Saturday, August 21, 2010

On loving German... and two more translations

There's a scene in '30 Rock' in which Liz is asked by Jack if she speaks German, and Liz replies in German, 'Yes, I think it's the most beautiful language in the world.' Then Jack asks her a question and she replies with a preposterously long outburst of German-sounding syllables, for which the subtitled translation is 'Yeah'. Uh huh: German is horribly ugly and has absurdly long words. That's the joke of course. Here's another: Italian is sung, French is spoken, English is spat, German is vomited. (I can't remember where I heard that one). It's a truism that German is ugly, guttural and harsh. And it can be. It's fortunate for film-makers that the Nazis were German and not, say, French, because those Nazi officers just wouldn't sound right barking out their orders in a romance language. But German's supposedly guttural sound is overstated. The most guttural sound in German is the ch in 'Acht', which is actually a much softer sound than the glottal consonants that one finds for instance in Arabic.

In fact I suspect German's reputation for ugliness is a hangover from World War II: Much of the world was exposed to the sound of German by the hate speeches of Hitler and Goebbels. The ugly, hateful sentiments of these tirades could have made any language sound hideous. Mussolini's speeches in Italian don't sound like a Rossini opera either: ( But it can't be denied that German was a particularly well adapted linguistic vehicle for fascist ideology. There is a line in one of Goebbels' speeches that sticks in my mind particularly as an example of German at its ugliest, when uttered with Goebbel's shrill viciousness: "Wir sind nicht hier, um Kompromisse zu machen, sondern um zu zerstören und vernichten." We are not here to make compromises, but to destroy and annihilate.

And yet I love German and flinched a little at the 30 Rock gibe, because this preconception about German's ugliness actually closes people to the beauty in the language. Good example: the German poetry recited in the 2006 German film 'Das Leben der Anderen' (The Lives of Others). The film also includes a beautiful song version of the Borchert poem 'Versuch Es' ('Try It') which you can listen to here. I'm sure every language has its beauty and I dare say if I'd learned, say, Spanish at school instead of German, I'd probably love that language. But there's something about the rich complexity of German that I just find incredibly satisfying to speak. It's as if the rush of plosives and sibilants satisfies a sort of thirst in me. I am aware of the weirdness of how that probably sounds to someone who hasn't been possessed by a foreign language in that way. Perhaps the fact that German remains a second language - always that slight gap removed - allows me to hear it with a kind of detachment that my complete oneness with English does not permit for my native tongue. I can hear German both as pure 'speech-music', and understand its meaning.

This musical appreciation has its payoff in terms of my facility with the language. Germans often mistake me for a native speaker at first. That is purely to do with vocal mimicry (though my grammar is good) - if I talk for long enough the little idiomatic lapses and vocabulary stutters will eventually expose me. I've only spent six weeks in Germany and that was many years ago, so I haven't experienced the immersion required for complete mastery.

There seems to be a familial thing about this passion of mine: my grandfather Brinley Newton-John was a Welshman with an exceptional facility with German. He was Professor of German at Melbourne University and his German was so good he was used by British Intelligence to interrogate German officers during the war. His technique: to take them out to dinner and loosen their tongues with wine. They would mistake him for a German and soon enough spill the desired information.

Enough on me and my German. Here are two of my favourites from among the poems by Martin Auer I've recently translated. (Auer has translated these two poems into English himself, and you can find his (somewhat different) versions at


I’m going to have a child, says Tommy
Boys don’t have children, says Annalise
Well I am!

Tommy’s belly gets bigger
What is your child doing? says Annalise
It is growing and getting bigger, says Tommy, I can already hear it talking
Children don’t talk in your tummy! says Annalise
Well mine does!

Why am I alone? says the child in Tommy’s belly
You’re with me, says Tommy

There are houses, says Tommy, and gardens and fences
and there’s the sky
I know, says the child

Do you want to be born? Tommy asks the child
What will happen then? says the child
Everything that is always happening, says Tommy
I want to try it!
But don’t get a fright! says Tommy

Where has your child gone? asks Annalise
It has run off into the world, says Tommy
Little children don’t run off into the world!
Well mine did!

Tommy dreams of a sea that is still dark in the morning
There is the wind, says Tommy, and long grey clouds that are fast
I know, says the child
The child runs to the sea
In the morning he plays alone in the sand
Play with me, says the child to the sea, and the sea plays with him

I died, says the child
I’ve come back into your belly
There are ships, says Tommy, and big machines
I know, says the child

Children don’t come back into your tummy! says Annalise
Well mine did!

I’m a mermaid, she says

I’m a mermaid, she says,
I come through the water mains.
My family lived in the south
before they moved to this town.
They live in a lift
over on second street
and when they eat breakfast
the dentist from the twelfth floor
always dips his coat in their coffee.

And she says: O man o man o man,
O man, how I love you!

And in the park it’s so bright today,
the air is like silver.
And baby gets an ice-cream
and has a choking fit.
And a little flying camera
takes photos of us with pink bows,
and the man selling pretzels
goes broke before our eyes.

And she says: O man o man o man,
O man, how I love you!

Well aren’t these glorious times, she says,
there are free vouchers for everything.
And yesterday I had myself insured
against melancholia and fear of death.
And now everyone has a phone in their car,
a credit card and an insurance number.
And even the police
wear valentines in their hair.

And she says: O man o man o man,
O man, how I love you!

I’m a mermaid, she says,
I can never drown.
But whenever I see goldfish
I feel terribly sick.
And maybe tomorrow peace will break out,
then we’ll go paint the town red.
And maybe there won’t be peace,
But we’ll soon see.

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