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:
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