Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Vocabulary and pronunciation, and even spelling, mark larger histories of settlement and local adjustment

We return with another installment of Translator’s Diary where Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize, takes us through the nuances of translation. Today he discusses the intricacies of vocabulary and pronunciation and how history and geography combine to fashion complex, unique identities. 

Hoagie? Hero? Sub? Some weeks ago I was staying in the Rhineland, near the Dutch border, where I developed a pesky summer cold. When I told a close friend who lives in the area that I was “verkühlt,” he grinned and said my Austrian side was showing, since a German would say “erkältet.” This reply reminded me of those popular posts on social media that ask if you drink “soda” or “pop,” if your sandwich is a “hoagie” or a “sub” or a “hero,” if you call those luminous insects “lightning bugs” or “fireflies,” if you drive around a “rotary,” a “roundabout,” or a “traffic circle.” Then there are the arguments about pronunciation; do you wade in the “crick” (like brick) or the “creek” (like meek)? Vocabulary and pronunciation, and even spelling, mark larger histories of settlement and local adjustment, which might explain why amature language lovers also enjoy reading about Samuel Johnson’s vs. Noah Webster’s lexicography, or about the perceived level of crudity or finesse in this or that regional expression (quick disdain for Southern “y’all” or “might could”).

Translators from German likewise need to be aware of geographical and cultural forces; I confine myself here to differences between standard German in Germany (Bundesdeutsch) and Austrian German. (Swiss German is fascinating but outside our framework.) I know from experience through making my own mistakes (some of them in print!) what bloopers can arise from ignorance or inattentiveness. Of course, one approach to this topic would be to list variances in grammar and syntax, vocabulary (especially food), idioms, and the like; I’d rather recommend Robert Sedlaczek’s fine book Das österreichische Deutsch to readers of German and move on to a more comprehensive insight, one that traces a truly characterizing difference.

L’Académie allemande. German novelist Martin Mosebach reviews pertinent history about the German language in an essay about Doderer warning readers not to overlook vital cultural differences. Regrets are occasionally expressed, he remarks, that there was never an institution in the German-speaking world comparable to the norm-setting, regulating Académie française. But in fact there was, he claims: Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible regularized and unified German. Aside from its religious import, the Luther Bible is one of the essential documents in the history of the language, reconciling divergent regional usages, harmonizing dialects, fixing idioms, introducing needed abstract neologisms, and creating a normative language balanced between literary derivation and colloquialism and accessible to all German speakers. What we know as modern “High German” derives very largely from this one book; as Mosebach says, “German [meaning “High German”] is a Protestant dialect,” and “The Reformation was the German Academy.”

But in Catholic Austria, linguistic peculiarities excluded in the Luther Bible never fell out of use, to the enduring enrichment and variety of Austrian German—Latin and Latinisms, demotic expression and dialectal variety, wide range of colloquialisms, persistence of earlier stages, readiness to assimilate foreign languages in the ethnically mixed Austrian empire (Yiddish, Czech, and other Slavic languages, Italian, Hungarian, Romanian), archaisms, regionalisms—so that Austrian German linguistically reflected the melting pot that existed in the empire’s large cities ethnically, remaining supple and vital from Trieste to Traiskirchen to Transylvania, from Budapest to Bregenz to Bruch an der Mur. Bundesdeutsch, by contrast, was trapped in pedantry, abstraction, and overcorrectness (though it functioned brilliantly, Mosebach concedes, as witness the Weimar classic authors or Thomas Mann), grew pale and abstract and overregulated, and lost spontaneity and freedom. Though Mosebach is polemically emphatic here, he would surely not fail to praise the fiction of German writers like Theodor Fontane or Alfred Döblin or Elisabeth Langgässer. But in arguing that the work of the complex, elaborate, Baroque stylist that is Doderer could have been developed by an Austrian and only by an Austrian, Mosebach cites the testimony of many readers and writers who admire the greater variety, playfulness, layered irony, inventiveness, and agility of Austrian German.

