Last Wednesday found your digital correspondent in Exeter, sitting in the garden of a German friend. He complimented me on the prose style of my second novel, Flashback — lovely — before dropping this bombshell: “Of course, there are…well, a few typos in the German phrases.”
“Oh? Man with one ‘n’, that kind of thing?”
My friend made a wounded, apologetic sound.
I gagged on my Campari.
It turns out that the German phrases in Flashback are not the nuanced, native- checked wonders that I had remembered putting the book. They are, in fact, monstrosities spawned of the half-remembered, vestigial foreign-language centres of Hocking’s brain. During drafting, stage one was the “shoot German from the hip” method. This produced sentences like the following (spoken by a man after a life-or-death struggle):
“Ist er Todt?”
Stage two — which would have involved checking this with a native German speaker, such as the one I regularly have breakfast with — never happened. I must have been re-routed before I got to that bit of the flowchart. Stage two would have corrected the above to:
“Ist er tot?”
In other words, the character would have gasped “Is he dead?” instead of “Is he called Todt?”
I will not deny that the original, incorrect version seriously weakened the dramatic tone of that scene for readers who understand German.
Possibly apropos of this, sales for Flashback in the German Kindle store have been disappointingly flat.
Now, reader, there was a time when I could speak foreign tolerably — the twenty minutes or so of my GCSE French aural exam. Immediately afterwards, this information was jettisoned with a little ‘pfft’ sound similar to that accompanying the release of waste matter from a spaceship. In my defence, I have picked up some German over a series of somewhat cryptic Christmases in Bavaria; however, the greater part of my conversations involved me repeating Monty Python jokes or lines from Dinner For One.
I do like foreign words; and I just came across this Guardian article, Say ‘non’ to phrasebook foreign language in fiction, by Daniel Kalder. Here’s a quote:
On the whole though the practice of leaving foreign words untranslated in a text is symptomatic of poor writing- shoddy; lazy; it’s a cheap bus ticket to bogus exoticism. It signals to the reader that the author does not know the culture he is describing very well, or otherwise completely ordinary words would not rattle around in his consciousness demanding to be inscribed in italics so they really stand out. “Look, look at me! Look at me now! I know the German word for attention is achtung! See how profound my grip of German culture is?”
Putting my academic hat on for a moment (it’s suede with leather patches), the distinction between English and foreign words is a difficult and perhaps pointless one to make. The English language is rather like a portly child released in the direction of a buffet following a period of food deprivation and exposure to Saturday morning TV adverts for sugary snacks. The portly child tastes everything; and the things he hasn’t tasted will be fingered to such an extent that other, svelter languages will smile politely and say they’ve already eaten.
Shoddy, Mr Kalder? Lazy? Dogmatic bollocks, sir. Hemingway dropped foreign speak into his prose a great deal. So does Cormac McCarthy. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for moi.
Brace yourself for an illustrative quote from Flashback (note that the original italics aren’t rendered here):
As the bus came parallel to the Lancastrian, Cory saw sunlight flicker down each of her twenty-five silver yards. Her engines were loud and blaring. Just fore of the cockpit were the words ‘Star Dust’. Her raised nose was open. A ramp led to the gap, through which ground staff passed sacks of mail. There was a crewman visible inside the cockpit. He waved to the man in charge of the chock cable. The man waved back, then indicated the approaching bus with a tick of the head. Cory watched this exchange and envied its camaraderie. Never more intense was the feeling of being shanghaied. He was isolated from the good people at Project Deja Vu, among whom he had been a favoured son.
Miss Evans parked upwind of the idling engines. She slipped from the vehicle to station herself by the wing. The passenger door was a rounded rectangle in the fuselage covered by the G of the aircraft’s huge registration code, G-AGWH. The door opened and a uniformed officer emerged.
‘Please approach First Officer Cook directly, ladies and gentlemen,’ called Miss Evans.
‘Zu viele Koche,’ muttered Harald Pagh, elbowing Cory. ‘Sie verderben die Suppe. Mr Atalah, don’t you agree that too many Cooks spoil the broth? You have a similar idiom in Arabic, of course.’
‘I am Chilean, Mr Pagh,’ said Atalah. His coat whipped in the propeller draught and he fussed with the hem. ‘We do have a proverb about cooking, however. Nunca defeque mas de lo que come.’
Pagh looked at Cory. ‘What did he say?’
”Never shit more than you eat’.’
Pagh gasped, then erupted in laughter that rivalled the Lancastrian’s engines for volume. ‘Is that so, Mr Atalah?’
‘You had that coming,’ said Jack Gooderham.
‘A pen, Jack! It might prove profitable.’
I’d argue for legitimate use in this excerpt. I’m not showing off (any more than writing is already a showing off) but using foreign malarkey to create tone, communicate something to the reader, and ultimately engage them.
Arguing against ‘a bit of the foreign’ reminds me of those readers who suffer brain infarctions when they see a verb other than ‘said’ use to indicate that someone has spoken. ‘Replied’, ‘responded’, ‘scoffed’ et al. are verboten.