Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ginglish On Musemsinsel

So while I'm looking for a new place, life, and work, goes on. In recent days, I've picked up a guidebook gig, and one of the chapters I have to do is museums. Which is great: I love museums, and if I had it to do all over again, I might well give in to the impulse I had in my teens to go to musem school and wind up making some dough. I've always loved the way a museum, properly done, is an alternative way of arranging knowledge. I'm used to doing it with words, but museums have to do it with objects. Just as there is with a book or essay, there's an implicit agenda in a musem's ordering of objects: a curator is arguing a position, and the viewer is obliged to sort out the information and react.

I started on Tuesday with a visit to the Deutsches Historisches Museum because although I've been to a bunch of shows in its I. M. Pei annex, I had yet to see the new permanent collection in the main building itself. Plus, I woke up that day feeling depressed and decided, on the principle of the blues, that immersing oneself in another's misery might make me feel better.

Dunno if it worked, actually; I left the place feeling like my head was going to explode. But that's getting ahead of myself. The permanent collection is divided in two: Roman times to World War I upstairs, and postwar through reunification downstairs. Right off the bat, there's something odd, in that prehistory isn't even touched on, and, thanks to the Neander river valley, if nothing else, Germany has a starring role in that. And anyway, those Germanic tribes must've come from somewhere. But you're only a few meters inside by the time the Christians come on the scene, and the long road to the Holy Roman Empire isn't far away. And so you stroll, as Teutonic knights head off to the Holy Land, Martin Luther nails his theses to the church door (an event the captions claim almost certainly didn't happen), the French fight the Germans, the Germans fight the French, the Austrians fight the Turks, the Swedes fight the Poles, the Germans fight the French, the French fight the Germans, the Germans fight with themselves, and here comes the Congress of Vienna! Pretty soon it's time for the Industrial Revolution, paintings give way to photographs, there's a nice little pair of rooms up a flight of stairs with Jugendstil stuff in them, with a film of German soldiers jamming into trains on their way to the front playing on the downstairs wall just inches away. Next thing you know, you're back on the landing and it's time to go downstairs.

I went through the downstairs rather quicker than I would have liked to; closing time was looming in an hour or so, and I also knew this part of the story better than I did the other half (not that I knew the first half much better after a couple of hours with it, for which I blame my education as much as anything). I also had more tools with which to assess the artifacts, and I have to say, the collection is amazing. Also, the way they partition the post-war stuff the way the country was partitioned is done extremely well; you can see the stuff on the other side, but getting there is another matter, although it's easily enough achieved, of course. (I should mention, though, that the struggle to end the DDR is infinitely better-presented at the almost-unpronounceable-by-non-Germans Zeitgeschichtlisches Forum Leipzig, which is almost reason enough to visit Leipzig all by itself).

But as I walked out into the dark of Unter den Linden, I was experiencing a sensation not unlike vertigo because of all of the captions I'd read. Now, there was a time when all of Berlin's museums' captions were in German only, and there was no way to know what was going on unless you could read German. (Lest this seem a bit of xenophobia, I invite you to go into your nearest American museum and see how much information there is in any other language but English). Now, however, as Berlin's museums are slowly integrating collections divided by the Wall, bilingual German and English captions are showing up. The weirdest of all, though, are in the DHM, which erupt into inexplicable italics every now and again. And it's not because the words are untranslatable German ones like Heimat or Lebensraum, because they're not. They're just random words italicized (a practice I've now demonstrated enough and will cease; you're welcome), in both the German and the English texts. I don't get it, but it sure does slow you down.

The next day I went to the Bode-Museum, which is practically my next-door neighbor. I had no idea what was in it, because back before it got dome-to-dungeon redone, the best anyone could tell me was "coins and stuff." Well, the coins are still there, but so is a load of Byzantine and medieval and early renaissance sculpture, painting, and bits of architecture. I made the acquaintance of the amazing woodcarver Erasmus Grasser, who flourished in Munich between 1474 and 1518, and was boggled by an entire room of stuff by Tilman Riemenschneider, whose ability to represent facial expressions and even emotions is unparallelled in his time. The Bode is all about space, which is why it's particularly good for sculpture; there are two domes letting daylight in, and a gigantic "basilica" with "chapels" on the sides which allow for the display of groupings of renaissance and baroque religious statuary, paintings, and altars.

Here, the captions weren't annoyingly italicized, and for the most part the English was pretty good. Well, until the one where it really wasn't. My eyes were glazing over on the second floor, what with an oversupply of baroque bronze sculpture, but I did stop to read about how they were mass-produced, and I came upon this: "The bronze-smith then prepares the metal to be porn into the mould at this time." The " this time" is bad enough, but...ummm... The piece used to demonstrate this is a naked statue of Mars, anatomically correct, and the first thing that came to my mind was that it isn't porn til it's poured.

