Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lost in Translation

This was too good to pass up...

I recently returned to Germany from a 10-day trip to the United States.  When I got to the airport in Frankfurt for my flight across the Atlantic, I switched from German to speaking English, and I found this freeing.  My German is sufficient but not proficient; I especially understand more of what I read and hear than I can express fluently.  For the duration of my trip to the East Coast, I didn’t have to think about what I wanted say before I opened my mouth: whether I knew all the words I wanted to use, had them in the right order, or needed to beat around the bush to get my point across.  Sometimes I don’t say anything at all in German, if I don’t know the right phrase.  As a historian, I work with words, and I am used being able to say what I want to say, how I want to say it.  Living in a foreign country has been a linguistically humbling experience.  In recognition of this, I offer an entry about how sometimes meaning can be lost, even after translation.

My reading German is pretty good, but I still use a dictionary, usually LingoPad, which I downloaded onto my laptop before I came over.  Sometimes I recognize a word but can’t remember its definition.  Sometimes I come across completely new German words for me.  And sometimes I need help puzzling out something hand-written, so I start entering letters into the search box to see what the likely possibilites are for some chicken scratch of a word.  (This dictionary only searches vorwärts, or forward, which can make finding words tricky if I can read the prefix and suffix, but not what comes in between.)  It has other quirks, too.  For instance, there seems to be an entire bird watcher’s guide book of ornithological names.  And then sometimes even my English fails me, because this is a translation dictionary and not a definition dictionary.  So for instance, the entry for überschüttete is “to whelm.”  …?

When this happens I have to wait until I get home at the end of my day at the archive and use Miriam-Webster’s online dictionary to figure out what’s being talked about.  Here are some of the more interesting, amusing, or just plain confusing translations LingoPad has offered me.  

Pasch = doublets? snakes eyes? all fours?  boxcars?
Drachenschlucht = dragon ravine?
das Grummet = foggage, or after-grass (?)   
Schleie = tench (that's a kind of fish, if you're wondering)
Pfändungen = seizure distraints?
Teichmönch = pond monk??  actually, it's a convex tile
inkommodiere = incommode  well, yeas...
Schiebungen = wangles? wth? ...turns out it means "profiteering"
Rummel = shivaree (later I found out this is a hype or shindig, hype, shivaree)

Of course you have to watch out for cognates: Giebel = gable, Gabel = fork.  Zapfen are most commonly pine cones, but apparently the word also means gudgeon, spigot, trunnion, tenon, peg, and stud!

And then there are entries like the following.  I’m looking up the saying, “Lügen haben kurze Beine.” (Lies have short legs, or The truth will get out.)  I type “Beine” into the search box and scroll down.  Second to last is the sentence “Man kann sich die Beine abfrieren vor Kälte,” which translates more or less literally to „It’s cold enough to freeze one's legs off.“  Rather than offer something tame like that, however, LingoPad offers this gem: “It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”  I’m sure I’ve heard that before, but it was so unexpected that I nearly snorted out loud, there in the middle of the Main Saxon Archive.  Meanwhile, outside, it was cold enough to….well, you know.

Little Shop of Horrors

***Update below!***

"Our giant has haemorrhoids"
This past week while I was home on the East Coast, I delivered a public lecture on a topic related to my dissertation at Observatory, the lecture and exhibition space my friend Joanna Ebenstein runs in Brooklyn. She is an independent scholar and artist who also writes a blog called Morbid Anatomy. Joanna is interested in history of science and medicine, in museums and collecting, and most of all in death. In addition to books, she has an impressive collection of memento mori and specimens in her research library (right).  My talk was entitled "Body Voyaging or, A Short Excursion Through the History of Fantastic Anatomical and Physiological Journeys Through the Body" (sample image, left).

In this vein, during my travels here in Europe, I have occasionally come across some truly bizarre and/or disturbing things, some of which I will now share with you.

This was the first find, in the window of a bakery around the corner from the hotel in Copenhagen where Joanna and I shared a room while attending a conference on history of science and medicine museums. It’s a Barbie doll…baked into a cake. I hardly know where to go with that--a certain line from Alice in Wonderland comes to mind--but as this is a family publication, I’ll just leave it there.

Radio PSR. Always. There. Even when you’re
lying in bed drinking a cup of coffee.

If you can believe it, this billboard advertisement for a local radio station is the less creepy of the two iterations I’ve seen. The creepier version I saw from a streetcar involved this man poking his head from another dimension through the fabric of the universe into the front seat of a car being driven by a cheerful young woman in a yellow scarf.  I just *love* when my favorite disc jockey physically invades my personal space, don't you?

You know my roommate moved us across town between Christmas and New Year’s to an apartment so new it’s still under construction. It’s in an old factory warehouse that is being remodeled into apartments, an excellent project to re-purpose an existing structure. But the people who painted the stairways have a different aesthetic than I do, so I will include one of their pieces in my gallery of the disturbing.

My artist roommate needs a more avant-garde, in-your-face style to support her artwork. I rather preferred the slightly gentrified older neighborhood with the century-old buildings of our last place. Ah well. More on the aesthetics of Lebensraum in a future post.

You have hear how I found this one. I hadn’t come across it during our three months at the old apartment; then, when we moved, the utensil drawer (like everything else) was wrapped in industial-strength cling wrap for the Schlepp across town. While our kitchen was still under construction, if we needed something we just made a hole in the plastic and pulled out whatever we needed.

The week before I left for the US, I got tired of plastic-ware and went looking for a spoon. This…hoof was sitting right under a hole in the plastic, I guess because my roommate had wanted to open a beer. Now if I were the screaming type, I would have exercised my vocal cords. But as it is, I knew that whatever that foot was attached to, it wasn’t the rest of Bambi.

Chucky’s German cousin Hans
I haven’t shared much from my research yet, so I’ll close with this disturbing image.  It shows Baby Hygiene, decked out like Father Time on New Year’s Day, representing the Second International Hygiene Exhibition in Dresden, 1930-1931. It has the face of a Kewpie doll and not one but two Hygiene Eyes, the symbol of the German Hygiene Museum and the major sponsor of the health fair.

In case you’re wondering, the text reads:

Nun geh’ ich schon ins zweite Jahr,
Bin kerngesund und froh,
Das machs daβ ich hygienisch war.
Seid Ihr es ebenso!

Now I’m entering my second year,
Completely healthy and happy,
Which means I was hygienic [in my first year].
May it be the same for you!

original art deco hygiene eye, 1911
new objectivity logo, 1930

My MIL shared with me that the Barbie-doll-cake is an old cake-decorating trick:

"The Barbie doll in the cake is something we used to make in the late 70's.  Both Aunt M. and I made them at different cake decorating classes.  We had a good laugh one Easter at Grandma's because mine was too tall for the cake I had baked and I talked about cutting off the legs to make it work.  G. said why don't you just raise the cake?  Evidentally Uncle P. and Aunt M. had had the same conversation when her doll was too tall for the cake she baked.  You bake the cake in a bowl shaped cake pan and then cut a hole and insert the doll, then decorate it.  We have a picture of M. holding my decorated cake.  He was about 4 years old and so proud to have his picture taken holding the cake.  He probably won't want to see the picture now."     Thanks, MIL!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Prosit Neujahr!

After my adventure in the Saxon Switzerland and the move across town to a new apartment right after Christmas, I was not feeling very ambitious about New Year's Eve.  So I almost didn't accept my roommate's invitation to a small party with some of her friends (whom I've met).  However, I'm glad I did: we had a stereotypical but very fun German "Silvester."

Some background: despite years of German language and culture education, I had no idea that New Year's Eve is known as "Silvester" here.  It was pretty easy to figure out from the posters advertising parties and concerts on 31 December; but it turns out my German hosts didn't even know how the day got its name.  When I asked about it, we learned from Google that the last day of the year is the feast day for Saint Sylvester, the fourth-century pope whose tenure saw the Council of Nicaea and Emperor Constantine's big building projects, notably the Basilica of St. Peter's in the Vatican.  As someone mentioned, there was very little to do with saints yesterday...

