The Compulsive Copyeditor

September 1, 2009

Visiting German [UPDATED AGAIN]

(New UPDATE:  Read my brother’s wonderful discovery-tribute to the German language, even though it does make him break out in flop sweat and armbands.)

My brother, back in grad school as he approaches 50 (and feeling alternately exhilarated and ridiculous), is taking a crash course in reading scholarly German, than which nothing could be more insane.  You could accurately translate every word in a passage of such German, painstakingly consulting an on- or offline dictionary (here’s an amazing one, by the way, which serves up all the alternative and idiomatic translations of any word you feed into it, complete with examples in vivo), and still not understand the logical links and interactions among those words engineered by German grammar.  If you misread number, case, or gender, or overlook a little track-switching word like nur (only) or nicht (not) or sondern (which always works in harness with nicht to mean “not this, but rather that”), you could go in exactly the wrong direction.

Fortunately, my brother has a sort of tutor — me — at his fingertips, and I in turn have the indelible memory of three years of drilling in grammar by an actual German German teacher in my high school, W. Gregor Heggen (wow, never Googled him before, amazing how many people thank him for things like helping them learn Irish), overlaid by some experience speaking and reading the language, to draw on.  (Hey, that was a lot like a sentence in German!)  I’m subfluent, and I probably have to look up almost as many scholarly-vocabulary words as my brother; but I have a basic grasp of the underlying track-switching system, the rails of relationship beneath the freight cars of vocabulary, that weaves the structures of meaning in German.   Getting just that basic grasp took all three years.  When our teacher took eight of us teenagers to Germany for the summer of 1962, starting with a one-month family stay in his hometown of Paderborn, we all soon started speaking German, but I was the only one who spoke it grammatically, because I was the only one with three years under my belt.  The idea of a crash course in German grammar boggles the mind.

I’ve seen three passages my brother had to translate, and they represented three very different kinds of German.  One was modern and brusque, written in short sentences almost imitative of Hemingway English.  One was pretentious and convoluted, exploiting to the full the German mind’s ability to put the forward progress of a sentence indefinitely on hold right before the consummating verb for an enormous, indigestible digression.  (It gives an English speaker a case of linguistic blue balls that makes you go “hmmm” about German sexuality.  It’s almost sadomasochistic, that withholding of the verb that alone will let you off the hook about what’s actually happening in the sentence.  The English speaker has to plod around the digression in search of the verb, and perhaps the German mind does this too, but much, much faster, scooping up the whole digression as it goes in one deft pelican gulp.)

The third was a rather famous passage by the composer Arnold Schönberg.  Here it is in German, and here’s an official English translation — which is a lot like and no smoother than the one my brother accomplished with a little remedial nudging from me.  You’d think the Arnold Schönberg Center could have found a better translator, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is that it is untranslatable.  Rarely have I read anything in German so purely German, in that nearly every word of it falls either into a space between two English words or a space that encompasses two or three English words.

Take, for example, Geist, a cognate of “ghost” in English.  (That remains a minor and archaic meaning in German; there’s a separate word for the spooky meaning of “ghost,” Gespenst.)  In some contexts, it will be translated into English as “spirit;” in others, as “mind” or “intellect.”  But in German, it encompasses both.  They are not two different things.  We need at least two words to approximate the German word — poorly.  What does that mean?  It means, I think, that in English we think of mind as a tool, mechanism, or process that assembles or manipulates parts of ideas, while spirit is sort of featureless and above all that.  Mind is a factory, if an advanced one; spirit is a mist.  But in German, you think with your spirit.  Ideas are not something you assemble, they’re something you apprehend.

And here’s another one:  Wesen.  Literally Wesen means “being” — it even shows up doing scutwork in the grammar, where gewesen means “been.”  On a loftier plane it means the suchness of a thing — what in English it takes four lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins to say:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

UPDATE: Or, as Dr. Seuss put it

Today you are You/that is truer than true./ There is no one alive/ who is Youer than You.

For a one-word equivalent in English, we have to say “essence.”  While this is in fact the exact Latin equivalent — esse means “to be”! — it’s come to have a different connotation in English; it’s sideslid into the less essential realm of perfumes, oils, and flavorings, which were originally called “essences” because they were a thought to be a concentrate or emanation of the very being of a substance — the way it “selves — goes itself.”  In German, however, that kind of essence isn’t called Wesen — it’s called Geist.  As in Birnengeist, a very concentrated clear pear brandy.  Which brings us around to “spirits.” … and on and on.

Not to study at least one second language is a pity.  Other languages shine a different light on the world, showing up things that are really there that might remain dark in our language.  (There’s sometimes a leap of recognition when you learn a word in another language — it has lit up and pinned down one of the many, many phenomena we all feel but don’t have names for.)  They also shine a new light back on our language, helping us to find fossils and wellsprings that have been buried under the sediments of usage.

Other examples?



