On learning German: translation challenges

Some time ago in the underground I overheard a conversation between a girl with socks decorated with avocados and a guy with a postage-stamp tattoo. The girl mentioned her German course and he got the idea to improvise a translation quiz. It went approximately like this:

Guy (opening the girl’s notebook with the list of words she learned so far): So, how would you translate “silent”?

Girl: I think it’s “still”.

Guy: No, not in that sense – not in the sense of “mute”, either – no, maybe “quiet” would be a better word…

They took at least two underground stops to agree on which meaning of “silent” should be translated to German. I had to get out at my stop and I still don’t know if they succeeded 🙂

I am often in similar situations when I have a word in English or Italian in mind, and need to find its German equivalent. Unlike the other languages I know, there is rarely a 1:1 match, and the search for the appropriate translation becomes a quest full of surprises: how many translations are there for Blatt? See this post from Your Daily German! And how many for AnhĂ€nger? Check Wiktionary, and find out that it can mean either “trailer”, or “party member”, “fan”, and even “pendant”… And what about Gewalt? It is translated with either “power” or “violence” – I found it dangerously ambiguous at first, but then realised that “Gewalt” then automatically includes the possibility of misuse, which sounds to me a healthy warning sign.

My journey with German is then at the same time a journey of re-discovery of my known languages. I discover how German chooses words according to the functionality, and that apparently distant concepts look suddenly close, like in a perspective trick. French and Italian have less apparent connections among words, also because Latin and Greek roots are much more common and they don’t show their meaning so clearly as German does. As an example, I laughed a lot when I learned that “isosceles” is translated in German as gleichschenkelig – literally “with the same legs”. An isosceles triangle is “same-legged”! Then I checked what “isosceles” means, and it’s the Greek word for precisely “with the same legs”…

I like travelling in the meaning of words across languages. Sometimes I discover different points of view on a given topic, or the effect of a grammar rule that sometimes forces words to get a nuance they won’t get otherwise (I think mostly of grammatical gender). I think I didn’t get that 3D effect when I learned Italian and French, because they are very close, and I learned English mainly by translating 1:1. German doesn’t allow that so easily, and I am glad to be required to change my mindset and expand my views.

M. C. Escher: Magic Mirror (source: Wikiart)




On miscommunication: filtering inputs

Today I have been thinking about how communication can be inefficient or broken. There are times when I feel misunderstood by people, even when we speak the same language and we already spent plenty of time together. I realised how I feel estranged, as if instead we had no common language, and that all that time together didn’t count.

How can this happen?

My current hypothesis is that there is a form of filtering on the receiving end, that is dropping a lot of input, because it comes in forms it doesn’t understand. For example a baby is crying: as it can’t speak yet, I have no information about what is making the baby uncomfortable – but it doesn’t mean that the crying has no reason at all, and I can ignore it. Or a friend keeps mentioning a book, or a particular event, that doesn’t say anything to me – it doesn’t mean it means anything at all: it means a lot to them!

Most people live in an environment that bombards everyone with an insane amount of input -most of which irrelevant- so the filtering is actually a great protection for the mind. I would only warn not to leave it on all the time, especially with loved ones.

In some cases, there is no active filtering of information, but rather the listening on an inefficient channel: for example, when a person doesn’t know a language well enough, they will speak very little and very simply. I could derive that that’s just how they are internally. But if I switch my attention to body language, or any other channel that the person is comfortable with, I will probably get closer to the actual thoughts and inner complexity of that person. I notice that it’s also how I interact with animals, observing, trying to parse the silent input, to find the language that expresses their internal world.

Icelandic friends, by Alessandra Barilla (Flickr)

I am trying to become aware of these filters of mine, by asking myself: “Is there really nothing more than this input? Can I increase the amount of input that I can understand? What are the inputs I am collecting, but not considering?” Sometimes these questions are painful, because they show me my limitations, and remind me of the situations where I was not able to listen and understand. Nonetheless, I feel the obligation to explore my limitations, because I can’t forgive myself if I said “I don’t understand” and I meant “I don’t care”.

That’s all for now… as usual, let me know your ideas in the comments!

Book review: “Sachgeschichten”, published by Duden

I regularly check the children section of my local libraries, because I find witty and instructive books written in way that is easy to understand. I appreciated this one a lot:


It is edited by Duden, unfortunately out of print. It features several one-page summaries of various topics, with accurate and funny illustrations, followed by two pages of related words. I like the open approach that permeates the book: each topic is presented in its various facets and with a lot of questions, suggesting further research. The final chapters explain how to prepare an oral presentation and a poster, and tips on how to present in front of classmates. I wish I had such a book when I was a kid! My schoolbooks were usually on the oversimplified side, while scientific literature was too complex. I am nevertheless happy to have found it now, because it is a great way to learn German! I noticed that I know around half of the words presented for each topic, so I have a lot to catch up 🙂

French books in my local libraries

I want to dedicate a post to a few French books I found in the libraries in my corner of Berlin, as I have been able to find both books that I knew already, and to discover books at random, and being very happy with it. Thanks to the librarians who have picked up such a valid array of books from an immense pool, to populate the handful of shelves dedicated to foreign language literature!