Language Looks Beyond Itself: The heightened stylistic distinctiveness of Austrian literature often makes the language itself a prominent theme—I return to Marjorie Perloff’s point that the German of Austrian literature was often “the object of contemplation rather than a means of communication.” Hofmannsthal’s Chandos Letter and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus are two of many documents bearing out the point, and perhaps only another Austrian like Fritz Mauthner (Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache) could have written so comprehensive a philosophical analysis of language. A caveat is needed here, however: commentators often judge this concern with language as a purportedly typical Austrian escape from political and social awareness into sealed-off hermeticism, but we recall Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler’s comment that, for the Austrian author, linguistic analysis is the most effective means of political and social analysis—think only of Karl Kraus. In Strudlhofstiege, Councilor Zihal’s comic elaborations, derived from the Austrian civil-service manual that long ruled his life, are an affectionate tribute to linguistic preening for its own sake (think Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield and his “pecuniary emoluments”) but also a canny indictment of how style can become its own end to the detriment of reality; the sophisticated but slippery polyglot gibberish spouted by alcoholic Eulenfeld reveals his rootless, desperately improvised existence by its lack of a home in language; the man is not just inebriated, but alienated, treated like a stranger in a strange land when he pronounces proper names in the German rather than the Austrian way. Likewise, Editha Pastré’s use of expressions unusual for Vienna furnishes the first clue to the fraudulent identity revealed later. Truth resides inherently in the language within which truth is expressed; the narrator makes that point in one of his most loving and lively tributes:

Resi Schachl was one of those who maintained a good mood and had control over a sharp ­tongue (had control, and so it didn’t do her any harm) that could turn and toss and spin the language in all its vigor—in the old neighborhoods all over Vienna, especially back then, it welled up in­defatigab­le and unceasing—imbuing it with concrete vivid­ness in the most exquisitely detailed way. The metaphors she would come out with sometimes really hit their targets like an arrow fired by an expert archer; when, for example, she once said of a person in a testy mood that the woman “looked like a scorched louse,” it must be conceded that there could hardly be a worse mood than the one a tiny little bug would be in if someone were holding a match under it as it went scurrying up the wall.

My Académie autrichienne: Doing Resi Schachl and her heritage justice clearly calls for special knowledge and experience, then, but these are not provided by the standard methods of learning German. I learned Bundesdeutsch in the Bundesrepublik (then West Germany) many years ago, at the outstanding Goethe-Institut, with no awareness of Austrian German, so my “Austrian Academy” really started with on-the-job and on-the-spot training later in Vienna. Before then, I had made typical mistakes in my published translations of Doderer. My second set of “true confessions”—I made one some time back—will help readers understand typical misunderstandings.

Germans would call an upright chair without arms, such as a dining-room chair, a “Stuhl” and an upholstered armchair or club chair a “Sessel.” But “Sessel” is generic Austrian for “Stuhl,” and an armchair or easy chair is called a “Fauteuil.” So when I was translating a short story (“Under Black Stars”) in which one military officer asks another to have a seat at his desk, he says “Sessel,” which I translated as “armchair,” hazy as to what easy chairs would be doing in a military office setting. In another story, a character is drinking what he calls a “Mokka,” a strong black coffee like espresso. But what did I know?—I had the man drinking a “mocha,” which is something different.

German-speakers outside Austria are unlikely to know what a “Greißler” is—the word is slowly dying out anyway—and because it sounds like a proper name, that is how it was mistranslated in an otherwise excellent English version of a fairly recent Austrian novel. In that novel, a young woman of Turkish background who speaks flawless German is always addressed in baby talk or pidgin German by the other patrons of the local small grocery store she frequents. The translator clearly thought that “Greißler” was the name of the store owner and thus said in English that the woman was always talked down to at Greißler’s, but a “Greißler” is the generic word for that small mom-and-pop store on the corner. Who could blame this translator, schooled in the standard manner and thus unable to be aware of the Austrian usage without being told?

Germans laugh, more often with affection than derision, when Austrians refer to household trash as “Mist,” since that word is used in Bundesdeutsch exclusively for manure, organic waste. Sedlacek points out that place names in Germany ending in –au (HANau, PASSau) never accent the final syllable, while similar Austrian place names are invariably accented on the –au (LobAU, StockerAU) (that is the mistake Eulenfeld always makes). The trite remark about two countries separated by a common language is very well founded as to German in Germany and Austria, and the translator who doesn’t realize the differences will make mistakes. I’m living proof.


Read more essays: