stevenpiziks: (Default)
stevenpiziks ([personal profile] stevenpiziks) wrote2017-07-15 08:37 am
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German Reading

A while ago, I heard about the book UND WAS HAT DAS MIT MIR ZU TUN? (AND WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH ME?) by Sacha Battyany. It's about a man who discovers that in 1945, his great-aunt, who was a countess in Austria, threw a huge party with her husband. Around midnight, she gathered the guests and, at her behest, they went down to a work camp, where they all casually murdered 180 Jews. Then they got into their chauffeur-driven cars and went home.

Battyany, a Millennial, had never heard about this part of his family history.  He started digging, and discovered that lots of people knew about this, and the incident had been widely reported in the local news at the time, but no one talked about it.  He wrote about his findings and the impact his search had on him and his family.

Battyany wrote in German, and the book isn't available in English until October.  I downloaded the sample chapters in German to my Kindle to see what they were like for myself.

I wasn't interested in another book about the Holocaust itself.  It's been covered extensively, and I teach MAUS every year to my seniors.  I was more interested in this book for the outsider's perspective.  What do you do when you learn your family was involved in something terrible?  Especially something most of your family knew about but never told you?  How do you live, knowing just a few miles away from your house, an entire population is being tortured and killed?

My own family has at least one dreadful person in it.  While researching the Drake family tree, I found the will of a cousin or uncle who owned slaves in the 1800s.  His will stated that although he had promised one of his slave women her freedom upon his death, he had recently changed his mind because of her "uppity ways" and he was instead willing the slave to his daughter.  It makes me sick to think we're related.

So I was interested in Battyany's findings and reaction.

However, German books are hit-or-miss for me.  German is a difficult language for non-natives to read, more difficult than Spanish or French, partly because of the structure of the language, but mostly because of the attitude of the writers.

English gives you the sentence in pieces.  In general, we start with the subject (who is doing something), then go to the verb (what happens), then we go on to other bits like prepositional phrases that tell us where and when things happen.  As an example, take Jimmy should go shopping for his mother in the the city tomorrow.  We build a slow picture.  First we see Jimmy, then see what he'll do (should go shopping), then who he'll do it for (his mother), then when and where (in the city, tomorrow).  We can mix things up a bit, but we still build the picture of what's happening in pieces.

German, however, is a big-picture language.  You have to get the whole sentence before you know what's happening.  The example sentence above would read in German Jimmy soll morgen in die Stadt fuer seine Mutter einkaufen gehen. This literally means Jimmy should tomorrow in the city for his mother shopping go.  Notice the word order.  Although we know Jimmy SHOULD be doing something, we don't know what it is until we get to the very end of the sentence, though along the way we learn his mother and the city are involved.  In order to understand the meaning, we have to hold the entire sentence in our heads until we get to the end and CLICK! We get the whole picture at once.

This takes some practice, if you didn't grow up doing it.  It's like being used to seeing a picture by assembling jigsaw pieces and then suddenly being expected to see it by having it snap into existence on the table.

German writers take an almost malicious glee in creating long, tortuous sentences in which you have no idea what's going on until the last three words of a 100+ word section.  In order to get my German degree, I had to read a lot of German literature, most of it written during the angst-ridden post-war years, and it was indeed tortuous to read.  It put me off reading German literature for a long, long time.

German newspapers and magazines are equally difficult.  Unlike their American counterparts, who keep to a simple, straightforward style meant to be easy for all readers, German journalists deliberately use an awful, long-winded, twisted style, complete with eye-wrenchingly (or jaw-crushingly) long words that no sane person uses in everyday conversation.  I don't know where this got started, but it needs to stop.  It annoys native Germans, in fact, but journalists keep it up anyway.

And there's the fact that I'm not fluent in German anymore.  I used to be, but years of being away from the country and lack of constant practice have rusted me.  My understanding is much better than my production, but German is still a greater challenge than it once was.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that I approached Battyany's book with a wary eye.  I could wait until October for the English translation, but that felt like cheating.  Besides, translations are never as good as the original.  So I downloaded the sample chapters in German to my Kindle and cracked it open.

To my delight, I could read it with ease.  Battyany, a journalist, avoids the awful German newspaper style and writes in a more conversational style, and I'm having no trouble following him.  I stumble across the occasional unfamiliar word (it took me longer than it should have to untangle a reference to semen donation, for example), but like I teach my students to do, I breeze past them unless it's clear I need to know the word or phrase to follow the passage--and in that case, the Internet gives me the translation in seconds.  I'm reading slower than in English, but faster than I expected.

Battyany's story is compelling, and when I reached the end of the sample chapters, I downloaded the full novel.  A little light reading for vacation!  :)



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