Monday, October 09, 2006

Books! (Bücher!)

Tis the weekend of the local coop's annual used book sale, where pocket-book-sized paperbacks go for a quarter. A fricken quarter. Even in American money, that is absurdly cheap.

Following a pair of lengthy expeditions spent digging through trashy romance novels in search of gold, I think I've expanded my library by about 40 or so. My finds included a number of good Freuds (both Sigmund and Anna, plus an absurdly large biography on Sigmund), some all right philosophy (Husserl, Pascal, Montaigne, Locke, Marcus Aurelius), classic sci-fi (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke), and some fiction written by snooty foreigners (Kazantzakis, Nabakov, Solzhenitsyn, Achebe).

Since I'm all into religion now, I picked up five carefully chosen exemplars of that category: Dianetics, Left Behind, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad-Gita, and Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology.

In other news, I'm trying to prepare for the German translation exam which I'm planning on taking on Friday. I don't think I have the words to express how unbearable it is to read German--but that's OK, because Mark Twain did a fine job back in the day of describing The Awful German Language. An excerpt:
The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called "separable verbs." The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is reiste ab -- which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced to English:
"The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale from the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than life itself, PARTED."
However, it is not well to dwell too much on the separable verbs. One is sure to lose his temper early; and if he sticks to the subject, and will not be warned, it will at last either soften his brain or petrify it. Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six -- and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.
Reading that essay is pretty much a necessity for anyone who wants to study German without going insane.


multisubj yb said...


Micah said...

That Mark Twain essay is hilarious, especially the part you excerpted. I also liked the part about excessively compounded nouns: "These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions. And they are not rare; one can open a German newspaper at any time and see them marching majestically across the page -- and if he has any imagination he can see the banners and hear the music, too." I'm a language buff and find German pretty interesting, and thought I might even want to learn it someday, but I think I'm appropriately scared off it now!

Toby said...

German is actually a cool language to learn. Trying to translate a complicated sentence has the appeal of hitting your head against a wall, and then stopping (assuming you're lucky enough to figure out the grammar).