★ “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.