This leads me to give voice to what I'll call Augustine's Complaint, because it's been voiced over and over by reader and commenter here Steven Augustine. There are tons of underemployed writers and editors, native English-speakers, here in Berlin. Pay us to proofread this stuff, and we'll turn it into idiomatic English that won't embarrass you. Really. We may not have doctorates in English, but we do read and write it quite fluently, idiomatically, and we offer really, really affordable rates. However, time and again, it's the "qualified" Germans who render this English text, and it shows. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who wrote for a (now defunct, I hope) terrible magazine published by Berliner Tourismus und Marketing for distribution in hotels which were BTM members, called Berlin|Berlin. It was German and English...sorta. My friend, a journalism school graduate, raised bilingually in America, and veteran of some of America's top magazines, wrote an article for them and was told by the editor that her English was terrible. The "corrected" article, of course, was a total howler.

At any rate, I ended this week's museum-going at the Pergamon, whose holdings aren't of as much interest to me, although it's swallowed the Museum of Islamic Art from West Berlin, and you can't help but be awed by a museum that contains not just artifacts, but whole complexes of ancient buildings and a huge hunk of the city wall of Babylon itself. There, the English captioning is often inscrutable and nearly always polished for maximum dullness. They're going to do renovations there in the not-too-distant future, and I wonder if this will mean dealing with this problem. Probably not; they have a reputation to uphold, after all.


Bowleserised said...

Whenever the dough gets low I plan to write to the innumerable websites for Berlin businesses/institutions and offer to re-write the English translation for a small sum. It'd keep me in kale and Guinness for months.

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

I've been promising myself to do this since the minute I've been here. Indeed, I was once moved so much to send one email to a company. No reply though, obviously.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Ed, gee, I guess I forgot to mention it to you: I no longer complain about all that, I embrace it merrily! It's the new Zen way. Heart-attack prevention and so forth.

We see us later, yes...?


Anonymous said...

Who is this Stephen Augustine, I must him immediately meet. But in the meantime, let me vent. First of all, English is the current international language, so there is some limited justification for U.S. English-centricism; the fact, however, that those in heavily Hispanic areas like California and NYC don't bother with Spanish does irritate the hell out of me.

However, back to German, obviously NOT a world language, I'll just riff on the beautiful Sanssoucci, one of the very few remaining historic structures in this area (never mind the countless number destroyed in the war and painstakingly reconstructed by anal Germans, they don't count). What do they do at Sanssoucci? Hand out a crappy "translation" that may cover one third to one quarter of what the guide actually says in the exclusively German tours.

Of course there is an obvious explanation here, because Germany, as we all have learned from bitter experience, is only interested in employing Germans, and Germans, aside from those lucky enough to have lived in an Anglophone country for a few critical childhood years, are never going to speak or write proper English.

Ed Ward said...

b & KMS: your comments remind me of yet another lovely but untranslateable German word, which describes the folks who'll turn down your gracious offers to make their stuff read intelligibly: Besserwisser.

K, that reminds me of my visit to a castle in Japan, where the guide asked, in good English, if everyone spoke Japanese (since they were all, except for me, Japanese) and when I was the only one who said no, blithely conducted the tour all in Japanese. I kept wondering how much it would cost to have translations of her clearly memorized rap summarized at the various stations where she stopped. Fortunately, I found a janitor (!) who spoke a little English and was very enthusiastic about pointing some stuff out.

As for only employing Germans, well, everyone knows that we verdammte Ausländer are only here to snatch jobs away from the locals. If you don't understand this, go to Lichtenberg and have a skinhead explain it to you. In German, of course.

Anonymous said...

The Russian once helped an acquaintance do some wintry, Christmassy window display at KDW. As part of it, they were planning to put up the words Happy Christmas in a squillion different languages. And when he went back for a peek a few weeks later, they'd got the Russian wrong. For fuck's sake, have a native-speaker glance over these things. It takes ten seconds and, as you say, doesn't cost much. (In this case it wouldn't have cost a penny, in fact.) Still, it can be fun too. I've seen one British blogger post howlers of public signs from the UK on his site but I've got a feeling the Brits do tend to get a native Spaniard/Frenchman/Italian/German/Japanese person to translate the very little that does get translated there.

Anonymous said...

nice post, ed. inspires me to go back to some of these museums. thanks

Anonymous said...

