Lost in translation
Originally from The Guardian, Tuesday 23 May 2006
In 1873, the British scholar and traveller Professor Basil Hall Chamberlain visited Japan. He recorded his views of the nation’s music in his subsequent book, Japanese Things: Being Notes On Various Subjects Connected With Japan. “Music,” he wrote, “if that beautiful word must be allowed to fall so low as to denote the strummings and squealings of Orientals, is supposed to have existed in Japan since mythological times … but (its) effect is not to soothe, but to exasperate beyond all endurance the European breast.”
Today this view seems shameful; we can see that it was not, as Chamberlain assumed, that Japan had no musical ability, but that it had no musical tradition that a Victorian professor could recognise. The Japanese musical vocabulary was simply utterly alien to him.
Similarly, a commonly held contemporary British view is that the Germans have no sense of humour. But can this be possible? Can there genuinely be a nation incapable of laughter, or is it just that the German language of laughter differs so greatly from our own, that it appears non-existent?
Our attitude to the Germans and their supposed lack of a sense of humour is best understood through the example of the joke known to comedy professionals such as myself as The German Child. It goes like this. An English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is German. This, however, should not be a problem. There is nothing to worry about. As the child grows older, it dresses in lederhosen and has a pudding bowl haircut, but all its basic functions develop normally. It can walk, eat, sleep, read and so on, but for some reason the German child never speaks. The concerned parents take it to the doctor, who reassures them that as the German child is perfectly developed in all other areas, there is nothing to worry about and that he is sure the speech faculty will eventually blossom. Years pass. The German child enters its teens, and still it is not speaking, though in all other respects it is fully functional. The German child’s mother is especially distressed by this, but attempts to conceal her sadness. One day she makes the German child, who is now 17 years old and still silent, a bowl of tomato soup, and takes it through to him in the parlour where he is listening to a wind-up gramophone record player. Soon, the German child appears in the kitchen and suddenly declares, “Mother. This soup is a little tepid.” The German child’s mother is astonished. “All these years,” she exclaims, “we assumed you could not speak. And yet all along it appears you could. Why? Why did you never say anything before?” “Because, mother,” answers the German child, “up until now, everything has been satisfactory.”
The implication of this fabulous joke is that the Germans are ruthlessly rational, and this assumption leaves us little room to imagine them finding time to be playful. But be assured, the German sense of humour not only exists, it actually flourishes, albeit in a form we are ill-equipped to recognise.
In December 2004 I accompanied Richard Thomas, the composer of the popular stage hit Jerry Springer The Opera, to Hanover, where he had gained a commission to develop an opera about a night in a British stand-up comedy club. We wrote the words in English and Richard then collaborated on a translation with a talented German comedy writer called Hermann Bräuer. There were two initial problems with this comedically, one cultural and one linguistic. First, the idea of stand-up is somewhat alien to the Germans. They have a cabaret tradition of sophisticated satire, cross-dressing and mildly amusing songs, and there are also recognisable mainstream, low-brow comedy tropes in the form of vulgar popular entertainers. But the idea of the conversational, casual, middle-ground of English speaking stand-up comedy is unknown to the Germans. Indeed, initial attempts by the Hannover Schauspielhaus set designers to render a typical British comedy club floundered as they attempted to formalise the idea of a stand-up venue, and it was a struggle to explain that we needed to reduce the room to a bare black box rather than attempt to give it a cabaret stage vibe.
Second, this instinct to formalise a genre of comedy we accept as inherently informal is not indivisible from the limitations the German language imposes on conventional British comedy structures. The flexibility of the English language allows us to imagine that we are an inherently witty nation, when in fact we just have a vocabulary and a grammar that allow for endlessly amusing confusions of meanings.
At a rough estimate, half of what we find amusing involves using little linguistic tricks to conceal the subject of our sentences until the last possible moment, so that it appears we are talking about something else. For example, it is possible to imagine any number of British stand-ups concluding a bit with something structurally similar to the following, “I was sitting there, minding my own business, naked, smeared with salad dressing and lowing like an ox … and then I got off the bus.” We laugh, hopefully, because the behaviour described would be inappropriate on a bus, but we had assumed it was taking place either in private or perhaps at some kind of sex club, because the word “bus” was withheld from us. Other suitable punchlines for this set-up would be, “And that was just the teachers”, “I was 28-years-old” and “That’s the last time I attempt to find work as a research chemist in Paraguay.”
There is even a technical term used by those who direct comedy on camera to describe this one-size-fits-all mechanism. Eddie Large is gasping for air as a hot dog falls into the end of his snorkel. The shot widens to reveal Sid Little, whose sausages are flying into the air out of his hot-dog buns because he is using too much ketchup. Pull back and reveal. But German will not always allow you to shunt the key word to the end of the sentence to achieve this failsafe laugh. After spending weeks struggling with the rigours of the German language’s far less flexible sentence structures to achieve the endless succession of “pull back and reveals” that constitute much English language humour, the idea of our comedic superiority soon begins to fade. It is a mansion built on sand.
