One of the reasons I enjoyed the film Bridge of Spies – others include Mark Rylance, the sights of 1960s Berlin like Friedrichstrasse and Tempelhof, Mark Rylance, Tom Hanks being much less Tom Hanks than usual, and Mark Rylance – was the way that the German and Russian characters spoke German and Russian most of the time: no subtitles, no Denglish with terrible accents (“For you, Tommy, ze Kalte Krieg ist over. Now you are schlaflos in Berlin, oder? Komisch!”).* A really neat bit of alienation; Tom Hanks doesn’t know what the hell is going on, and the audience isn’t going to be any the wiser either, having to rely on tone, facial expressions and body language until the characters/director decide to include him/us in the conversation again by switching to English, not necessarily being completely frank or open. It’s a counterpoint to the shiftiness and duplicity of the CIA bunch, achieving similar effects in plain English through evasion, omission and patriotic rhetoric.
Of course, by this point I had disqualified myself as the intended audience for the film, or at least for this alienation effect, by virtue of being able to understand the German dialogue and hence to feel even more superior to Tom Hanks than usual (the Russian sections worked just fine). This left me a little time to speculate idly about how they’re going to play things when Bridge of Spies gets dubbed for German television – realistically, they’re not going to spend any time worrying about this, are they? And it’s still not as interesting a problem in linguistic and cultural translation as the German adaptation of ‘Allo ‘Allo that was mooted a few years ago… More broadly, it ties into ongoing debates about the global domination of English, the variations between different countries and contexts in terms of the prevalence of knowledge of other languages, and the politics of translation and scholarly exchange, all of which seem to be appropriate themes for marking the fact that I’ve recently embarked on a three-year collaboration with colleagues in Berlin, supported by the Einstein Foundation, which means that I get to speak and read a lot of German and feel thoroughly international, or at least European – something that feels a little bit more fragile and precarious at the moment, as the EU Referendum campaign kicks off in earnest and Brexit looms as an actual possibility.
*And it definitely helped that these parts were played, often brilliantly – add this to the list of good things about the film, along with Mark Rylance, and I guess credit to the Coen brothers for their habit of cherishing even their minor characters – by actual Germans and Russians, so their accented foreign English was authentic accented foreign English…
The obvious basis for understanding the increasing global domination of English is network theory: the advantages of joining the network of English speakers are less a matter of the intrinsic merits of the language itself than of the sheer number and nature of the people who are already part of this network. English may be fiendishly random in some of its rules and pronunciation, but it has the numbers and diversity; Chinese or Indian languages may allow you to relate to huge numbers of people, but only in limited areas of the globe, while Esperanto never stood a chance against well-established world languages with gunboats, empires and/or Hollywood at their disposal. After a certain point (which we’ve certainly long since passed), more and more people are driven to join the network by the costs of not belonging, the risks of marginalisation or exclusion. All this, I should say, is simply paraphrased from David Grewal’s Network Power.
We can see this clearly in microcosm by looking at the scholarly enterprise. After the demise of Latin as a common language of science – a much slower and more gradual process than is generally assumed, but still pretty inexorable – there was initially no single replacement in Europe, but rather a number of different national traditions, and always an expectation that anyone seriously engaged with high-level scholarship would need to pay attention to what was going on in traditions besides their own. I have to admit that my sense of this is founded on my experience as a doctoral student, when I was definitely told – can’t actually remember by whom – that any serious work in ancient history would need to cite German scholarship, given the immense importance of German scholars in the development of the discipline. The fact that it was actually rather difficult to find any relevant German scholarship to cite, because there had been relatively little work done on Roman economic history in that language, was beside the point; I had to slog my way through Teach Yourself German books, and give thanks for the fact that Karl Julius Beloch’s Die Bevölkerung der griechisch-römischen Welt had never been translated so I had something I could cite – that, plus some East German translations of Russian works on the slave mode of production…
I imagine that this blanket expectation no longer holds (but I suppose you never know with Oxbridge…), and young scholars would now be directed to learn German only when there is specific, essential work relevant to their topic that hasn’t yet been translated – a purely instrumental approach, in other words. Certainly that’s how I’d advise my own students; given that their job prospects may depend on getting their ancient languages up to scratch, on top of whatever skills and specific modern languages they may need for their research, learning e.g. German on top of this simply in order to pay obeisance to the history of scholarship would be a fairly mad thing to do. The decline of language learning in many British schools – I could afford to indulge in German because I already had Latin, Greek and French, and a certain amount of Italian, but this is an increasingly rare situation among today’s students – makes the calculation of costs and benefits rather different than it was some decades ago.
