Sunday, December 7, 2008

Trespassers W

My previous posting, "Denglisch" registered my displeasure with the tide of English sweeping over the German language. An alert reader pointed out to me that German National Socialists made an effort (largely unsuccessful it would seem) to get rid of words in German that stemmed from "unGerman" sources. According to some sources (this one, for example) the Nazis embraced Krummapfel as a substitute for the foreign Banane (banana) and the incredibly absurd, Gesichtserker for Nase (nose.) Does this make me (ugh!) a "speech nazi?"

The Speech Nazis, literal and figurative, want to preserve purity in language. I want to preserve diversity. I fear the monoculture that is being imposed on the world by the unprecedented dominance of the English speaking media and I lament the loss of variety it brings with it. Eisenhower warned us about the military/industrial complex. I'm just as worried about the American entertainment/cultural complex.

When I was eight years old, I spent a lot of my free time copying sections of Winnie the Pooh into a notebook so I could learn them by heart. I still count this book among the finest written. It's quirky and inventive. The writing is self-referential and Milne plays with language in the text in a way that would make it a translator's nightmare†. But there is an excellent translation of A. A. Milne's work into German, made by Harry Rowohlt. Herr Rowohlt preserves the genius of Milne's work in his translation and breathes new life into Pu und Ferkel when he reads aloud. By contrast, when media giant Disney made a "translation" of A. A. Milne's work, they turned it into a sappy mess. It's what happens when something original and particular is converted for a medium that seeks to reach the broadest possible audience. It is reduced to Pablum. Easily digested, even if it provides minimal nourishment. A perfect product for the global Monoculture

Harry Rowohlt is an amazing figure in the German media world. He's an actor, musician, interprets the work of other authors such as Robert Gernhardt and he writes a regular column (Pooh's Corner) for Die Zeit. But what I find most impressive about Rowohlt are his credentials as a translator. He's translated well over eighty books/scripts from English into German, and from whom? Kurt Vonnegut, David Sedaris, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kenneth Grahame, the Marx Brothers... are we seeing a pattern here? The man has excellent taste. Maybe, you're thinking, he just accepts the assignments given to him by the publisher? Wrong. He owns 49% of Rowohlt Verlag. He writes his own ticket.

As I spread the pages of Die Zeit this morning, I was delighted to find Pooh's Corner in the Feuilleton section. Confusion set in as I came across this sentence at the beginning of the sixth or seventh paragraph:

Morgens in Brenner's (Apostroph nicht von mir) Park Hotel...

The German possessive form is built without an apostrophe, but the trend toward an apostrophe "s," another example of the influence of English, is building and it is at the center of an intense conflict. So what is Rowohlt trying to say with his comment, "apostrophe not mine?" He writes for the cognoscenti and is anything but didactic in his approach, so I'm not sure what to make of this rather dry comment. Assuming he's taken it on the chin in the past for the presence of an apostrophe in the title of his column, maybe he's heading off a flood of protest. Or it could be he's irritated by the presence of the apostrophe in "Brenner's" but feels justified in using it himself, since the column title is in English. In either case, it makes me question my previously rock-solid position on the Americanization of German. Maybe I ought to lighten up. Ultimately, I'm just a guest here and it's not really my business. In the future, I'll try not to stick my Gesichtserker where it doesn't belong.

† The Piglet lived in a very grand house in the middle of a beech-tree, and the beech-tree was in the middle of the forest, and the Piglet lived in the middle of the house. Next to his house was a piece of broken board which had: "TRESPASSERS W" on it. When Christopher Robin asked the Piglet what it meant, he said it was his grandfather's name, and had been in the family for a long time. Christopher Robin said you couldn't be called Trespassers W, and Piglet said yes, you could, because his grandfather was, and it was short for Trespassers Will, which was short for Trespassers William. And his grandfather had had two names in case he lost one—Trespassers after an uncle, and William after Trespassers.

"I've got two names," said Christopher Robin carelessly.

"Well, there you are, that proves it," said Piglet.


Em said...

How interesting to read your musing on the correctness of German, in translation and in its Americanization. Just earlier today I was reading a particularly well-written part of The Brothers Karamazov and I thought to myself, "he's so witty!" And then realizing that he, being Dostoyevsky, never wrote those exact words, he wrote something similar, in Russian. I can hardly comprehend the work that went into translating a Russian text (or any language), accurately, or the same 'tone' as it was originally written. What a task! Shawn and I disagreed on the fun-level of translating a book, even a well-written one. I'm only reading this book once, so I hope I've picked the preferred translation.

Christopher T. Terry said...

When books have multiple translations, I think you can find versions that are more or less appropriate to a particular reader. With a book like Brothers Karamazov, there's probably a translation that makes it more accessible and another one that is more "accurate." I've only read one book in translation enough times to be sure of what I'm saying (The Odyssey), but I've never been one to cloud the issue with facts. ct