The German phenomenon of compound words also serves to confound the English sense of humour. In English there are many words that have double or even triple meanings, and whole sitcom plot structures have been built on the confusion that arises from deploying these words at choice moments. Once again, German denies us this easy option. There is less room for doubt in German because of the language’s infinitely extendable compound words. In English we surround a noun with adjectives to try to clarify it. In German, they merely bolt more words on to an existing word. Thus a federal constitutional court, which in English exists as three weak fragments, becomes Bundesverfassungsgericht, a vast impregnable structure that is difficult to penetrate linguistically, like that Nazi castle in Where Eagles Dare. The German language provides fully functional clarity. English humour thrives on confusion.
Third, for the smutty British comic writers, it seemed difficult to find a middle-ground between scientifically precise language describing sexual and bodily functions, and outright obscenity. There seemed to be no nuanced, nudge-nudge no-man’s land, where English comic sensibilities and German logic could meet on Christmas Day and kick around a few dirty jokes in a cheeky, Carry On-style way. A German theatre director explained that this was because the Germans did not find the human body smutty or funny, due to all attending mixed saunas from an early age.
Later on in my stay I found myself explaining to the dramaturg of Hannover Schauspielhaus why English was a great language for comedy, with its possibility for confusion of meaning and the flexibility of its sentences. “There is no need for you to be so proud of yourself,” she explained in precise and accurate English, “it is not as if you personally invented the English language. You merely inherited it by the geographical accident of your birth.” I laughed, and everything finally fell into place.
The geographical accident of Germany has denied Germans the fun we have with language, and it seemed to me that their sense of humour was built on blunt, seemingly serious statements, which became funny simply because of their context. I looked back over the time I had spent in Hannover and suddenly found situations that had seemed inexplicable, even offensive at the time, hilarious in retrospect. On my first night in Hannover I had gone out drinking with some young German actors. “You will notice there are no old buildings in Hannover,” one of them said. “That is because you bombed them all.” At the time I found this shocking and embarrassing. Now it seems like the funniest thing you could possibly say to a nervous English visitor. Since watching jokes I co-wrote for our German production withering in the translation process, all their contrived weaknesses exposed, I have stopped writing jokes as such, and feel I am a better stand-up because of it. I try now to write about ideas, that would be funny in any language, and don’t rely on pull- back and reveals and confusion of meaning. Germany kicked away my comedy crutches and taught me to walk unaided. I am hugely grateful to the Germans. Since you asked, the stand-up opera went OK, and sooner or later we’ll stage it in Britain, in English, where it will make a lot more sense. To paraphrase Simon Munnery, a British comedian so rigorous in his intellect he is almost German, there is much we can learn from watching the Germans. Not as much, however, as they can learn from watching us.
Are you kidding?
Some Germans tell us their jokes …
Andrea Foss, 46, Schleswig Holstein
“What is romantic?” “I don’t know.” “When a man strokes a woman tenderly with a feather.”
“What is perverse?” “I don’t know.” “When the chicken is still attached.”
Tabea Rudolph, 26, Stuttgart
There are problems in the woods. The animals of the forest are always drunk, so the fox decides to ban alcohol. The following day, the fox spies a rabbit hanging out of a tree, clearly wasted. The fox ticks him off, and carries on his way. But the next day he sees the rabbit drunk again, and gives him a final warning. The next day, the fox does his rounds and there’s no sign of the rabbit, but he notices a straw sticking out of a stream. Wondering what it is, the fox scoops it out, only to find a very drunk rabbit on the other end of it. “How many times do I have to tell you that animals of the forest aren’t allowed alcohol?” says the Fox. “We fishes don’t give a toss what the animals of the forest aren’t allowed to do,” says the rabbit
Gerhard Bischof, Bad Toelz, 57
A man jumps out of a plane for the first time. At 3,000m he tries to undo his parachute, but the cord fails. At 2,000m he tries to open the emergency chute but that doesn’t work either. At 1,000m he bumps into a man wearing blue overalls, carrying a spanner. “Can you repair parachutes?” asks the first man. “‘Fraid not,” says the other. “I only do boilers.”
Wolfgang Voges, 56, from lower Saxon
Three priests hold a meeting to discuss where life begins. The evangelical priest says, “No question about it, life begins when the child is born.” “No, no,” says the Catholic priest, “it all starts when the sperm meets the egg.” “You’re both wrong,” says the Rabbi. “Life begins when the children have left home and the dog is dead.”