If I haven’t been around here for a while, it’s because I have a new compulsion: a translation compulsion. My brother’s crash course in reading scholarly German has lured me back into that Gothic thorn-thicket.
Und das hat mit ih-ih-rem si-ING-en
Die Lor-e-lei getan.
* * *
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
spontaneous joy and natural content
out of my heart.
Sorry, my brain has a line of verse for every occasion lately. Yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda.
So when not copyediting for a living, I’ve been wading into the dense passages of theology David had to translate, wondering how I would do it, admiring the persistence of Herr Heggen’s 45-year-old operating system installation, and trying to figure out how to give clues and tips to someone who’s lost in German — a trail of breadcrumbs through the Black Forest of the Brüder Grimm.
His exam was today. And it was predictably grueling. If he flunks, I flunk as a guide.
UPDATE: He passed!! High pass! A triumph for him, and for me, and a tribute to Herr Heggen!
David has been an actor, so I wanted to wish him “Break a leg,” and it immediately echoed in my head that in German it’s Beinbruch . . . but it’s “Something-else-and-Beinbruch.”
I looked it up. No need to suffer from middle-aged memory impaction now that there’s Google. Who says there’s no progress??
It’s Hals- und Beinbruch. In German, you don’t just say, “Break a leg.” You say “Break your neck . . . and oh, while you’re at it, a leg, too.”
I figured David would Grimmly appreciate that upping of the ante. But better yet, then I came upon this:
It is sometimes said that the German expression is actually a corruption of a Hebrew blessing hatzlakha u-brakha, “success and blessing”, which may have been borrowed via Yiddish. Whatever its source, the most plausible theory is that Hals- und Beinbruch was transferred into the American theatre (in which Yiddish- or German-speaking immigrant Jews were strongly represented) sometime after World War I.
What could be more perfect for someone who is learning to decode scholarly German for the purposes of a doctorate in Jewish studies?
The other thing:
Coming across the word Zweifel, doubt, I remembered that in German Verzweiflung is despair — a higher octave, a compression and lethal concentration of doubt. (Take any verb in German and add “ver-” or “er-” to make it first thumbscrews and then fatal. Ertrinken means to drown.) For us it’s desespoir — a loss of hope. For them it’s too much of something — a busy mind, too busy tearing down, a good image for the obsessive negative rumination of depression. For us it’s too little of something — the departure of Glinda the Good Witch, perhaps, with her gauzy gleam — dream, desire, illusion. There’s something passive about it. Hope leaves, what can you do? A German, by contrast, can’t stop doing. Doubting.
Thinking about it some more, though, I realized that linking doubt and despair is in fact theological. Like so many things we don’t give any thought to — like the fact that genus and species names are in Latin — it’s a living fossil of the overwhelming importance and omnipresence of God in every corner of our culture until less than a hundred years ago. Despair was the loss of faith, and doubt risked it. It was called acedia, and it was a sin.
So I look for a link for you, and what a surprise, I turn up a completely contemporary one: this year, Kathleen Norris, aspiring contemplative, author of The Cloister Walk and more, published a book called Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. Its starting point: the deep apathy Norris fell into, understandably enough, after both her father and her husband died. USA Today not only did an interview with her, but gave it a sidebar of quotes on acedia that Norris collected, from the Psalms to Chesterton, Kafka, and James Bond.
So there you go.
P.S. Zweifel has “zwei” in it — two. Doubt in German comes from there being two possibilities. Maybe God exists, maybe He doesn’t. It’s the tortured, busy, pre-quantum theory form of ambivalence where you still think it’s a matter of life and death that you decide, before you reach the befuddled peace of “neither/nor,” “both/and,” “maybe.”