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I’m nearly finished with my summer romance– a six-week reading course in theological German. Which means I can, apparently, suffer through Tillich in the original or, even!, read inelegant glosses of major religious histories. That’s right, with an hour and a dictionary I can read the first two hundred words of a wiki/deutsch article on Hinduism or Bonhoeffer. Don’t ask me what kind of situation would warrant this type of skill set. Perhaps I’ll find myself in in a dystopic future, trapped in a tiny, rigorously-policed community, where I have been bred as the clone of a rich/famous/rich&famous moviestarathletegenius in order to be harvested for parts and I’ll discover the tragic truth about my situation when I become embroiled in a heart-rending romance with Jeff Goldblum and then have to escape and appeal to my powerful clone but find the entire security system is encrypted in German by an eccentric liberation theologian.
Seriously. I can translate the Johannine Prologue but will/do not understand basic greetings, commands, appeals.
And I refuse to overcome my embarrassment in order to find out the meanings of the four or five commands the professor repeatedly issues each day. Instead I invent comedic English approximations and completely fallacious translations– my own secret, extra-German, extra-English language. “Oomp petition” means “next person read,” and “Nexter Sats” means, “next person read.” “Sehr gut” means “very good,” and “Sehr Sehr gut” means you’re not doing as gut as you should be.
Most people seem to be taking the course because they love Rilke or wish they could love Heidegger or because they’re Lutherans who like to read the work of really old Lutherans. But some people are taking the class because they think they will learn that without studying any German at all or very much continental philosophy they secretly understand Heidegger/Kant/Tillich/Feuerbach better than anyone ever has before. And those people…. those secret savant hopefuls argue with the professor over things we’re not talking about in class. In Feuerbach we are faced with a word that means both object and subject. In the context of Reading Theological German and also Feuerbach my strategy here is expedience. I would like to translate this word and get on with it. The professor suggests that if we translate a contentious word like this professionally we should footnote it. That way subject will always evoke object and object, subject. Or we could leave it in the original if the complication is the focus of our work. But one guy raises his hand and wants to talk about how it’s obvious that it’s one because we’re dealing with Feuerbach. She won’t have the fight with him. They’re speaking two different languages and in order to convince him that we’re Really Not Talking about it, the professor attempts to change the topic in increasingly dramatic ways with each advance. He advances and she parries. He advances and she turns the page. He advances and she hands out little German candies and asks us which ones we prefer.
Usually we translate more innocuous things. Lists of loosely related sentences in our texts book. One: For this they used the apparatus described on page 16. Another: A photograph taken from the heart of the city a few days after the bomb exploded shows the full extent of the devastation.
Between translations we are enriched with helpful facts and illustrative anecdotes that the professor repeats frequently. She begins each earnestly as if for the first time and we are supposed to be rapt. In Germany you only love, like, two people. It’s not like America where you have tons and tons of friends. In Germany, I don’t know if you know this, but, college is basically free. In Germany– you’re all too young to remember about the Berlin Wall– even I’m too young to remember how sad it was. It is a very serious thing.
Trying to teach us about German culture the professor tries to find us clips from iconic German films. “Dinner for One” is not German, but British. But the British didn’t like it and so the Germans play it all day on New Year’s Eve. We watch it. It does or does not teach us anything about German culture. Then there are the film gems of the 1960s adapted from Karl Mays’ romantic tales of the American Wild West. The spaghetti Westerns chronicle the adventures of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou. One of my classmates asks whether Winnetou, Old Shatterhand’s Native American side-kick speaks in broken German, emulating the great American tradition of rendering indigenous peoples into perpetual infants or perpetual fools. “No,” the professor replies and we have to take her word for it at this point, “but he IS played by a French man.”
After some searching she finds us a clip of this character on youtube so we can see him for ourselves. But the sound is chaotic. And when turning down the volume fails to transform the noise into words that we can understand, we discern a quieter track below and a familiar disjunction between the shape of the words and the shape of the mouth. So classic is this French actor’s role as a German Native American that it has been dubbed for the viewing pleasure of Polish-speaking youtube browsers.
Usually a 9 hour weekly time commitment like this would leave the 24 of us semi-permanantly bonded. Stronger than a congregation and not quite as strong as a summer camp. Except that we do not know each others’ names. It is hard to introduce Herr H—– to one’s roommates or to shout across Mass ave at Frau V—–. It’s not nearly as bad as in Japanese when, after years of calling each other Japanese versions of our remarkably all Jewish and hyphenated last names (Shiigeru-uaarasu-san?), we all discovered the possibility of the vocative on facebook.