by watching one's neighbor quarterbacking a pick-up team—one would watch Joe Montana or Danny Marino. Similarly, one should go to Goethe, and Hölderlin, and Rilke to find out what German can do. And this tradition is neither restricted to poetry nor dead. Among modern prose authors, for example, I find that Christoph Ransmeyer’s language has a beauty that is positively seductive.

Let me, then, kick off this discussion by summoning the great Jose Luis Borges as witness. I'm grateful that Laraine Flemming pointed me to his poem To the German Language. It reads so well in English that I thought at first it was written by Borges like this. But then I found the Spanish original and realized that the English version was a translation by the poet and translator Christopher Mulrooney. I think either version will serve nicely to start a discussion.

23 comments:

Ulrich said...

Here's an aside that, I hope, will not distract us unduly from the main theme. But since we have been talking about translation lately, I'd like to say a few words about Mulrooney's translation of Borges' poem: It shows no signs of being a translation--it can hold its own as an English poem sui generis. Still, it captures the meaning of the original rather well (as far as I can tell), but it does not even attempt to capture the more languid tone of the original, which results from the longer, more vowel-rich Spanish words. Mulrooney's English sounds more clipped and comes to the point quicker; i.e. it doesn't fight the language it's written in. In fact, it comes close to what's called in German a Nachdichtung ("poetic work after something or someone"--this may be another word of the month b/c there doesn't seem to exist an English equivalent). Translators that are gifted poets in their own right can try their hand at this--we lesser mortals probably should not.

miriam b said...

That poem took my breath away. I have virtually no Spanish, but I believe you're correct in saying that Mulrooney's work doesn't seem like a translation.

The sense of the average poem published in The New Yorker often escapes me. I marvel at the fact that occasionally one of these poems is a translation. It must take a person with a very
special mindset to tackle the job of translating what is doubtless an abstruse poem in a foreign language into an equally impenetrable English version.

The last phrase in your comment, "...we lesser mortals probably should not." scans neatly into iambic pentameter!

Heika said...

Hi Ulrich and Miriam, I share your admiration for the Borges poem. It is in fact one of my favorites. I have, however, a different translation, done by Alastair Reid, who is, no surprise given the beauty of the translation, a poet himself. Perhaps that's the key to good translation, of poetry anyway. Only poets should do it. Here's the Reid version:


TO THE GERMAN LANGUAGE

My destiny is in the Spanish language,
the bronze words of Francisco de Quevedo,
but in the long, slow progress of the night,
different, more intimate musics move me.
Some have been handed down to me by blood--
voices of Shakespeare, language of the Scriptures--
others by chance, which has been generous;
but you, gentle language of Germany,
I chose you, and I sought you out alone.
By way of grammar books and patient study,
through the thick undergrowth of the declensions,
the dictionary, which never puts its thumb on
the precise nuance, I kept moving closer.
My nights were full of overtones of Virgil,
I once said; but I could as well have named
Hoelderlin, Angelus Silesius.
Heine lent me his lofty nightingales;
Goethe, the good fortune of late love,
at the same time both greedy and indulgent;
Keller, the rose which one hand leaves behind
in the closed fist of a dead man who adored it,
who will never know if it is white or red.
German language, you are your masterpiece:
love interwound in all your compound voices
and open vowels, sounds which accommodate
the studious hexameters of Greek
and undercurrents of jungles and nights.
Once, I had you. Now, at the far extreme
of weary years, I feel you have become
as out of reach as algebra and the moon.

--Jorge Luis Borges (tr. Alastair Reid)

mac said...

@Heika, Ulrich and Miriam,
I have to say that I just love Alastair Reid's translation. He may have taken more poetic license, but it is a beautifully constructed work in English.

I always get annoyed when English and French speakers exagerate the what they call guttural sounds in both German and Dutch. When I lived in Hamburg for 3 years, I took to opportunity to study the language even more than I already had in school in Holland, read lots of old and contemporary literature, advised by a German friend/journalist, and especially, to my great surprise, loved the drama in the theaters and on tv.
I also had the pleasure to know some outstanding speakers, who used the most subtle and beautiful turns of phrase when they, to our delight, entertained us after a dinner.

I chalk the critique up to ignorance. As is said, they don't know what they are missing.

Ulrich said...

You are the Three Musketeers that keep KrautBlog going--many thanks!

Heika said...

