Have you ever wondered whether you are missing anything by reading a translated book? Cornelius Steckner, cultural scientist and member of Literamus, took a closer look at the language(s) of “Vienna” and the differences in the English translation. Inge sat down with him to hear his thoughts.
Cornelius starts off by saying that even the title “Vienna” carries a semantic richness. It’s the town of Vienna but for example it’s also the town’s football club. And just like the title the rest of the book is enriched with double meanings.
On page 23 Grandfather says: “How can anyone who’s too stupid even to get the hang of ordinary expressions be brilliant?” In German, this is what he said: “Wie kann man sein genial, wenn man ist sogar zu bled für Redensarten?” Grandfather uses Yiddish vocabulary (“bled”) and the Austrian dialect. Those linguistic characteristics are often lost in translation.
Inge asked how the translator dealt with those difficulties. Throughout the book, many of the Yiddish words are translated one-to-one. Where the German text uses Schickse for “girl”, the English translation uses shiksa. But there are more difficult passages in the book. A good example are the warped and honestly untranslatable expressions based on Dolly Königsbee (introduced on page 23). Also, the German version contains sentences in quotation marks that are left out in the English version. The one-to-one translation fails to convey the horizon of Emperor Joseph. And that’s another problem: Grandfather’s sphere of life is the time period before World War I. That is expressed in his use of language. The story of “Vienna” is embedded in his life. It starts with his language and ends with his death. It’s Grandfather who created the family identity and coined its language. All of this is part of the novel and is hinted at by the title.
Cornelius compiled a list of language anomalies for “Vienna” and found around 50 to 60 peculiar words in the German text. Many of those words are missing in the English text as they posed a translation problem. The family in “Vienna” is exposed to a lot of influences and yet its identity is the same, independent from the cultural impact of England, Vienna, Poland, the United States – an identity that is generated by the family’s play on words.
Inge asked for examples.
The German version of “Vienna” contains a glossary of about 20 Austriacisms – but for a German reader you could at least double that number.
An example of complexity is the brother’s fictious essay about Felix Popelnik which is called “Like Felix from the Ashes?” (page 268). Of course it alludes to “like a phoenix from the ashes” (did you notice that the English publisher is called Phoenix as well?) but “Popelnik” is also Polish for ash tray. Many ash trays are decribed throughout the novel – something you will not notice if you don’t explore the hidden levels of language.
Another example is the Wienerwald, a restaurant chain. This is similar to the problems translating My Fair Lady into German. The Wienerwald is depicted as the meeting place of the “Vienna” family. It has a Brathendlstation – Brathendl is an Austrian word with Austrian flair meaning roasted chicken. Sadly, in the translation the Brathendl becomes just that: a chicken. In the context of Wienerwald the word chicken is problematic as it loses the Vienna coloring. It rather elicits associations of Kentucky Fried Chicken.