So too do other factors. The growing strength of the anglophone network in Altertumswissenschaft reduces the benefits to be drawn from membership of other language networks, at the same time as the costs of joining them become higher – above all because more non-anglophone academics have felt the pull of that network and begun to make more of their work available in English. This tendency is abetted by the practices of many national and European funding agencies, demanding that their whole processes should be conducted in English, from the research proposals to the reviewing. The fact that many scholars from mainland Europe *can* do this, having far better competence in English (and other languages) than the Anglophones have competence in other languages, means there is little effective opposition to the shift from network as opportunity to network as unavoidable necessity. How else does one show international engagement other than by speaking English..?
I wonder, incidentally, how far we could blame the Danes and the Dutch for this (in the nicest possible way, of course). Strong traditions of research in classics and ancient history; languages that virtually no one except native speakers will engage with; hence long tradition of facility in other languages, hence early joiners of the anglophone scholarly networks (with all the comparative advantages of early adopters) in preference to others. So, rapidly a system of different language networks, each involving scholars from different traditions and each having something distinctive to offer, becomes a stand-off between one ever-expanding cosmopolitan English-speaking network and a set of much smaller and more parochial networks, all dominated by native speakers rather than serving to bring different traditions together. Increasingly, the Germans seem to be throwing their lot in with the anglophones as well, having suddenly recognised the benefits gained by the Dutch et al in their international contacts, leaving only the French as proud résistants.
I find this deeply depressing. While learning German was definitely a struggle during my doctoral studies, I belatedly fell in love with the language, as well as the tradition of thought; with the novels of Christa Wolf, Monika Maron, Peter Handke, Jenny Erpenbeck, Daniel Kehlmann and Ulrich Ritzel, with films like Goodbye Lenin!, Der Himmel Über Berlin and Der Schuh des Manitu, and with television series like Der letzte Zeuge. I’ve given lectures in German, I’ve now published my first article in German, and I take great pride in the fact that I did most of the translations for my Antiquity and Modernity book (which cites a lot of German) myself – and not just as a way of avoiding having to worry about permissions fees. I am well aware that I am doing this from a position of privilege – there’s almost certainly an advantage in getting invitations to lovely cities in Germany, and especially the fabulous opportunity of having three years or more to collaborate with Berlin colleagues, but I don’t have to do any of this in order to further my career. I’m also aware that from a certain point of view it could seem like a distraction or even an indulgence: why am I devoting time to this when I could be writing proper peer-reviewed articles in English, and are any of these collaborations actually going to result in proper income streams for the institution that pays my salary?
I’ve been wondering about the scope for using the Glienecke Brücke – the ‘Bridge of Spies’ in the film, where agents were exchanged during the Cold War – as a metaphor for translation and cultural crossings: the uncertainty about how warm the welcome will be on the other side (those who cross back and forth may always be suspected of having changed their allegiances), the potential for misunderstanding – but also the fact that this is a lost world of stark ideological and cultural boundaries, far enough in the past to be an object of nostalgia. In linguistic terms, we now live in the Schengen age, with the old crossing points dismantled to aid the free movement of capital, both financial and cultural. Grewal’s Network Power shows the close relationship between economic and cultural globalisation, and the ways in which a free choice – including the choice to learn to speak a particular language – can feel like a compulsion. In these terms, my insistence on reading Thomas Mann in the original is, like buying local artisan salami, a futile but symbolic act of resistance against the forces of homogenisation – trying to restore the boundaries so that I can feel smug about being brave enough to cross them. Obviously I want to be Mark Rylance, burrowing silently into capitalist society in order to undermine its hegemony, rather than Tom Hanks being thoroughly and loudly American wherever he is – but hey, doesn’t everyone?
There is perhaps greater scope for reflection on such themes with the novel Eine Frage der Erziehung, first volume in a twelve-volume epic covering the crucial years of the ‘short twentieth century’ through the lives of an extensive cast of characters from the nobility to the demi-monde; the series follows events from the aftermath of the Great War (but with flashbacks to explore the roots of that conflict and its later echoes), via boom, bust, escalating political tensions, war and Cold War intrigue to the revolutionary fervour of the 1960s. It’s a work about art, power and sex, about politics, class and psychology. Above all – one obvious reason I like it – it’s about history, about the underlying forces beneath apparently random and contingent events.
