MH points me to the a 3 Quarks Daily piece by Brooks Riley about German-English language exchange:
The German language may have a reputation for exhaustively long words, but when it's pithy, it's penetrating: The word for 'scene of the crime' is 'Tatort', a linguistic slamdunk.
And then there's the economical 'doch', an invention that should have been imported years ago. I say, 'The world won't end today.' You answer, 'Oh yes it will.' A German answers, 'Doch', a four-letter contradiction instead of a four-word one. 'Doch' has an elegant finality about it—having the last word without spelling it out. ' You're not going out dressed like that!'. 'Doch.' Try to argue with that.
...English also suffers the boyfriend-girlfriend issue, a problem dating back to the Sixties, when young people started avoiding marriage. Before then, 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' were useful terms for a temporary state of affairs, to be discarded when the young ones tied the knot. Now that marriage is just one of many forms of monogamous pairings, those without a wedding ring are left hanging--some of them well into old age--without a proper word to describe their Significant Other, other than 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'. In both languages, the rather tepid solution is to use 'my friend' to imply romantic involvement, and 'a friend of mine' to suggest friendship. (This distinction works only if you omit the name of the loved one: "My friend Flicka" would hardly be mistaken for a romantic liaison). 'Partner' pops up in both languages, but what does it mean? A business partner? A lover? Is it a he or she (the same predicament applies to the word 'lover')? Do they live together or do they just do dinner? In German, unmarried cohabiting (or is it co-habiting) pairs refer to each other as Lebensgefährte (male life companion), or Lebensgefährtin (female life companion), profiting from a language with male and female nouns. But what if they break up? You can't exactly refer to a former boyfriend as a 'former life companion' (unless you tweak it to 'companion of a former life'). One cynical German suggested the word 'Lebensabschnittsgefährte', or 'slice-of-life companion'. An American friend of mine uses the term 'serial monogamy' to describe a lifetime of long-term relationships, but it's not one that solves the problem of what to call the S.O.
I would translate Lebensabschnittsgefährte more as 'phase-of-life' or 'period-of-life' companion, but there's no doubt it's a magnificent word. It's still a bit louche: you would never describe your current girlfriend as a Lebensabschnittsgefährte -- at least not in front of her -- but that's only because we humans are masters of self-delusion and wishful thinking.
I also have to quibble with Riley about the boyfriend/girlfriend issue. Not that the problem she describes doesn't exist, but that Germany, like many other languages, lacks a distinction between boyfriend and friend. If you're a woman, you call your boyfriend merely your 'Freund'. But, of course, you may have other male friends, who are also your Freunde. The only way to know whether someone is talking about their boyfriend or merely a friend is context and/or body language. Alternatively, you can use the formulation ein Freund von mir (a friend of mine) to describe a Platonic friendship, but that's a bit clumsy.
Germany's lack of words for boyfriend/girlfriend leads to amusing situations in which a British man brings over his German girlfriend to meet the family, and she constantly refers to him as merely 'my friend', even as they're sharing bodily fluids and discussing wedding plans. Alternately, I constantly fall into the trap of referring to my male friends as mein Freund, which leaves people who don't know me unsure whether I've just declared my homosexuality.
Oh, and as a bonus, here is Brooks Riley describing why watching operas on DVD is so rewarding:
J.S. How would you compare the experience of watching an opera at home on DVD, versus seeing it in the theater?
B.R.: Of course, there is nothing quite like seeing an opera in the theatre. But there are disadvantages too, the most obvious being that you’re always seeing the long shot. And depending on where you’re sitting, you may miss a lot of directorial nuances which give a production its effect. At home, you’re seeing a range of different shots, from close ups to medium shots and long shots, or the establishing shot. The job of the video director is to enter the production, so that the viewer has a dramatic perspective he may not get in the theatre, without losing the value of the whole. Of course I determine what the viewer will see, but I always try to remain true to the production. Because my background is the cinema, I try to direct opera productions with the cinematic experience in mind. For instance, I am just as interested in reaction shots as I am in the shot of the person singing. When I edit, I edit the material like a film. I also try to make the shots themselves interesting. There’s more going on in directing a production than coverage and reportage.
I was never much of an opera fan until I began collecting opera DVDs. That changes the entire experience. The advantages are overwhelming:
The list just goes on. I still go see live performances here and then, but only when they promise to be something special, with an electric live atmosphere. Everything else I watch on DVD.