  1. Without you, and your clear-eyed, Hegen-ified view of the language, I’d never have survived, much less begun to thrive. Thanks, me sis.

    Comment by david — September 1, 2009 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

  2. Two old thoughts along the lines of yours:

    Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen-Goethe


    Apprendre une langue, c’est vivre de nouveau-anonymous

    Nice declension in the Goethe quote btw. The very word “declension” in the context of German will forever remind me of the hilarious essay penned by Mark Twain entitled The Awful German Language.

    Other examples?

    A favorite German word of mine is die Schuld which as a noun carries both meanings “debt” and “guilt” -concepts which require two separate words in English. Here are two examples from the Bible:

    From the Lord’s Prayer:

    und vergib uns unsere Schuld-forgive us our trespass(es).

    And from the “Parable of the Unforgiven Servant” (Matthew 18:33):

    Deine ganze Schuld habe ich dir erlassen, weil du mich darum gebeten hast-“I forgave the all that debt, because thou asked me to.”

    In German, a convicted felon is schuldig; yet also, a monetary debtor is said to owe a Schuld. I find the equating of guilt and monetary debt utterly fascinating, and perhaps profoundly linked to why Germans are characteristically debt-free while Americans are debt-laden (I’m certain that there is a good essay there somewhere).

    So far as I know, modern English has no residual cognate for Schuld. According to my Duden Band 7 (Das Herkunkunftswörterbuch: Etymologie der deutschen Sprache) there was an old English word “scyld” corresponding to the concept of debt. Cognates exist in other Germanic languages.

    Amba, I’m so pleased and heartened when you write about stuff like this. This is a passion of mine. :)

    Comment by El Pollo Real — September 2, 2009 @ 5:18 am | Reply

    • The Awful German Language


      That’s from memory, by the way.

      Comment by amba12 — September 2, 2009 @ 5:24 am | Reply

    • Schuld is a good one. “Debt, blame, guilt.”

      Comment by Charlie (Colorado) — September 2, 2009 @ 5:40 am | Reply

  3. Well, there are the obvious ones, like gemütlich, and there’s the distinction between essen and fressen. I find I really kind of miss the distinction between du and Sie in English — although it’s still there in Shakespeare; I just realized that Hamlet rather slaps Mom around with it — and learning German was what finally forced me to figure out the subjunctive.

    I’ve done some tries at translating Rilke, and notice that often what he says with force is translated into English as fuzzy new-age-ish stuff. (Especially by my bete noir, Stephen Mitchell.) But some of that is also the lack of a really distinct imperative in English; we make do with an imperative mood where German actually has an imperative case. So “Sieh, du fühlst, wie nichts mehr an dir hängt” turns into the rather wimpy “you see how nothing hangs on to you any more” or something like it.

    I think maybe what I really notice, though, is that agglutination lets German say some amazing things. The first verse of “An die Freude” does that:

    “Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
    Tochter aus Elysium,
    Wir betreten feuertrunken,
    Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.
    Deine Zauber binden wieder,
    Was die Mode streng geteilt;
    Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
    Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
    Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
    Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
    Brüder, überm Sternenzelt
    Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.”

    Let’s see: “Götterfunken” — the “spark” or “signal” or “radiance” of the Gods (plural, thank you very much.) “Feuertrunken” — “Drunk” but with fire, inflamed, by that Godly spark. And the whole last bit — “Embrace, you millions, /with this, kiss the whole world” — the imperative again.

    Comment by Charlie (Colorado) — September 2, 2009 @ 5:21 am | Reply

    • Schiller/Beethoven: “Be embraced, millions! This kiss to the whole world!”*

      Hendrix: “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky!”

      *(Perfect example of the kind of hidden track signals my brother is up against: the grammar contradicts the word order. “This kiss” is accusative — the direct object. The giving of the kiss — by the poet? by God? — is thereby implied but not stated. “der ganzen Welt” is dative — the indirect object. Finally getting this is what took three years and a thrilling German-style fear of one’s teacher.)

      I know what you mean, Charlie, about missing the “Sie/du” distinction — but think of the hassles you avoid. Volumes have been written about when and how to broach the switch from “Sie” to “du.” You literally have to sense when to say to someone, “May I call you ‘du’?” Or “Let’s ‘du’ each other, sha’n’t we?” (In German that is not a double-entendre. I don’t know if anyone notices that the verb “dutzen” is very close to “Dutzend,” dozen. Shall we play the dozens?) Apparently this is true even now in business e-mails; I wish I could track down a post mulling over this theme that I saw recently.

      But then, maybe that dilemma is not a bad one to have. In fact, maybe we have it too but aren’t aware of it because it isn’t in our language. Calling someone by their first name, maybe, used to be the equivalent. Now business letters start “Hi Annie!” on the first go, which actually kind of annoys me.

      Comment by amba12 — September 2, 2009 @ 1:29 pm | Reply

  4. “One was pretentious and convoluted, exploiting to the full the German mind’s ability to put the forward progress of a sentence indefinitely on hold right before the consummating verb for an enormous, indigestible digression.”