I start with AmĂ©lie Nothomb’s Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam (that I already reviewed here), and Stupeur et tremblements:

Didier Daenickx’s L’espoir en contrebande, a series of black novels which won the Prix Goncourt in 2012. I loved the atmosphere, not so much the plots (spoiler: murders!):

Erik Orsenna’s La chanson de Charles Quint – I had read his novel Madame BĂą a few years ago, and I found his emotional, philosophical and almost myth-like prose again:

And last, Marie Sabine Roger’s La tĂȘte en friche – the story of a young man who discovers, step by step, a way of thinking that he thought unattainable and even unuseful. I like her tact in letting the protagonist explore friendship and affections under a new light, with his words, and with all serenity he is capable of.

Stay tuned for more book reviews, and feel free to send me your suggestions!

Multilingual birthday!

Today is my birthday! I wish to share three funny birthday songs I am fond of, one in Italian, one in French and one in Berlinese. First, Elio’s “Al mercato di Bonn”, about the unlikely discovery of “Happy Birthday”‘s verses, written no less than by Beethoven:

The second is “l’Anniversaire”, from a group of musicians from Toulouse, the Fabulous Trobadors:

and last, “Jeburtstach”, in Berlin dialect, from Rotz’n’roll Radio:

Happy birthday to me! 😀

Ma fenĂȘtre sur la francophonie dans le monde – my window on French spoken around the world

[This is a double-language post, that starts with French.]

New-Map-Francophone World

J’ai rarement l’occasion de parler français Ă  Berlin, non par manque de compatriotes, ni d’Ă©vĂšnements en français, mais plutĂŽt par une sorte de timiditĂ©. Mon français Ă©crit se porte encore assez bien, mais je parle avec un accent belge/italien assez fort, et il m’arrive de chercher mes mots un peu trop souvent. J’ai pensĂ© de rafraĂźchir mon oreille en Ă©coutant de la radio par Internet, en forme de podcasts. La beautĂ© du français est sa grande diffusion dans le monde, ce qui m’expose Ă  diffĂ©rentes cultures et accents. Je partage ici ma petite liste de podcasts (que les Canadiens appellent joliment baladodiffusion):

J’aime Ă©couter les voix de Radio Canada, car elles me permettent d’imaginer mieux la vie de ce pays pour moi lointain, mais Ă©galement si proche grĂące Ă  la langue commune. Les problĂšmes sociaux et politiques ont des racines propres, complexes, que j’apprends Ă  voir en superposant les rĂ©cits des invitĂ©s comme les couches de peinture d’un immense tableau. Le mĂȘme m’arrive en Ă©coutant les histoires de PolynĂ©sie, terre de rĂȘve et de conquĂȘte pour qui vient de loin comme moi, mais terre des ancĂȘtres et de vie quotidienne pour ses habitants.

Écouter est mon Ă©cole de respect et d’attention. La radio est comme un livre vivant, oĂč les mots se suivent sans mon intervention. Ma tĂąche est de le suivre et de comprendre, sans pouvoir les arrĂȘter pour poser une question. La magie me prend quand je me sens comme un bout de bois dans le courant d’un fleuve, je vois ce que le fleuve voit, Ă  sa vitesse.

I have little chance to speak French in Berlin, not for lack of fellow speakers nor of events, but for some sort of shyness. My written French is still quite good, but when I speak I have this strong Belgian/Italian accent, and I have to stop a bit too often to search words. Therefore I decided to keep my ear trained by listening to French podcasts from around the world, in order to experience different cultures and accents. I share here my list of podcasts (that French Canadians nicely call baladodiffusion):

I like to listen to Radio Canada voices, because they allow me to better figure out how is life in that country, so remote for me, but also so near thanks to the common language. Social and political problems have their own complex roots, that I learn to see from the combination of the guests’ stories, that become combined like the pencil strokes of a massive painting. The same happens when I listen to stories from Polynesia, the land of dreams and conquest for someone who comes from far away like me, but the land of elders and of everyday life for its inhabitants.

Listening is my practice of respect and attention. The radio is like a live book, where words flow without my intervention. My task is to follow them and try to understand, without the chance to stop for a question. Magic grabs me when I feel like a log in a river’s current, I see what the river sees, at its same speed.

Music recommendation: “La Guerre” by Janequin

I would like to present you a chanson from ClĂ©ment Janequin, a famous French Renaissance composer. He was one of the first composers who added noises and effects to songs – bird chirps in Le chant des oiseaux; market sellers’ advertising their goods in Les cris de Paris; cannons, trumpets, horses and shouts in La Guerre:

On ChoralWiki you can find the French text and its English translation.

I listened to this piece many times, discovering its many layers: at first I was captivated and amused by the sounds that animate the battle, then amazed by the musical skills of these singers, then by their joy in singing this piece, and then  by the sound of Renaissance French and its nowadays odd pronunciation. It is nice to note that modern Canadian French contains visible traces of Old French – and that makes this song look so unbelievably Canadian to me, especially the last part where the singers shout: Victoire! that they pronounce: VictouĂ©re! – it makes me smile, but also think of the centuries that have slowly passed and shaped French language, as a river digs a canyon. I feel connected with the mind of Janequin through the centuries, thanks to the countless people who kept this piece of music alive. Enjoy!