One of the many advantages of learning German is that I can return to the United States and inform the 50 million Americans of German ancestry what their last names mean. All these Totenbergs, Fickens, Himmelfarbs, Rosenthals, Koenigs, Knapps, Wagenknechts, Sensenbrenners, Schwarzkopfs, and Schoenemanns are usually blissfully unaware that their last names mean something (or at least imply something) in German.
Sometimes, the results are shock and dismay, other times bemusement. Heck, I could probably turn a profit from offfering this service.What made me think of this was an article in the American online magazine Salon about celebrities who are atheists, a group which apparently includes Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Keira Knightley, and Julianne Moore. (Almost all the celebrities mentioned in the article are American, by the way).
The author, apparently an atheist herself, says 'As I watch the Academy Awards each year, I’m always left wondering: Aren’t there any atheist celebrities? ... Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s awards ... the presence of many of these performers on the red carpet is certainly something to celebrate.'
The author's name: Laura ... Gottesdiener.*
The U.S.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center just named left-wing German journalist Jakob Augstein one of the 10 worst anti-Semites of 2012, which is raising eyebrows (g) in Germany. This puts him in the company of European neo-Nazi parties who explicitly advocate forced resettlement/annihilation, fanatical Muslims calling for Allah to destroy the Jews, and Louis Farrakhan. I decided to go read the report (pdf) and see which statements they cited as proof. Here they are:
“With backing from the US, where the president must secure the support of Jewish lobby groups, and in Germany, where coping with history, in the meantime, has a military component, the Netanyahu government keeps the world on a leash with an ever-swelling war chant.”
“Israel’s nuclear power is a danger to the already fragile peace of the world. This statement has triggered an outcry. Because it’s true. And because it was made by a German, Guenter Grass, author and Nobel Prize winner. That is the key point. One must, therefore, thank him for taking it upon himself to speak for us all.”
“Israel is threatened by Islamic fundalmentalists in its neighborhood. But the Jews also have their fundamentalists, the ultra-orthodox Hareidim. They are not a small splinter group. They make up 10% of the Israeli population. They are cut from the same cloth as their Islamic fundamentalist opponents. They follow the law of revenge.”
“The fire burns in Libya, Sudan, Yemen, in countries which are among the poorest on earth. But those who set the fires live elsewhere. Furious young people burn the American, and recently, the German flag. They, too, are victims, just like the dead at Benghazi and Sanaa. Whom does this all this violence benefit? Always the insane and unscrupulous. And this time it’s the U.S. Republicans and Israeli government.”
“Gaza is a place out of the end of times….1.7 million people live there on 360 sq. kilometers. Israel incubates its own opponents there.”
To quote Joschka Fischer, I'm not convinced. First of all, you'll notice that Augstein never refers to 'the Jews', like most of the others on the list, many of whom are despicable and/or nuts. He refers to Israel or the current Israeli government or the 'Netanyahu government'. Further, his statements are based on fact (Haredi Jews are in fact about 11% of the Israeli population, and growing fast), or are legitimate, if provocative, statements of opinion. To take one example, the assessment that Israel's possession of around 200 nuclear missiles is 'a' (not the only, but a) danger to peace:
You may disagree with this reasoning, but it's not irrational or stereotype-driven. Bombing other countries, whether justified or not, is a threat to peace. As for the notion that merely identifying the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. is somehow anti-Semitic, that dog hasn't hunted since at least 2006. One of Washington's most powerful lobbying groups, AIPAC, calls itself 'America's Pro-Israel Lobby', and all American Presidential candidates must make a pilgrimage to its annual meeting to declare their undying fealty to both it and Israel. Really, there is no other word for it. If you doubt me, read Obama's 2012 AIPAC speech here. I won't even mention Romney's speech, which is a self-parody of subservient pandering.
On a related note, why is it anti-Semitic to simply point out that 1.7 million people do, in fact live in Gaza? As for the notion that conditions there are creating future opponents, this is so obvious it hardly bears mentioning. I presume we're supposed to be outraged by the journalistic hyperbole 'end times'. Yawn. This is ar for the course in German advocacy journalism, and you'll find similar colorful exaggerations in article on tax reform.
