Category Archives: Booklist

Book recommendations

Adventures with the (awful) German Language

Mark Twain may be most celebrated for his tales of adventure featuring Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but close to the end of his life he spent some time in Germany, which resulted in a lesser-known but equally entertaining tale of The Awful German Language.

With all the humor you would come to expect from Mark Twain, he writes about his experiences and observations in studying the “perplexing” German language. In an excellent rendering of a sentence the length of which is closer to the German variety, Mark Twain describes the German sentence:

“An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses, making pens with pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — AFTER WHICH COMES THE VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in ‘HABEN SIND GEWESEN GEHABT HABEN GEWORDEN SEIN,’ or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.”

He goes on to critique separable verbs, adjective endings, pronouns, genders, nouns and all the things that make the German language something awful that some of us have come to love. He has some of his own translation stories to tell as well:

“I translated a passage one day, which said that ‘the infuriated tigress broke loose and utterly ate up the unfortunate fir forest’ (Tannenwald). When I was girding up my loins to doubt this, I found out that Tannenwald in this instance was a man’s name.”

2010 is the “Year of Mark Twain.” This year marks the 175th anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth (November 30), the 100th anniversary of his death (April 21) and the 125th anniversary of the publication of his most beloved work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

There is actually one more Mark Twain anniversary in 2010: it was 130 years ago that my favorite work by the American writer was published.  The Awful German Language is a relatively short work and can be downloaded as an ebook here for free.


Leaves you wanting more….

During his book tour back in 2008, promoting his new title “When you are Engulfed in Flames,” David Sedaris appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman. Sedaris reads a section about his encounters with entertaining English translations while in Japan. He seems to know what most translators have been sure of for a long while – always hire a professional, native speaker to do the job. This taste of “When you are Engulfed in Flames” will definitely leave you wanting more.

Spoiled for choice

IMG_2070Since finishing my 300-page book translation project recently, I am now once again able to read a book of my own choosing for the first time in 5 months. The question is, what book will it be? My “to read” list is oppressively long and my pile of acquired and still unread books seems to multiply as I sleep. But how am I ever supposed to narrow it down to one title when I cannot even decide what language it should be?

It is the plight of many a translator or any other bilingual word lover. We are spoiled for choice.  Learning a new language opens up a whole new world and it can also double the size of your library – quite literally!

Reading novels is one of my greatest joys and I can still vividly remember the satisfaction I felt after reading my first novel in German for pleasure (Der Vorleser von Bernard Schlink). I then immersed myself in German literature and did not emerge for several years. I now alternate languages with each book I pick up. Once I finish my current German novel it will be time to read some of my mother tongue again.

Do you read multiple languages? And if so, how do you decide which it will be? I’d love any book recommendations you may have as well!

The untranslatable now available in translation

Half-a-million words, 1600 pages, 6 years and  50,000 euros later the impossible has been done. The untranslatable has been translated. Wait- that doesn’t sound like very much money for 6 years of full-time labor!

Without some side translation jobs from the financial sector, 2 stipends and an allowance from Dad, it would have never been possible for Ulrich Blumenbach to translate David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece.

Thirteen years after publication in the USA, Wallace’s original title, “Infinite Jest”, is now also available as “Unendlicher Spass”.  The German-speaking audience finally get their fair share of herds of hamsters as well as the best play on the English language since James Joyce –  except of course in German.

Whether the translator, Ulrich Blumenbach, was successful in his Germanisation of the complex text will probably not be known for many years. If it took Wallace a lifetime to write the book, and it took Blumenbach 6 years to translate it. How long do you think it will take to read it?

*For more on the writer David Foster Wallace read the touching article published in Rolling Stone magazine shortly after his death:

God save the queen – Gott speichert die Königin ?

While most people, or at least translators, seem to agree that translation software is no replacement for a professional, human translation, I have often heard the opinion that a program like Google Translate is good for getting a basic understanding of subject matter if only for personal use. But it looks like translation software can muddle even the shortest of phrases and names making comprehensibility impossible. For instance:

God save the queen – Gott speichert die Königin

Buckingham Palace – Kompensationsschinkenpalast

Hamlet – Dörfchen

Downing Street – Niederwerfende Straße

These are just a few of the hilarious examples in Ute Brammertz’s book ‘God save the Queen – God speichert die Königin’. Ute Brammertz is a writer, editor and translator from Munich now living in Oxford. She has compiled a list of German-English translations found on the internet. The list turned into a small book with German language commentary, which I can recommend for any German – English translator’s entertainment.

Bring a Book to Bed Day

Today is a holiday, albeit a new one, which is why you may not have heard about yet. It is the Second Annual International Bring a Book to Bed Day! It is the kind of holiday that you can celebrate in bed, in your pyjamas.

There is no perfect way to celebrate Bring a Book to Bed Day – whether all day, for an hour, five minutes or just a little time before falling asleep – just take some time to enjoy a good book. You can even take pictures of your celebrations and upload them to Writers Lake.

Writers Lake belongs to Maria Alba Brunetti, in fact she invented this unique holiday last year. On this day everyone is invited to unplug, relax and enjoy a good book. In our hectic modern lives it is hard to find time to enjoy the simple pleasures of a good book. That’s why the cold and cloudy end of February is the ideal time to celebrate this holiday.

It seems that translators especially, those who spend their days deconstructing long, complicated texts, often do not want to pick up a book when the work day is done. Just don’t forget what led you to a career as a translator in the first place – probably the same thing that brought me here: love of the written word, no matter what the language. Happy reading.