    Heh. “Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.”

    Comment by Charlie (Colorado) — September 2, 2009 @ 5:37 am | Reply

  5. Rats. Tried to comment again but lost the whole thing. It’s 2 AM and we were at a karate promotion for most of the evening.

    I was translating ChickenLittle’s Goethe quote for those who don’t know German: “Who does not know foreign languages knows nothing of his own.” And commenting on a couple of interesting things just in that quote. To recap, we use “know” where German uses two words, kennen and wissen. Kennen has more the sense of familiarity or being “conversant” (I’m becoming so linguistically self-conscious, I think I’ll go have some linguine.) You use “kennen” for knowing a person. I think it’s also related to können, to be able. It’s so interesting that you say ich kenne ihn but Ich kann Deutsch, the same as "I can German." Wissen is related to “wit” and “wisdom”. It has the sense of information and insight. … oh hell, fallng asleep, gott finish romorrow. [could edit that, but it would be a pity!]

    Comment by amba12 — September 2, 2009 @ 6:45 am | Reply

    • FWIW: Italian has similar kennen vs. wissen expressions:

      kennen = conoscere
      wissen = sapere

      The subtleties of stare and essere (both verbs mean “to be”) can be explained but I think the rules are best just memorized). Again Mark Twain said it best in Italian Without A Master.

      Comment by El Pollo Real — September 2, 2009 @ 3:35 pm | Reply

  6. OK, awake again … “science” in German is Wissenschaft, literally “knowship.”

    And then fremd means both “strange” and “foreign,” like the French étrange. By definition a foreigner is peculiar, hence the other meaning of “strange.” We still have “stranger,” but it doesn’t mean “foreigner” any more, just someone you don’t know, who may or may not be weird.

    Brings me to the French quote. I don’t know French but I’m acquainted with it. I’m pretty sure Anonymous said, “To learn a language is to live anew.” That’s lovely.

    I wonder whether the double meaning of Schuld originated with monetary restitution for crimes. Blood money. We do say the guilty party pays his debt to society by doiing time.

    Comment by amba12 — September 2, 2009 @ 7:12 am | Reply

    • Charlie, I too have tried to translate Rilke. Frustrating! His epitaph (which he wrote) is wonderfully, symptomatically untranslatable:

      Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust
      Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter so vielen

      Here it is badly translated by none other than Stephen Mitchell. (Who’s turned Lao Tzu and Rumi into New Age sages, too.) Lust isn’t “joy” here, it’s desire or pleasure (not particularly sexual). But the pun in the last line (and Rilke uses a lot of sort of mystical puns) doesn’t make it into English:

      Rose, oh pure contradiction, desire
      to be no one’s sleep under so many

      But “Lider” in German sounds the same as “Lieder” — songs.

      Sieh, du fühlst, wie nichts mehr an dir hängt

      you could translate as “See, you feel how nothing more hangs on you.”

      But, poetry? Untranslatable.

      Comment by amba12 — September 2, 2009 @ 7:38 am | Reply

      • And don’t get me started with the names of chemical elements in German. Wasserstoff (hydrogen) translated as water-stuff; Sauerstoff (oxygen) translated as sour-stuff; Stickstoff (nitrogen) translated as choking-stuff (the Germans knew that nitrogen, a component of air would make one gasp for oxygen-ersticken. I once joked to some German chemist friends that they should have name sulfur “Stinkstoff,” by analogy to their beautifully descriptive word for skunk: Stinktier (tier is cognate with our word “deer”).

        Comment by El Pollo Real — September 2, 2009 @ 8:07 am

  7. I thought Stickstoff was carbon dioxide.

    Comment by amba — September 2, 2009 @ 12:51 pm | Reply

    • Carbon dioxide was still Kohlendioxid last I checked. But I left out coal-stuff Kohlenstoff above-thanks for reminding me!

      Comment by El Pollo Real — September 2, 2009 @ 1:53 pm | Reply

      • You’re right — it’s nitrogen. Stickstoff could also be translated as “suffocate-stuff” — Suff’n’Stuff for short?

        I’m starting to wonder if my mind has been affected by the few molecules of THC I probably inhaled while in Chicago — or is it always like this??

        Comment by amba12 — September 2, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  8. “Won’t you be my fremd?”

    Comment by amba — September 2, 2009 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

  9. Fremd mean foreign or strange, but the Germans also have the wonderfully xenophobic word Auslander for a foreigner. I think the concept, “outside the land” is similar to the terms used in Arabic, but I don’t know that language so I forget.

    Oddly enough, English has kept the cognate term “outlandish” to describe something that is fremd.

    Comment by El Pollo Real — September 2, 2009 @ 3:45 pm | Reply

  10. […] examples? Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Visiting German Leave a […]

    Pingback by Interlanguage Land Mines « The Compulsive Copyeditor — September 15, 2009 @ 5:44 am | Reply

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