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 Anhänger? 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)

 

 

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Why I like reading, and how I like to read

Today I started reading a new novel that I picked from the French section of my local library – Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam“, by Amélie Nothomb. After reading several books in English and Italian, mostly in the efficient and clean, almost steel-like prose of technical explanations, I met a rich, singing, poetic French first-person narrative. It gave me more joy than usual, as if I came back home – and I attempted to find out why.

In general, I particularly like reading novels in French because I find that this language can convey so many nuances of expression, it seems to possess such a vast colour palette. When I read in Italian, I can’t find the same depth, not because Italian doesn’t allow it, but because I don’t feel that Italian and French (nor German or English) are completely interchangeable on all topics. I consider them like musical instruments, with their own structure and voice, that makes them especially able to convey the sense and emotions of a piece of music written specifically for them, or their equivalents. You can spot that when you compare Paganini’s Caprices with their piano “translation” written by Franz Liszt:

 

It also made me compare the musicality of a language in a given text with the movement of an animal. There are texts who move around swiftly and graciously like leopards, without any noise from their steps. Some texts sound exact and articulate like insect legs, moved with precision, almost mechanical in their appearance. Some other texts move around with the cute awkwardness of a foal, that tries hard not to trip, but that shows the seed of its future elegance. I like to pick up a random book from the library and discover, page after page, which kind of movement it has chosen to embody. The topic doesn’t matter much, because I am reading to discover how other people decided to express their thoughts, and this alone fulfills my curiosity.

To finish, here is the step-by-step (literally!) analysis of horse walk, because it matches with how I sometimes feel when I read a book: it is not about the destination of that walk, nor about the context, but it is my analysis of its components one by one, even if they don’t make sense alone – but when I get out of this “analysis mode” and I go back to the full picture, at the expected reading speed, I spot so many more details. Enjoy!