Deutsch lernen

Following my recent travels in Mannheim, Cologne and Berlin, I’ve decided to teach myself German.  There are unquestionably better, more useful, choices, but German suits me right now.


Despite nine years of Latin, five of French, and five–oddly progressive for a small school in Pittsburgh–elementary school years of conversational Spanish, I am notoriously bad at languages.  Whenever I carefully construct a sentence in French, most Frenchmen look at me with that Parisian look of contempt and puzzlement and, after professing to have no idea what I said, answer in English. In Rome with my children I had a difficult time translating the words on the base of columns. Surprisingly, when I lived in Barcelona, from somewhere deep in my crocodile brain I was able to resurrect 4th grade Spanish and make myself understood in shops and restaurants.

I’m beginning my German self-instruction by attempting to dissect the German original from its English translation of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The late Sebald is one of my two favorite contemporary novelists, and this is my favorite of his novels. (Haruki Murakami is the other top novelist, but I concluded that side-by-side Japanese-English is way, way beyond my abilities. Most would say Sebald is, too.)


There are several motivations to this undertaking.   I’d love to understand the words to Schubert lieder. I’d like to be able to walk through a German museum and read the wall descriptions.  I have friends in Germany and Austria and it would be a sign of respect and affection to be able to comprehend a bit of what they are saying rather than resorting exclusively to English. And does Lodenfrey in Munich being my favorite store in the world count as a good reason?  Or sauerbraten? Currywurst?


Another reason is brain stimulation: I think I need it.  I forget where I put things five minutes ago. Or I know where I put something and fail to find it all the while it’s right in front of me.  Just last night I asked my son if he knew where my glass Chinese teapot was and he pointed to it on a shelf literally in front of my nose.  Earlier I had asked him if he had seen the latest James Bond movie Skyfall and he—kindly—pointed out to me we had seen it together. I’m worried.

Years before when I was married my wife would berate me at 6:00 am for filling our birdfeeders during the winter, rather than, for example, studying algebra.  She thought my mind had withered from reading too much Yeats. Learning a language as structured as German surely will be as therapeutic as math (math being a more hopeless mission.)  Since my former wife speaks German, and doesn’t read Yeats, I hope this recent undertaking has no Freudian implications.Bird-feeder-in-snow-low-res

In a college French class we had to translate the beginning of “Swann in Love,” checking, and comparing, our work against the Moncrieff translation. While I didn’t progress more than four or five pages, the exercise was enlightening.  Not only did it provide a window into the beauty and construction of the original French—and thereby helping to inform all remaining reading of Proust in English—it by design illustrated the qualities necessary to translate anything, an art in itself.


Unlike, however, the French class assignment, I have zero knowledge of German grammar.  This is an impediment…duh! —as my boys would say. I’ll have to go beyond the German-English/English-German second hand dictionary I picked up yesterday at Russian Hill Books.  The best approach for me would be to find a German tutor.

Ancient Greek was another option.  I own fourteen different translations of the Iliad and often enjoy comparing one to another. Two years ago I took a Continuing Studies course at Stanford on the Iliad, taught by the chairman emeritus of the classics department. We simultaneously read the Robert Fagles and Richard Lattimore translations, each complementing the other.  It was one of the finest classes I’ve ever taken, in no small measure due to Professor McCall’s deep knowledge and lifelong passion for Homer. There wasn’t a dry eye in the class as we read Priam’s plea to Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body.  No parent could read this without crying.


German scholars and archeologists have had a long association with ancient Greek culture. Heinrich Schliemann identified the site of Troy, and a week ago I was able to view at the Altes Museum in Berlin some of the Trojan treasures he and his team excavated.  It’s unknown whether Homer’s epic recounts actual events, but that’s beside the point. Troy existed.


In my dreams I’ll read all of Sebald.  I’ll read Goethe’s Italian Journey in the original.  I’ll read The Magic Mountain.  I’ll read Alexander von Humboldt’s accounts of exploration in the Amazon.  It’s said he was the last man to know everything there was to know at the time he lived.

About ten years when I was at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, we had a partners meeting in Lenox, Massachusetts. Futurist Ray Kurzweil was invited to spend the weekend with us.  Among the many scientific predictions Kurzweil proffered, the one I most longed for was his vision of implanted microchips that give a person the ability to speak any language.  In Russia?  Switch on the Russian chip. Reading Murakami?  Turn on Japanese.

It’s a beautiful vision, though one not yet realized.

I’ll have to learn German the old fashioned way.

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