This snapshot doesn't do justice to the blue flames.
There were just five of us plus my roommate's six-year-old daughter at our party.  The evening started a little after 7pm in the kitchen.  I made guacamole from the avocados in the fruit basket DH got me for Christmas, and my roommate skewered some pan-fried ham and prunes (surprisingly delicious).  There was also cheese, olives, deviled eggs, flat bread, and Greek chicken.  But that was just ballast for the main attraction: a Feuerzangenbowle.  This party drink begins with a warm red-wine sangria.  Then you soak a sugar loaf with rum, light the rum on fire, and, let the sugar melt into the pot, sweetening it.  I knew what a Feuerzangebowle was because in a German humor class in college, we watched the 1944 comedy of the same name whose first scene involves a large one of these.  But I had never made one before.  Ours involved a little last-minute DIY excitement: my roomie had to construct a rest for the sugar loaf out of wire while the wine was heating on the stove. To the left you can see the final result.  I found the punch strong but tasty.

The next "Projekt" was Bleigiesserei, or lead pouring, in which a small amount of lead is melted in a spoon held over a candle (right) and then dumped into a bucket of cold water, where it hardens.  You are supposed to be able to tell your fortune for the coming year in the shape(s) that result.  This Sylvester tradition I had recently read about, because the one really helpful entry in the farmer's journal I transcribed from the 1920s and 1930s is about the family's celebration on New Year's Eve 1929.  Farming during Weimar was difficult because of weather misfortunes and the precarious financial situation, so this entry stands out for its warmth and obvious happiness.  After describing the dinner his daughter, fresh from Home-Ec School had cooked (a win for my dissertation!), Walter Lohs lists the results of their Bleigiesserei: his wife a zeppelin, his son something between a devil and a black cat, his daughter two frogs, him an owl and a flute with stag's antlers, one guest a bouquet of flowers and a swallow's nest, and the other something unintelligible.  We poured a tadpole (new beginnings, evolution); a witch flying on a broomstick and a child (travel); a swan carrying a ring (marriage?); either a dolphin leaping out of the water or a fairy flying above two layers of earth (achievement); and one moth wing, a leaf boat, and a small egg on fire.  Can you guess which was mine?  (Answer below!)

Then is was time to watch "Dinner for One," or "Der 90. Geburtstag," an 11-minute English-language comedy sketch that involves a delusional old lady, her comedic butler, and lots and lots of alcohol.  Never shown on either British or American tv, it has been a New Year's classic in many parts of Europe and also South Africa for about 40 years.  (The link above is a short history of this quirky tradition).  Critically speaking, I suppose it doesn't rank up there with Monty Python or "Are You Being Served?", but after a couple of rounds of Feuerzangenbowle...

At this point it was 11:30pm and time to light the fire on the balcony and watch the fireworks.  Fireworks are legal here, and Dresdners make the most of the chance to celebrate and destroy stuff.*  I saw home footage from last year: hundreds and hundreds of people crowd the plazas and the bridges and general mayhem ensues.  You could hear regular "bangs" from about 8pm, but with half an hour to go the noise became constant.  We huddled on our balcony and cheered our thanks to the group in the next courtyard for the bottle rockets and sparkler showers they set off.  Finally, at midnight we toasted each other with champagne and caught glimpses of the city's firework display over the Elbe.  The steady explosions began to drop off after about 12:30.  All the fireworks really made it feel like the celebration was an event.

What was the first thing you did in 2011?  Ours was the last "Projekt" of the night: fresh fruit and chocolate fondue.  Lecker!  It was a delicious and convivial way to begin the new year.  As we rutschen (slide) into 2011, may you find health, happiness, and adventures.

What do you think it is?

*--As I walked home this morning, I observed said destruction: a pane of glass from a telephone booth and most of the sheets of glass of a tram stop!