"I chalk the critique up to ignorance. As is said, they don't know what they are missing."

Exactly my sentiments.

I think, Ulrich, your blog will be slow in building a regular readership because (1)it's not updated daily and (2) the subject matter is not general enough to attract huge numbers. But for those interested in the subject matter, it is a godsend and they will find your blog over time.

miriam b said...

This blog has tilted me in the direction of a bookcase in which my college German texts reside. I took a course on Lessing, Goethe and Schiller, as well as the usual grammar and conversation courses. I wish I were fluent; it's been so many years, and I've had little opportunity to use my German. Ich habe fast alles vergessen. Maybe if I delve again into oethe's poetry, I'll gain some ground.

I must ask my son whether he's still fluent. He studied for a while at Heidelerg after college and even joined a Verbindung (Leonensia). Last time I noticed, a few years ago, he seemed at ease speaking German. I can't really vouch for his accent!

I hate to see acquired languages become rusty. This has certainly happened to me, to my great regret. I do use my French, but only for reading and writing. I have a cousin in Paris who's a novelist, and we email back and forth. I've also read some of her books. Her English is excellemt, but she's diffident about it.

Small World Deparment: Her ex-husband is an architect who I believe is rather well-known: Arnaud Fougeras Lavergnolle. Her son is also a budding architect.

Ulrich said...

It occurs to me that one reason why German may sound harsh to some ears is that it has no liaison (as in French); i.e. it does not try, in its spoken form, to suppress the gaps between words and produce a more continuous flow of sounds. Moreover, German does not only not "liaise", it actually puts in front of every word starting with a vowel the so-called "glottal stop", a brief contraction and release of the vocal cords that separates words even more and exactly when other languages do the opposite, namely, when two vowels follow each other at the end of one and the beginning of the next word.

For example, when a neighbor in Pittsburg was learning German, he greated me in the vening with what sounded to me like "Gute Nabend", when in German, it would sound like "Guten 'Abend" (the ' indictes the glottal stop as in Hawai'i).

The liaison is what makes it so hard for me to understand spoken French: I just cannot identify the individual words in a sentence. An extreme case was my experience in Denmark: During a 3-month stint at their Technical University, I could read the newspaper in the end with ease, but conversations in the cafeteria remained opaque to me like on the first day; again, I just couldn't hear the individual words.

@miriam: I wonder how your son fares w.r.t. the glottal stop.

miriam b said...

I'll say Guten Abend to mein Sohn and see how he responds! Having learned German by immersion aided with text, I'll bet he's OK.

mac said...

I'm happy to say my son's German is still quite good; he spent three years in Germany at the Internationale Schule in Othmarschen, but when we came back to the US he continued the German in Highschool, Loomis Chafee in Windsor, CT. As one of his friends, who also took German, told me: "Let me put it to you this way, Karsten can actually have a conversation with the teacher". Made me feel good....

dooberdan said...

Ulrich,
In my writing I have come across reasons to avoid using the adjective "Teutonic" in referring to the German culture in order not to offend. It struck me that the offense taken might be in the same vein as when Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as "a typical white person."
Would you comment please?
thanks,
Deborah in Iowa

Ulrich said...

@Deborah in Iowa (could be a line from a song): I really appreciate your sensitivity--I cringe whenever I see "teutonic" used derogatorily (and it almost always is). It's true that the Germans are not called Teutons (that was an ancient tribe exterminated by the Romans), but it's also true that the term is only used in connection with something German--book, accent, humor, cooking, and it then always implies something heavy, witless, convoluted. The implications is that these things are "typical" German, which makes the term a racial stereotype, if not a racial slur.

I don't have much of an overall goal for this blog--just want to talk with people who share some of my interests, the likes of which I do not meet too often after retirement, which finds my wife and me surrounded by and communicating mainly with animals (1 dog and 5 cats is the present count). But if there is something like a more unifying theme or interest to this blog, it is to show that "German" does not necessarily mean "teutonic".

dooberdan said...