Of course, the standard response is that Augstein is selectively criticizing Israel, without paying similar attention to the misdeeds of its enemies. This dog doesn't hunt either. Any polemic that's worth reading is going to be 'one-sided'. Further, none of the English-speaking readers of this report will have any idea whether it's actually true that Augstein only criticizes Israel, since they have no access to the other 99.999% of what Augstein has said on the Mid-East. Overall, Augstein's argument is that the extremists on both sides of the conflict, who are unfortunately in power at this point, have no interest in peace, and feed off each other.
The report cites Henryk Broder as proof of Augstein's anti-Semitism:
Respected Die Welt columnist Henryk M. Broder, who has testified as an expert in the Bundestag about German anti-Semitism, labeled Augstein a “little Streicher” adding: “Jakob Augstein is not a salon anti-Semite, he’s a pure anti-Semite…an offender by conviction who only missed the opportunity to make his career with the Gestapo because he was born after the war. He certainly would have had what it takes.”
Now that's what I call reasoned debate! I imagine Augstein will sue Broder for this comment under German law, and he'd have a pretty good case. What we have here is an unfortunate incident of cross-cultural blind spots. Broder is not to be taken seriously, he's a crank who reflexively smears mainstream German politicians as anti-Semites when he disagrees with them on Mideast policy. In 2011, for example, he declared that the leader of the Green party, a woman named Claudia Roth, would have been happy to visit the concentration camp Theresienstadt and compliment its commandant. He was sued (eventually unsuccessfully) for libel when he criticized Evelyn Hecht-Galinski, a German Jewish activist who criticizes Israeli policy, in the following terms (clumsy translation courtesy of Wikipedia): "Any carnival drunkard with two promille of booze in his blood is able even to recognize on women's carnival that Hecht Galinsky is just a hysterical, selfsupporting housewife with nothing more in mind than to promote herself. Her specialty is intellectually vapid anti-Semitic anti-Zionist phrases -- such as are currently in fashion."
But for now, I'd like to throw out what you might call a Gedankenexperiment, although I'm no Einstein.
It's as follows:
The Gedankenexperiment is simple: why is this so?
Answer in comments, if you're inclined. My proposed answers are below the fold:
This is a post about an intercultural blind spot. An IBS exists whenever people who are interested in another culture -- but not extremely well-versed in it -- develop a distorted view of the other culture based on the lack of contextual knowledge (and the hubris not to recognize that lack). This can take many forms:
Doing some unrelated research, I came across the website Politically Incorrect, which subtitles itself as: 'News against the Mainstream - Pro-American - Pro-Israeli - Against the Islamization of Europe - For the Constitution and Human Rights'. It's a curious mixture -- some of the posts are the sort of heavy-handed sarcasm and name-calling you see on the more tiresomely ranty kinds of political websites. Other posts make halfway-defensible points, and yet others take fairly well-aimed potshots at the indubitably politically-correct German state-run media.
Just when I was tempted to think some of it might be worth taking seriously, though, I ran across this entry (my translation):
After the attacks of 11 September 2001, a document called 'The Project' was discovered during a raid in Switzerland. The information, which has been kept secret by the US Administration, reveal the largest terrorism-financing scheme in US history. This documentary film relentlessly uncovers how the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the US Administration in an attempt to destroy the West from inside.
The film will be shown on Glenn Beck's The Blaze...
Whoa, wait a minute -- Glenn Beck? Katy, bar the door! For those of you lucky enough not to know who he is, Glenn Beck is a tear-prone, soddenly über-patriotic, half-educated conspiracy monger (and former cocaine user and radio shock jock) who had a batshit-crazy show on Fox News in the United States, before even Fox News dumped him. After Fox fired him, he dropped off the radar screen, and all sane Americans breathed a sigh of relief -- except for the late-night comedians, who mourned the passing of the most ludicrously sinister and sinisterly ludicrous media figure since Father Coughlin. He now runs his own media empire, spinning out inane tales for the tinfoil-hat brigade.
Host nation, allow me to proclaim: Glenn Beck is a 24-carat, no-holds barred moron. It's hard to think of a German who occupies an analogous space in the cultural landscape, but perhaps Horst Mahler (g) comes closest, even though Horst Mahler is a million times smarter (and more malevolent) than Glenn Beck. Nevertheless, you get the point. If I were to mention to a German friend: 'You know, I was reading an article by Horst Mahler the other day, and he made some really good points!' there would be a spit-take and howls of laughter. That is also what you will get for taking Glenn Beck seriously.
Books I've written or translated