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

Thursday, July 31, 2008

German comfort food

Yesterday in an xword blog, some very disparaging things were said about lima beans. This saddens me because Dicke Bohnen mit Speck (lima beans with bacon) is a classic regional dish in the Rhineland, where I grew up--it was one of the comfort foods of my youth. To kick this thread off, I'll start with the recipe in my first comment.

And speaking about lima beans: my wife makes a very good lima bean dip with cumin, a little cream. and butter.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

On Rilke

Marlene started a post on Rilke, and I am delighted to take her up on this. I am no specialist, though--which should encourage other non-specialists to contribute!

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.

Addendum (March 2017): The link to the Mulrooney translation doesn't work anymore in my browsers. If you have the same problem, try copying and pasting the url directly into your browser:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Translating Der Erlkönig and such

Motivated by today's NYT crossword puzzle, I present here, for further discussion, my thoughts on the chances and pitfalls of translating German texts into English--and vice-versa.

Here's the comment I put on the puzzle blog: Der Erlkönig (The Erlking): A Lied (art song) by the greatest composer of such songs in German, Schubert, using as lyrics the perhaps best known ballad by the greatest German poet of all time, Goethe... The ballad/song has not lost its appeal to the present day. Nabokov quotes the first two lines in my favorite Nabokov book, Pale Fire; Hilary Hahn has a wonderful version of it for solo violin; and Kraut Rock is also not immune to its allure.

Among the versions I found on youtube, I liked this audio-only version by the great basso A. Kipnis because of the clarity of his diction. If you do not know the lyrics, here is the German text together with a (workable, if flat-footed) prose translation.

This brings me to the present thread. For starters, please read some of my general thoughts on translation and take a look at my own prose line-by-line translation of this gem by Goethe.

Monday, July 14, 2008

German odds and ends

Let's make this a free-for-all for whatever comes to anybody's mind relating to something German.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

On grammar and grammarians

It's not surprising that our spirited debate about the English gerund has broadened. Once you realize that, as I said in that thread, grammars are not divine laws handed down to us by some higher authority, but human constructs afflicted with all the beauty and flaws such constructs often have, the differences between the approaches underlying various grammars (especially if they deal with the same language!) become indeed an intriguing topic. So, let's talk about grammars and grammarians under a more general perspective.

As an introduction, I suggest that you read my comment from July 8, 10:32 am, on the post named "Gerund vs. present participle" below.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Gerund vs. present participle

The charge (raised in an xword blog on Sunday) is that "[something] may have to do with me not being too fond of forced puns..." is grammatically wrong and should read "..with MY [instead of ME] not being fond of.."

First a general principle: If you claim that something is grammatically wrong, state the rule that is being violated, not just what you think the correct version should be like--in the present case, WHY should ME be replaced by MY?

I can think of no reason b/c both versions appear correct to me. In "with me being not too fond of..." "being" is the present participle of "to be", which modifies "me", the object case of the pronoun "I", which has to be selected after "with" b/c "with" is a preposition and requires the object case (so much for people who think "between you and I" is correct--nonsense! "between you and me" is correct--but I digress).

But "with my being not too fond of.." is also correct b/c now "being" is the object of the preposition, specifically, it is a verb turned into a noun, i.e. it is a gerund, which can take a possesive pronoun like "my" as well as direct and indirect objects.

When I write comments for a blog, I prefer colloquial English (within the limitations that come with me [sic!] not being a native speaker), which by and large makes me avoid gerunds b/c they sound, to me at least, always somewhat stilted.

Word of the month: Zweckpessimismus

I promised to use my recent trip to Germany to clarify the status of Schlimmbesserung. I’ll make it the word of the month in the near future and explain what I found out. For this month, I selected a different word, though, because I thought of it a lot during Euro 2008: Zweckpessimismus (literally "purpose[ful] pessimism", or better, "pessimism with a purpose"). The term refers to the sort of pessimism one adopts when in doubt about the outcome of an event one is personally interested in: At worst, things turn out as expected, and at best, one is positively surprised.

There was quite a bit of Zweckpessimismus in the attitude with which I looked forward to the final of Euro 2008 between Spain and Germany!

A note on pronunciation: Unlike the (voiced) English "z", the German "z" is very sharp (voiceless)--you almost spit it out with the tip of your tongue pressed against the back of your upper incisors. The Chinese apparently have a consonant that sounds exactly like German "z". One of my PhD students from Taiwan, Jonah Tsai, always told me to pronounce the "Ts" in his name like German "z".