As luck would have it, I have been damned to a weekend of G-E translation, and I'm ashamed to say given the subject matter it's going to turn out somewhat less than beautifully flowing native speaker English. Here a Kostprobe for your enjoyment:

In der Komponente 2 "Qualitätsinfrastruktur" werden staatliche Stel­len und privatwirtschaftliche Akteure bei der Aus­ge­stal­tung der Qua­litäts­infrastruktur (QI) im Sinne eines abge­stimmt­en und in­ter­na­tio­nal an­er­kannten Gesamtsystems durch Interven­tionen auf der Makro- und Meso­ebene unterstützt.

Bleistifterin said...

Wow. Sounds like you almost enjoyed yourself. I am glad that you found something to rant about anyway... :-)
Like Mr. Penguin said: If the Germans can't even write proper German, how can you expect them to be able to write proper English?
I agree with your complaint about bad translations, but the problem seems to be less that they do not want to give the job to the verdammte Ausländer, but to anybody at all. Not even to the verdammte Inländer who actually CAN speak (and write) proper English. Museums and other public institutions are not known for having any money left to even pay their staff as it is, and that's a fact.
Plus, in America it's the same: I did not know if I should laugh or cry when I read in a biography of a German artist that he was born in KarlsrÜhe and liked the BlaÜe Reiter movement. Sorry, guys. It does not get automatically German if you add random Umlaute.
AND there is a really annoying dyslexia about ie and ei going on. I mean, can't you guys even *copy* words from a book?

Bleistifterin said...

btw: what's up with HungryInBerlin? have not been able to see it for days!

Ed Ward said...

BSin, Hungry's back up as of this afternoon; there should be an explanation/apology up there as I type.

I don't completely buy your excuse about the musems, though; these institutions are seen by people from all over the world who come here, and I'm living proof (as are some others who've commented here) of how lamentably little writer/editors will work for in this town.

As for my countrymen and the umlauts, guilty as charged. As is Häagen Däas Ice Cream. And, of course, that awful '80s metal band Das Damen.

Anonymous said...

yes, well, that obsession for people 'qualified' in the english language can also obscure a curious racism (?) that seems at first glance just typical german bloodymindedness. for example, 2 good friends here, both muslim southeast asians, one with an english lit degree from cambridge, the other a humanities BA from sydney, both former journalists at top papers in bangkok and singapore. Both apply at separate times to do graduate courses at humboldt conducted in english - both get rejected for not having suitable certificates showing competence in 'english as a second language'. So the cambridge grad turns up for a subsequent interview with humboldt professor, wondering about entry to his course: she's told, in his stilted english, that despite her english lit degree and several years as a journalist in singapore, she may not be fluent enough to do the course. He says, "i've been to singapore before, and i know they don't really speak or write standard english", etc (!). Which left this friend of mine perplexed, to say the least. My other friend tells an even more offensive tale of how a similar interrogation took place, that was sprinkled with questions about whether her muslim background would prejudice her "understanding" (?!) of the study of european history! Which all makes my own experience of having various german officials and border guards questioning my spoken english just merely bemusing (they usually can't believe australians can also look 'asian', etc). fwiw,

Arabella said...

Much of the fiction and poetry I read has been translated into English so gawd bless translators - may they breed and prosper etc.
Enjoyed my afternoon in the museums, by the way.

Anonymous said...

If the Germans bothered to ask a native English speaker whether their use of terminology was apt, then we wouldn't be able to enjoy the Plus naming its toilet paper Touching. And such.

Dr. Sardonic said...

faux amis allemandes favoris:

1. Steppenwolf 7, Side 2, Track 4: Earschplittenloudenboomer. I thought this was an actual German word for way too long.

2. das Handy, specifically, the look on most Germans' faces when you tell them it's really not the English term for cell phone.

Ed Ward said...

Arabella, don't forget that the translators of that literature also have editor who check their work. Most translators at that level are very accomplished, but anything needs to be read by a couple of sets of eyes.

And Dr. Sardo, I'm not sure if you knew this, but the Motorola Handy was one of the first cell-phones introduced in Germany. It proved very popular, and what might be termed the "kleenex effect" took over, where all products of a given sort became known by the brand name of the first successful one. I actually prefer Handy to cell phone as a name for the damn gizmo.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a fascinating discussion. A frequent visitor to Berlin, I now I understand why much of the translation I encounter -- in museums, on websites and on store signage is so bad. Or worse, non-existent. Does anyone else find it odd that some of the most intriguing exhibits at the Museum fur Kommunikation are in German only?

But I agree with Musicmope. Who wouldn't want to dine at the Aroma Offensive cafe?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ed, enjoyed it!

vailian said...

Around the corner from my house is a big plumbing fixtures emporium, with the wistful name "Bad Design".
I visited the Bode Museum for the first time last week and I enjoyed it for its lighting and nice tearoom. The woodcarvings are extraordinary, but there is a bit too much repetition perhaps.