Category Archives: German Literature

German at Oxford – the view from the ground

This week we’re highlighting a number of videos that offer glimpses of German at Oxford. German is one of our bigger languages and is currently offered at twenty-three colleges (although not all colleges will offer German in combination with every other language or subject). For a list of which colleges offer the different language and subject combinations, see here.

First, we hear from Prof. Almut Suerbaum, Fellow in Tutor in German at Somerville College. Prof. Suerbaum teaches a range of topics as part of the undergraduate degree. These include: German language; German literature, specialising in medieval culture; religious writing, medieval drama and prose narrative, gender, and theory of translation.

Next, we can hear from two students: Martha studied German and History, also at Somerville College, and graduated last year; Nyasha studies German at St John’s College.


We’re very grateful to Somerville and St John’s for putting these videos together, and we hope they have given you an insight into German at Oxford and perhaps whet your appetite for more!

 

calling all germanists: come and meet us…

Happy New Year from Adventures on the Bookshelf! To kick off the blog in 2019, we’re diving in at the deep end and bringing you news of our German open day. If you’re thinking about applying to study German as an undergraduate at Oxford, this is an excellent opportunity to meet some of the tutors, try out a couple of academic taster sessions which will give you a flavour of what it’s like to study German, and take a look around Oxford. See below for the full details and programme. If you would like to attend, please book a place via our website.

What? The 2019 German Open Day, designed to showcase the Oxford German course and answer any questions you might have.

Who? If you study German at school and would like to continue it at university, this is your chance to see what degree-level German is like, and how we go about teaching it. But equally, even if you do not already study German but think it could be something you’d like to pick up at university, this event is a chance for you to ask any questions about studying German from scratch, and see whether it’s for you. In short, all budding Germanists are welcome, regardless of whether you have already studied German in the past.

Where? The event will start and finish at the Taylor Institution on St Giles, and the middle portion of the day will be spent at Worcester College.

When? Saturday 23 February 2019, 10:30am – 3pm

How? Book a place by registering on our website and signing up for the event.

Here’s the programme…

Keep your eyes peeled for our other open days coming up later in the term.

Bringing Kafka’s Castle to Life

To celebrate publication of the new critical edition of Franz Kafka’s final, unfinished novel Das Schloss (The Castle), Carolin Duttlinger and Barry Murnane from the Oxford Kafka Research Centre hosted a day of activities with sixth-form students, two student workshops on editing and adapting Kafka, and a podium discussion to discuss the legacy of the novel. The day-long event brought together specialists from Oxford, Roland Reuß and Peter Staengle, and award-winning playwright Ed Harris, who recently adapted the novel for BBC Radio 4. In this blog post Barry Murnane, Associate Professor in German at St John’s College, introduces Kafka’s novel.

Playwright Ed Harris with the students on the study day

Das Schloss is not exactly the most obvious introduction to Kafka’s works. Written over a period of about seven months in 1922 while Kafka’s health was deteriorating (he had been diagnosed with what was probably tuberculosis several years earlier), Das Schloss is a rambling narrative that tells us how a protagonist known only as K arrives in a snow-covered landscape dominated by a castle and has to find his place in the local community:

“It was late evening when K arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of the Castle Mount, mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void.” (Franz Kafka, The Castle, transl. Anthea Bell. Oxford: OUP, 2009, p5)

Calling himself a “Landvermesser”, or “surveyor”, K finds himself in the middle of a society that is apparently dominated by a gigantic bureaucracy and he becomes involved in constant conversations with the locals trying to understand how this bureaucracy works.

Kafka in Spindelmühle, the winter resort where he began writing Das Schloss

For one reason or another, K never seems to ‘arrive’, however, and ends up constantly walking and talking in circles. On the one hand, he seems blameless because the castle authorities are not exactly forthcoming with any information. On the other hand, K appears at least partly responsible for his failure in that he treats the locals as little more than stepping stones on his way to the castle, including a potential lover called Frieda. It’s unclear how the novel would have ended: Kafka’s friend and first editor, Max Brod, says that Kafka told him on his deathbed how the novel was meant to finish with K being ‘accepted’ into the Castle and its community, but it seems a long way to go before K. would be accepted anywhere, never mind by the Castle authorities. Instead, we see a novel project trailing off into a “scheinbare Leere”, the seeming void, that K looks into at the start of the novel.