"The implications is that these things are 'typical' German, which makes the term a racial stereotype, if not a racial slur..."
Exactly my point about Barak's use of the phrase "typical white person"...HOWEVER, his was not an intent to offend; he was merely attempting to speak, in general, of the sensibilities of his grandmother's generation's white perspective in this country. (The high wire act that BO must sustain is mind-numbing!)
I, myself, have used "Teutonic" to CONNOTE the "tenor" of the German aesthetic which I believe goes back well before the tribes. I actually pride myself on having a Teutonic aspect to my personal aesthetic, so I was particularly surprised to see Wikipedia describe it as a derogatory term.
So much lies in the dialogic "encounter" of two people that it is amazing to me there are conversations which occur apart from those between two well-matched spouses.
And isn't it funny that your art, not your words, brought you to me!
Your blog will continue, grid willing ;-)
Deborah
p.s. Same here, we are on 80 acres of rolling Iowa clay with 2 dogs and (now) two cats, still missing our Dieter, - and yes, World, there are hills in Iowa!

Heika said...

Hi Ulrich and Deborah, I basically agree that Teutonic is usually used to slam the Germans as being obsessively orderly or overbearing by nature. That is, at least, how I have heard it used, especially when I was in graduate school; although, occasionally, there was a hint of admiration, with doctoral students saying they were incapable of the kind of Teutonic scholarship demanded of them. It seemed to me that they were implying a level of rigor and detail that was beyond them and that they vaguely envied.

dooberdan said...

Exactly! I think you see that rigor in Kant and can see the same thoroughness in the idealist and existentialist philosophers who decry the postmodern indulgences of "pluralistic opinion without hierarchy." Works great for cherry-picking the net, but you are relegated to the reality you have fashioned for yourself...which is just fine if you do not have offspring and have to live in this world.

whew! THAT was a bit preachy!
...sorry, it is the teutonic in me.

Ulrich said...

Deborah : I could live with that sense of "teutonic". Unfortunately, it no longer applies--German universities, to this day, have not recovered from the exodus of their best faculty under the Nazis--Germany's loss was clearly America's gain.

In the same vain: I have no idea how postmodern, poststructuralist "discourse" has been received in Germany. But I wouldn't be surprised, in light of what I've said before, if German scholars did not prove immune to it.

dooberdan said...

It is unfortunate and, once again, seems to expose the general erosion of critical thinking in common discourse. Reminds me of the ban of the use of the word "niggardly" in ordinary transaction, born of "American" ignorance, e.g., "Bill Clinton was niggardly in his remarks about Barak Obama yesterday," (an opinion I could only express here at home).
Please do not think I am trying to inject politics into your blog. I only use this as an example of the pitfalls in "American" discourse anymore.
I am glad YOU are not offended by my use of the term "teutonic" (note the lower case, as we might start writing the word "american.")
Cheers,
Deborah in Iowa
p.s. Today's crossword puzzle did create a pause in my morning. I haven't read the comments on Rex's blog yet, but must tell you that the clue "Homer's outcome" had me shuffling through references in my mind to the Iliad and The Simpsons at the same time. Very schizophrenic!

Ulrich said...

@Deborah: Pale Fire has one of the funniest puns I know that takes advantage of the ambiguity of "Homer" (pre-Simpson): The protagonist has a headline from the Sports Section tacked to his wall, which reads "Yanks win 5:3 on Chapman's homer" (quoted from memory). Not that I've ever read Chapman's Homer, but I've heard enough about it to appreciate the joke.

fikink said...

As much I pore o'er verse obtuse
of sundry myth so wryly told
my revery can scarce behold
the tight'ning of the hangman's noose


ABBA
I didn't think today's puzzle was so bad ;-)

deborahiniowa

Ulrich said...

Yes, that's an ABBA scheme; whereas ABAA in the puzzle is odd--I can't remember an instance. And if Abba had had that much edge in their songs, I may have listened to them in their heyday.

Back we are experiencing "thread drift"--it may be time to get back on topic--or create a new thread.

fikink said...

point taken, in fact, after posting tried to go back and delete such a "chatty" entry...sorry.
Please feel free as administrator of this blog to expunge!
deborahiniowa

Ulrich said...

Oh no. If you read the Hello World original post, you'll see that one of the reasons to create this blog was to give commentators more freedom. So, what I said was not a reprimand in any form. It was only meant as a friendly reminder that people who search for a topic and find this blog should not be disappointed, i.e. that what they find is, more or less, "on topic."

I also hope that when more people get interested (if they ever do), we can have "parallel strands" within a topic--we'll see.

fikink said...

thanks, Ulrich, I guess I wasn't successful in presenting my silly little poem as an attempt at Chapman's Homer's ABBA!