German Translations

Living Between Two Languages

Here’s my self-translation of my previous blog post:

Living between Two Languages

Do I bring a language to life? Or do I inhabit it? Can the same be said for a learned language? The term ‘Mother tongue’ is outdated, that we already know. I did, however, grow up with one language until I chose my second. I’m not sure whether this fact makes my relationship to German more or less meaningful. Before Year 9, I had absolutely no connection to German. But I chose it anyway. An artificial decision, yes. Meaningful all the same. 

As I wrote those first two questions, it became painfully obvious to me how difficult they would be to translate. Maybe even impossible. No matter what I choose, the English words will only ever be a pale shadow of what I wrote first. I’ve shot myself in the foot there. I’m a translator, a teacher, obsessed with words. How languages overlap one another, reflect one another, but never line up exactly. Because that never works. Because it’s always a fantasy. Translation is the endless acquisition of all the possibilities of how to put similar thoughts into words in two or more languages. Similar but never the same. A translation is an echo, a subjective re-writing. 

How much space can two languages take up? Is it endless, could I add more and more languages, like sailing until I reach the horizon? Or is there a limit? Would something eventually slip out the other side as I shove more and more in? I’ve found it difficult to commit myself to a third language. I’ve tried Russian, as well as French and Norwegian. But nothing sticks. Nothing has left the same indelible, intangible imprint as German.

My second language is learned. My existence split in two, the other half of me is learned. I’ve often been asked why I chose it. Why German, of all languages? Germans can all speak English, can’t they? (no). Do you have German relatives? German roots? (no). It was a simple choice between German and French at school, I say. But I know it’s probably not the whole truth. The truth is always much more complicated than you think. I’ve never been sure what my truth is in this respect. Yes, why German?

We belong to the same family. The further you go back in the past, the more similar the two languages become, German and English, English and German. The same extraction, the same roots. You just don’t see it these days waiting at the pedestrian crossing; the man is lit a steady red, and the British walk, unhurried, out into the road in front of an accelerating taxi. 

Maybe it was, for me, rather an exercise in vanity. I didn’t want to be like ‘all’ other Brits. I didn’t just want to live in one language, that felt too blinkered. The word is full of endless possibility for self-expression. Had I only been able to express myself in one language, I would always have wondered to myself: what am I missing? Still, as a bilingual, I’m far removed from the world’s most proficient linguists.

German still doesn’t come as easily to me as English. I speak and write like no German. Some would call it a deficiency, a failure— my not-quite-mastery. But I like to keep my flaws. Is there not room for an endless variety of Germans in the word, just as there’s an endless variety of Englishes? The English brought their language on slave and pilgrim ships and thought they could master the world as you ‘master’ a language. But now English belongs to everybody who learns or grows up with English. It doesn’t just belong to the English anymore. 

When I started writing today, I was intending to send it to my German friend, so that he could check it for flaws and mistakes. But now I’ve decided against it. The flaws can stay. They’re signposts along a long trail behind me, breadcrumbs of the years of patience and frustration, like the rings in a tree, layers built up over layers. My German was rootless, but now it’s laid down roots.

It’s strange to think about how this square, angular, spiked language is rejecting me. After Brexit, while COVID marches forwards, in this new, dystopian era: I’m not allowed in. Absolute travel ban to contain the Delta variant. In the last six months, there was a window of six days in which I could legally have travelled to Germany. I missed this window, of course.

I had the naive, childish hope that everything would progressively get better, and that I’d be able to see my partner this summer. But my German half is still in its extended winter hibernation. Re-book those flights, just once more, and again. We can make it one more month, then another, and another. I can’t hear the Odenwald dialect anymore, melodic, half-swallowed, rising and falling in my ears, the words falling over each other whilst I strain to catch his grandpa’s gist. He doesn’t understand me either, although I try to say my German as German as possible.

So what does German mean to me? I’ve already spent two years of my adulthood there. I’m young, but I see my future there. Lower rents, Freiluftlust, muesli with yoghurt. German means building a firepit on the terrace, breakfast on wooden boards, breadbasket in the middle of the table. German means warm evenings in the beer garden on rough benches. Just don’t lose your balance. It means sunsets over the trees behind the house, watching how the colours bleach and blend and the pines turn to shadow, black teeth against the night sky. It means pulling Bollerwagen through festival puddles as Hurricane proves its name. My partner smiling as I stick a jumble of words together, as I test the limits of this Lego-language, trying to express the intricacies of my feelings in exactly this moment. Today I called him unmitbestreitbar. Un-arguable-with.

