Friday, June 06, 2008

German literature and foreign language puns

The NYT this morning is running a piece called "Germany Abuzz at Racy Novel of Sex and Hygiene" by Nicholas Kulish, on a new German novel called Feuchtgebiete, translated as Wetlands. Ever seen 'racy' and hygiene' in one phrase before? Me neither; didn't want to.
The book … is a headlong dash through every crevice and byproduct, physical and psychological, of its narrator’s body and mind. It is difficult to overstate the raunchiness of the novel, and hard to describe in a family newspaper.
The book "opens in a hospital room after an intimate shaving accident." Ouch. I guess the world does contain some dangers I'm immune to.

The article runs through familiar points about the role of women in German society (not so good), feminism and pornography (never quite clear that that's the best word here) and body image, etc. Two notes:
  • First, this article almost makes it sound like über-clinical discussion of bodily functions is something new in German culture. In fact, the late folklorist Alan Dundes dedicated an entire book to the German obsession with excretion and such in 1984: Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder: A Portrait of German Culture Through Folklore.*
  • Second, while wetlands is the utterly correct ecological/geographical translation of Feuchtgebiete, those who don't know a little German miss a point: This is an adjective+noun compound, transparently understandable as 'moist regions'. The linguistic blogging world has had a bit to say about the ickiness of English moist of late (here and here are the key points). The ick factor just went up a notch.
So, there: I blogged about literature. Sorta.

*He reports that that's the beginning of a German saying: Das Leben ist wie eine Hühneleiter: Kurz und beschissen. "Short and shitty". You might say that Dundes documents the rich dungheap of German culture.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if that pun is really salient English speakers and not quite necessarily immediately obvious to monolingual German speakers. English is my L1, but if I passed a bookstore window in Germany and saw that title, I'd assume an ecological reading without blinking. "Feucht" is the name of a town (city?) in Germany and a pretty common family name, so has a different place semantically, I think. (But then, Germans have lots of interesting last names, like the whole set meaning 'penis'.)

Even in the context of the novel's apparent content, it seems far ickier by connection to English than it would in a German context.

Anonymous said...

Good lord. Mr. Verb has blogged about literature and without a hint of snark?!?!? The end is truly near!

Or has the blog been hijacked? You've been suspiciously soft on post-modern stuff lately.

sunkid said...

As a native German firmly embedded in the US culture now, I still often marvel at the stark contrast between German and US American attitudes toward their bodies. While Germans show theirs off unclad without blinking an eye, they simply don't talk about it as much or at all really. In the US, I have found the exact opposite to be true.
As far as the word in question, I wonder whether associating 'wetlands' with 'body' tends to point the "English mind" to one particular area or to anything that's wet inside us!? I know what I thought of first and I am not telling ;)

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, Sunkid. I haven't read the novel, and probably won't, but based on the article in the NYT, your suspicions could well be right on target, but I'm afraid to even guess.

Anon #1, this could well be. It's interesting that the author was born in Britain and raised in Germany, so is presumably bilingual and maybe bicultural. But I suppose any creative writer would play with meanings of such compounds in writing.

Pete said...

Any tips where to get an inexpensive copy of this book? charges almost 30 Euros (including shipping). However, the average Amazon reader rating is 2 1/2 stars out of 5, so maybe it is just shocking, not very good?

Interview with Charlotte Roche regarding the book:
Part 1:
Part 2:

Mr. Verb said...

That's pretty expensive, especially for those who start with American dollars these days. Have you read reviews of the book? I didn't see too much on-line and wasn't overwhelmed with anything I read about the book.

Pete said...

Thanks to you, I have now read some reviews. This from

"Das Buch funktioniert also nur auf der Ebene der Provokation: Wie eine hysterische, teils amüsante, teils aufregende Hommage ans Unhygienische"

On the other hand,

"Dass ihre »Feuchtgebiete« auf ein riesiges öffentliches Interesse stoßen, ist nicht nur der Medienbekanntheit der Autorin - und der Unumstößlichkeit der Regel sex sells - geschuldet, sondern der Tatsache, dass in Roches Buch jedermann auf unerhörte Weise angesprochen wird."

= Maybe I will buy in a year when the hubbub has died down, the katzenjammer kicks in and the market is flooded with used copies.

Brains said...

Why would a linguist be uncomfortable with literature? Diachronic research is indebted to lit., I thought. Jacob Grimm wrote and collected fairy tales before he discovered consonant shifts.