Sunday, September 17, 2017

On the Topic of the Use of German in Wintersong



I have already uploaded my review for Wintersong, but it seems I'm not done talking about this book. This post has been in my drafts for about two months now, but I really want to upload it because I already put quite a bit of work into it, so better late than never, right?

I've read a number of books in the past where some words or little sentences in different languages were included, and I always wondered whether the author either spoke that language or just researched it really carefully. In other words: were those sentences actually correct? With Wintersong, the situation was a little different, as the foreign language used was German, my native language. So for the first time, I was actually able to understand those italic words and sentences. And that's what I want to talk about today.


Just as a little disclaimer: I'm definitely not trying to be the language police. I don't have degree in German or anything, and my knowledge of grammatical expressions etc. is basically non-existent because it's been years since I learned those things. All I can work with is my knowledge of the language as someone who speaks it every day. And even that's not quite true since I live in Switzerland and Swiss German is a dialect that's pretty different from High German. And Wintersong actually takes place in Austria, where again a different dialect of High German is spoken. Another point I feel like I have to make is that Wintersong obviously takes place in a very different time. There are a lot of expressions that I'm pretty sure no one would use today, but I can very well imagine being used at the time Wintersong takes place. So I'm not going to address things like Liesl always calling the Erlkönig 'mein Herr', even though that sounds very strange to me.

When I first decided to write this post, I was convinced there was a lot of German in the book, because that's what it felt like while I was reading it. But now that I've gone through the whole thing again, I noticed that overall, German is used very sparsely throughout. Different German words like 'mein Brüderchen', 'Fräulein', 'Kapellmeister' are frequently used instead of the English equivalent, and I didn't mind these at all. Using German words in these instances helped remind the reader where the story takes place and I appreciated that.

The most used German expression was 'Der Erlkönig', and I guess this is what bothered me throughout the story. Because Der Erlkönig is always called exactly that: Der Erlkönig. I didn't understand (and I still don't really) why they would use 'Der Erlkönig' instead of 'the Erlkönig'. Because in German, there are four cases, and the article 'der' changes depending on what case is used. Only in the nominative case 'der' is actually 'der', otherwise it becomes 'des', 'dem' or 'den'. A sentence like 'I'm playing with Der Erlkönig' would translate to 'Ich spiele mit dem Erlkönig'. The article 'der' changes to 'dem' because it's the dative case. In the book, however, only 'Der Erlkönig' was used for all four cases. This 'problem' occurred with all kinds of different sentences, and it kind of bothered me again and again because it sounds very wrong to me. I feel like this issue could've been avoided so easily by just going with 'the Erlkönig'. 

Next is the strange use of capital letters. 'Der Erlkönig' is another example for this. In German, only nouns start with a capital letter, or other words at the beginning of a sentence. So in the same example sentence used above ('I'm playing with Der Erlkönig'), 'Der' (or better: dem) does not have a capital D but a lower case d instead. This looked weird to me as well, even though it might just have been done to emphasize the use of German even more.

Now, let's look at the one German sentence used in the book. It was always followed by an English translation when it was used, but to be honest I still don't understand what it's supposed to mean. The sentence in German was the following: 'Für meine Lieben, ein Lied im stil die Bagatelle, auch der Erlkönig', and the English translation is 'For my loved ones, a song in the style of a bagatelle, or The Goblin King.' I still don't understand what is meant by the second part 'or the Goblin King', whether that's supposed to be the title of the song. But what I do know is that 'ein Lied im stil die Bagatelle' is definitely not correct German. Again, the German cases are completely neglected, as this should be 'im Stil der Bagatelle', or even better 'im Stil einer Bagatelle' because 'eine' is the indefinite article in German. On top of that, the S in 'Stil' should be capitalized since it's a noun.

These are just some examples of things that bothered me as a German native speaker when reading Wintersong. I'm still not 100% sure that this wasn't all done on purpose, but even if so, I feel like that wouldn't have been the right choice. And I'm curious: have you ever read a book where you knew the foreign language used, and were there any mistakes?