The novel opens with an everyday street scene:
Die Männer, die an der Ecke der Straße arbeiteten, hatten sich eine Art Lager aufgeschlagen, wo – durch rote, an dreibeinigen Ständern hängende Sturmlampen markiert – ein tiefes Loch in der Fahrbahn zu dem Netzwerk der unterirdischen Abwasserrohre hinabführte. Um den Eimer mit brennendem Koks vor dem Schutzzelt scharten sich mehrere Gestalten. Mit großen, pantomimischen Gebärden, wie Komiker, die durch Gesten die Vorstellung extremer Kalt vermitteln wollen, rieben sie sich die Hände und schlugen die Arme um ihre Körper…
The men who worked at the corner of the street had pitched a kind of camp for themselves, where – marked by red storm lamps hanging on tripod stands – a deep hole in the roadway led down to the network of subterranean sewer pipes. Around the bucket of burning coke in front of the canvas shelter clustered a number of figures. With large, pantomimic gestures, like comic actors who want to convey through gesticulations the idea of extreme cold, they rub their hands and beat their arms around their bodies…
As snow begins to fall and the light starts to dim, we are suddenly made aware, at the start of the second paragraph, that the scene is being observed directly by a narrator, rather than presented by an omniscient author from on high – and immediately the temporal perspective begins to shift and fragment, as does the certainty and precision of the account:
Irgendwie weckt der Anblick von Schnee, der auf Feuer fällt, in mir immer Gedanken an die Welt der Antike: an Legionäre in Schafsfellen, die sich an einem Feuerkorb wärmen; an Bergaltäre auf denen Opfergaben zwischen eisbedeckten Säulen glühen; an Zentauren, die Fackeln tragen und leicht an einem gefrorenen Meer entlanggaloppieren – an verstreute, unzusammenhängende Gestalten aus einer mythischen Vergangenheit also, die von dem gegenwärtigen Leben unendlich entfernt sind und die doch Erinnerungen an Reales und Erdichtetes mit sich bringen. Diese Projektionen aus klassischer Vergangenheit, aber auch etwas in der Körperhaltung der Männer selbst, als sie sich von dem Feuer abwandten, beschworen plötzlich die Szene des Gemäldes von Poussin, in der die Jahreszeiten, Hand in Hand and nach außen gewandt, zu der Musik der Leier tanzen, die der geflügelte, nackte Graubart spielt. Und diese allegorische Darstellung der Zeit weckte dann Gedanken an das irdische Leben: an die Menschen, wie sie, nach außen gewandt wie die Jahreszeiten, sich Hand in Hand in verschlungenem Rhythmus bewegen; wie sie langsam, methodisch und manchmal leicht unsicher schreiten in Wendungen, die erkennbare Formen annehmen, oder wie sie ausbrechen in wilde, scheinbar sinnlose Drehsprünge, während ihre Partner verschwinden, nur um dann wieder zu erscheinen und erneut dem Schaustück eine Struktur zu geben; wie sie unfähig sind, die !elodie, und unfähig vielleicht auch, die Schritte des Tanzes zu bestimmen.
Somehow the sight of snow falling onto fire always wakes in me thoughts of the world of antiquity; of legionaries in sheepskins, warming themselves at a brazier; of mountain altars on which offerings glow between ice-covered pillars; of centaurs who carry torches and gallop easily along the side of a frozen sea – of scattered, fragmented forms out of a mythical past, which are infinitely distant from present-day existence and which nevertheless bring with them memories, of the real and fictitious. These projections out of a classical past, but also something in the posture of the men themselves, as they turned away from the fire, suddenly conjured up the scene in the painting by Poussin, in which the Seasons, hand in hand and turned outwards, dance to the music of the lyre, which the winged, naked greybeard plays. And this allegorical representation of time then awoke thoughts of earthly life; of humans, how they, turned outwards like the Seasons, move hand in hand in intricate rhythm; how they, slowly, methodically, and sometimes a little hesitantly, step in patterns, which take on recognisable forms, or how they break into wild, apparently mindless rotations, while their partners disappear, only then to reappear and once again give the performance a structure; how they are incapable of dictating the melody, and perhaps also incapable of dictating the steps of the dance.