I have to keep asking what a pine cone is called in Odenwäldisch. Or maybe it’s just called something different in his village, I forget that too. Hussmouge. I find it funny every time, before I forget it again. Why funny? Maybe because it’s so antithetical to the standard German Tannenzapfle. Maybe because it’s so specific to have a completely different word for something that so often lies unnoticed on the forest floor, trampled, or is ripped apart by village kids so they can get at the sweet-bitter nuts inside. I’ve almost forgotten the smell of moss under pines, how the ferns slowly unroll over the spring months, and how you develop your mushroom vision if you look long and hard enough. Endless degrees of brown and green.

Separation is an endless exercise in waiting, hesitation, deferral, refresh the website, book then re-book and cancel, read the restrictions, mandatory quarantine or not? Vaccination passport, proof of test, green-amber-red list. I spend my days at my desk and translate from German, but I haven’t ever felt further away from it.

Prose Translations

The Benefits of Copying

Our writing task this week was two kinds of copying, and discovering what it can teach us about translation and writing more generally. We first read an extract from Ali Smith’s novel Autumn (2016) on the Brexit referendum result in the UK:

“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.

All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipped about in the air above the trees, the roots, the traffic.

All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: What is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications.

Ali Smith, Autumn, 2016

We had a couple of minutes to read and attempt to memorise this extract. Then, we attempted to copy out the text from memory. This was my attempt:

“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.

All across the country, people emerged, shocked, when the news whipped around like an electric pylon after a storm when one of its wires had been snapped and was whipping around everywhere.

All across the country, people thought it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people thought it was the right thing. All across the country, people thought they’d really lost. All across the country, people thought they’d really won. All across the country, people turned to Google: what’s the EU? Google, move to Scotland. Google, how to apply for Irish passports.

As you can see, I didn’t get everything, but I got the main ideas. I struggled with the extended simile, and missed some of the middle of the final paragraph.

Learning from Copying

So, what’s the point? What did I learn?

In short, repetition is memorable. Texts with a specific pattern of foregrounded words can be repeated from memory more easily. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it does teach you how important repetition is when appealing to a reader. It’s not the mark of bad writing.

The extended simile, on the other hand, was difficult to remember. It’s not difficult to see why. It stretches over several lines and uses some confusing imagery. However, not being able to remember something isn’t a mark of bad writing either. The pylons whipping around: It’s a long image. You can argue that this is a kind of stretching the metaphor. It lengthens the experience, and sometimes also the aesthetic effect, of reading. A simile or a metaphor invites us to put together two ideas which don’t usually belong together. Shklovsky’s ideas on defamiliarisation are linked to this. We need strangeness in art, and by extension literature as a form of art. It’s only through experiencing the strange, of juxtaposing ideas together, that we can feel and form something new.

I’ve also learned that syntax can be an expressive tool, a stylistic device. The order the words come in and the way they are arranged go a long way to whether we remember them or not. We tend to remember the beginnings and ends of sentences and not the middle section, and the same goes for paragraphs. It’s best not to hide my main ideas somewhere in the middle of my text.

Copying by Hand: What can it do for us?

Now we’ve talked about some of the benefits of copying, we can come onto some of the benefits of copying by hand.

Over the last year, I’ve turned into a bit of a writing purist. I’ve gone from hardly ever writing by hand to writing all of my first drafts manually. I have a specific type of pen I love (the Works, cheap blue or black gel pens), and specific types of notebooks (A5, hardback, not ringbinder, not too many pages, thick pages, narrow lines to keep my handwriting under control). I love the physicality of it all – I’m at my work desk, crafting something. I love filling up notebooks, I love how timeless and analogue it is. I love riffling through the crispy pages afterwards. I love stashing them on my bookshelves and pretending to be a published author, with my works nestled between Mantel and Harper Lee. I love how notebooks get thicker and fatter as you fill them up. I love how it forces me to slow down and think about my choices, and I love how all of my thought processes are visible, the editing is visible. If I add a word, if I take one away, this can be seen on the page. Drafting in a Word or Google Doc, is, on the other hand, invisible. The process has vanished. Creating a first draft by hand and then typing it up also forces you to edit. You suddenly notice which word choices feel clumsy, which arrangements fall short of lyrical. I like to put lots of word choices in a first draft of fiction or translation, and then pick one when typing it up. You edit as you transpose your text from the page to the screen. You realise what needs elaborating, and which passages are unnecessary.

But I digress, this was supposed to be about copying specifically. Copying this passage made many of us realise how laborious and unnatural the repetition feels. There’s so much repetition in this extract, and when reading it, we tend to just skip over the repeated words without giving them much thought. But when it comes to actually writing each one, that’s when we realise the weight of it. Copying repetition also meant that some of us, including me, were losing our places, forgetting which sentence we were on when a lot of it looked the same.

Copying by hand helps us to gauge the effect of some stylistic features on the reader. Some translators swear by copying some passages from the source text before they embark on a translation, just to see and understand what the author is doing, to get inside the text, so to speak. We can gauge the words better. Copying can be used in this way as a translation resource.