“Love at first sound”: John le Carré makes the case for German.

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In Hamburg, 2008, enjoying the “language of the gods.”

In The Guardian, John le Carré makes a pitch for the German language, which he learned in wartime England (he received the Goethe Medal in 2011). Since I’m currently reading Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (and loving every minute of it), the article naturally caught my eye. But German, more than, say, Italian? Which not only sounds beautiful, but you get Dante thrown in for good measure. Or how about Polish, with its poetry that sounds like a caress?

No dice. He’s loyal to his wartime beloved. He calls it “love at first sound.”

Why was it love at first sound for me? Well, in those days not many language teachers played gramophone records to their class, but Mr King did. They were old and very precious to him and us, and he kept them in brown paper bags in a satchel that he put in his bicycle basket when he rode to school.

What did they contain, these precious records? The voices of classical German actors, reading romantic German poetry. The records were a bit cracked, but that was part of their beauty. In my memory, they remain cracked to this day:

Du bist wie eine Blume – CRACK – So hold und schön und… – CRACK (Heinrich Heine)

Bei Nacht im Dorf der Wächter rief… – CRACK (Eduard Mörike’s Elfenlied)

And I loved them. I learned to imitate, then recite them, crack and all. And I discovered that the language fitted me. It fitted my tongue. It pleased my Nordic ear.

I also loved the idea that these poems and this language that I was learning were mine and no one else’s, because German wasn’t a popular subject and very few of my schoolmates knew a word of it beyond the Achtung! and Hände hoch! that they learned from propaganda war movies.

Even love has its reasons. As he explains:

You’ve probably heard the Mark Twain gag: “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.” You can make up crazy adjectives like “my-recently-by-my-parents-thrown- out-of- the-window PlayStation”. And when you’re tired of floundering with nouns and participles strung together in a compound, you can turn for relief to the pristine poems of a Hölderlin, or a Goethe, or a Heine, and remind yourself that the German language can attain heights of simplicity and beauty that make it, for many of us, a language of the gods.

And for all its pretending, the German language loves the simple power of monosyllables.

He would have agreed.

To quote Charlemagne (and he does): “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

He might have added that to teach another language is to implant a second soul.

Of course, the very business of reconciling these two souls at any serious level requires considerable mental agility. It compels us to be precise, to confront meaning, to think rationally and creatively and never to be satisfied until we’ve hit the equivalent word, or – which also happens – until we’ve recognised that there isn’t one, so hunt for a phrase or circumlocution that does the job.

No wonder then that the most conscientious editors of my novels are not those for whom English is their first language, but the foreign translators who bring their relentless eye to the tautological phrase or factual inaccuracy – of which there are far too many. My German translator is particularly infuriating.

Read the whole thing here. He ends with a George Orwell touch that many will appreciate. (And what became of the Book Haven’s Orwell Watch? the system became overwhelmed, we think, sometime during the last election…)


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One Response to ““Love at first sound”: John le Carré makes the case for German.”

  1. George Says:

    Last week I noticed in Milosz’s Native Realm “(In German I understood, and to this day understand, almost nothing except Hände hoch! and Alle Männer ‘rraus!. Not much, for the language of Goethe.)” One understands the lack of enthusiasm.

    Wasn’t an old test of prose “Can you translate it?” I know that I have seen it mentioned in Waugh (Work Suspended) and elsewhere. Those who proposed the test had Latin in mind, I think. But translation into any language must bring about the effects Le Carre describes.

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