The past – and indeed the present – appears as palimpsest: layers of memories, images, myths, associations, fictions, in constant dialogue with one another, forwards and backwards, constantly re-imagining one layer in terms of another. History is shown as an endless dance, patterns repeating themselves in different forms – people move their feet, but they do not move them just as they please; the melody comes from elsewhere, and it’s never certain that all one’s partners will reappear every time. And then a further shift – into the past that decisively shaped both these conceptions of earlier pasts and the subsequent events that led to the narrator’s present, and present understanding:
Die klassischen Assoziation riefen aber auch Gedanken an die Zeit in der Schule in mir wach, wo so viele zuvor unvertraute Kräfte allmählich unerbittliche Klarheit angemommen hatten…
However, these classical associations also awaken in me thoughts of my time at school, when so many previously unfamiliar forces had gradually assumed relentless clarity.
Some people will surely long since have recognised this opening as coming from Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, first volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, the German translations of which series (by Heinz Feldmann) began to appear last year and are scheduled to be completed by 2019. The translations above are my own, partly for the hell of it, partly to see how much of a ‘Chinese whispers’ effect occurs, and partly because I can’t currently find my copy of the original.
Why, other than sheer pretentiousness, buy and read a translation of a book that I have cherished for thirty-odd years? Well, sheer pretentiousness, obviously, but there are other reasons. It offers a fascinating exercise in defamiliarisation and closer reading; I do read terribly quickly, even though I know I must be missing subtleties, whereas reading the familiar text in German forces me to slow down and as a result to understand much better how it’s working. Perhaps I can never be any sort of literary critic except in a foreign language… And of course there was curiosity as to how a text that is, supposedly, of quintessential Englishness could be rendered successfully. I’m actually very taken by some of the new titles – Tendenz: steigend is brilliant, rather better than A Buyer’s Market, and Die Welt des Wechsels carries the double meaning at least as well as The Acceptance World. Much of the dialogue remains incredibly and hilariously English, in the way that I strongly suspect I must sound when I speak German:
“Warum hast du heute Abend kein sauberes Hemd angezogen, Peter?”
“Ich dachte mir, dieses sei sauber genug für dich.”
“Du solltest dafür sorgen, dass dein kleiner Bruder sich an die Gebote der Sauberkeit hält, Babs.”
“Er ist immer sehr schmuddelig, nicht wahr?”
“Und wie ist es mit den aufgeweichten Lippenstiften, die Gwen immer überall im Haus herumliegen lässt? Es sieht hier oft aus wie in der Damentoilette eines drittklassigen Nachtklubs.”
I think there are even more interesting aspects to this exercise. At the risk of simply echoing Borges’ account of Pierre Menard’s Quixote: in German, Powell is revealed as a much more European writer than he is commonly perceived to be. The references were always there, of course, not just to nineteenth-century French novelists like Foucault and Balzac – his novelist narrator’s fondness for the latter is, I suspect, one of the points where Powell subtly puts up some distance between them, despite all the biographical parallels – but also some thoroughly obscure twentieth-century writers whom I can’t off the top of my head remember; and the references to music are relentlessly modernist and European.
In English, Powell’s lightness of touch and delicate irony runs the risk of being confused with mere comedy of manners, with Rattigan and Coward – despite the extent to which it’s applied to adultery, suicide, murder, betrayal, alcoholism and the relentless corruption of ideals through the lust for power. In German, it stands with a work like Erich Kästner’s Fabian – the apparently effortless, affectless style is the whole point, part of the bitter satire on every aspect of modern life, such that the central character can apparently remain so detached and unaffected by events, viewing everything through the prism of the European cultural tradition that is falling apart around his ears.
We’re all familiar with the old “traduttore, traditore” line: every translation is a betrayal, a distortion, an interpretation. But we can always also think of it as a creative process: not necessarily adding something to the text that wasn’t there at all (though I’m less convinced that this is always bad), but drawing out something that was latent or disregarded. To repeat the argument above in slightly different terms: in English, Powell’s Englishness is so overwhelmingly obvious that it’s difficult to see past it or question it, whereas in German it is revealed as in part a mannerism, a feint, a deception exercised on the reader – it becomes a commentary upon Englishness (or Britishness), rather than a mere reflection or manifestation of it.
The pay-off line is of course to present myself in such terms, as a creative translation revealing hitherto-unsuspected dimensions… I do think differently in German, of necessity – after my first attempt at translating an English paper into German, I realised that the whole process is much less painful and embarrassing if I write in German in the first place, rather than struggling to shoe-horn an English thought into a different kind of mental space. Some things cannot easily be said in a given language; some things can be more easily said, and thought, and there is enormous creative energy to be drawn from this. I stand in the middle of the Glienecke Brücke, and feel at home.