★ “I’m Shot! Is He Called Todt?”

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.

Which grammar? That grammar?

Arnold Zwicky over the Language Log on the age-old that/which con­tro­versy:

The usu­al scheme for choos­ing rela­tiv­izers is what I’ve called Fowler’s Rule: that in restrict­ive rel­at­ives, which in non-restrict­ive rel­at­ives (it’s more com­plic­ated than that, but this is the slo­gan ver­sion).

I’m with Fowler, but there are some authors — Douglas Adams, for one — who con­sist­ently uses which in a restrict­ive sense. Yet more evid­ence of the futil­ity of a pre­script­iv­ist approach, ah guess.

Zwicky makes anoth­er point:

I guess I should remind you that in some quar­ters, “gram­mar” cov­ers abso­lutely any­thing in lan­guage that can be reg­u­lated: dis­course organ­iz­a­tion, syn­tax, word choice, mor­pho­lo­gic­al forms, styl­ist­ic choices, polite­ness for­mu­las, punc­tu­ation, spelling, whatever

This gets on my nerves, too. I tend to use ‘gram­mar’ to mean ‘syn­tax’.

What’s wrong with this pas­sage?

Prepositions and Mind Control

Lonelysandwich makes an inter­est­ing point with regards the use of ‘on the App Store’ (in the con­text of iPhone applic­a­tions) rather than ‘at the App Store’.

If I asked you where you went to buy your iPhone, would you say you bought it on the Apple Store? No, you wouldn’t. You’d say you bought it at the Apple Store. Does this mean that Apple chooses not to think of iTunes as a retail out­let or to think of apps as retail products?

Continue read­ing “Prepositions and Mind Control”