Thanks to the new critical edition of Das Schloss edited by Peter Staengle and Roland Reuß and published by the Stroemfeld-Verlag we now get a real sense of how Kafka actually wrote. Their edition reproduces the exact manuscript alongside an easy-to-read transcription, warts and all. The new edition is ground-breaking, but it puts an emphasis on scholars to make the overload of information it provides accessible. There is no easily consumable narrative of K against the Castle: we see passages where K is a less than positive hero figure, stubbornly refusing to actually listen to what people are telling him and treating women with little respect. One interesting thing is that the material of the manuscript itself shows no real sign of a struggle as Kafka begins to run out of steam with the project: the ductus of his handwriting remains smooth, flowing, perhaps even more so than at the start.

It is astonishing how relevant Kafka’s discussions of bureaucracy and social life in The Castle still are. With Oxford German Studies looking to build up to the centenary of Kafka’s death in 2024, the new edition of the novel is an ideal opportunity to discuss Kafka’s legacy and importance today.

Virtual Book Club: German episode

The Virtual Book Club returns once more, this time with an episode focussing on German. The German episode features a discussion about a short story by Franz Kafka, ‘Der Kaufmann’ [The Tradesman]. Here, Joanna Raisbeck leads the discussion with undergraduates Hannah and Colleen, as they consider the questions: what is the tradesman worried about?; what does he think about in the lift?; and why do you think he has these thoughts in the lift?

If you would like to receive a copy of the text, which will be provided in both the original German and an English translation, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Announcing the 2018 German Classic Prize!

Budding Germanists out there might be interested in delving into a ‘German Classic’: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart. For the second year, the Oxford German Network is running an essay competition for Sixth-Formers who have studied German at GCSE level (you do not need to be studying German at A Level or equivalent). There are prizes of £500, £300, and £100 to be won. The deadline for submissions is noon on Wednesday 12 September 2018. More information is available here or read on to find out more…

The Prize celebrates a classic text of German literature, with resources to make it accessible whether or not you have experience of German literature. This year, the prize focuses on Friedrich Schiller’s play Maria Stuart, a fascinating historical drama about how Elizabeth I came to have Mary, Queen of Scots executed. The great centrepiece of the play is a gripping confrontation between Elisabeth and Maria – in fact, it never happened but it makes for electrifying drama.

You will find a rich array of material including podcasts and YouTube links on Maria Stuart: http://www.ogn.ox.ac.uk/content/german-classics-prize. Candidates may also request a special reader with extracts from secondary literature on the work (see contact details on the website).

The task: Write a 2000 to 3000-word essay in English, independently and unsupervised, over the summer holidays between Lower and Upper Sixth/ between Years 12 and 13.

The prize, and funding of the accompanying resources, have been generously donated by Jonathan Gaisman, QC, a highly distinguished commercial barrister who was introduced to German literature at school and still finds German literature and culture the most intellectually rewarding part of his life. He would like to give young people the opportunity to be inspired as he was when he first encountered German literature.

Students willing to have a go at undertaking this challenge have the possibility of winning a glittering cash prize worth £500, £300 or £100. All participants will get a certificate of participation.

The prize is aimed at German learners in the UK. It does not assume that participants will be taking English beyond GCSE or that they have a prior interest in literature. The rationale for asking Modern Languages students to write an essay in English is to give an opportunity for UK learners to engage with a linguistically and intellectually challenging German work in the linguistic medium they are most comfortable with. While participants may want to use a translation to support their understanding, we recommend reading the work in the original to get the most out of it and take advantage of the opportunity it offers for expanding German competence. All quotations must be in German.

Friedrich Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz

As with all the Oxford German Olympiad competitions, we aim to create a level playing field for students from different backgrounds, schools, and levels of linguistic competence. The submission form must be signed by the participant’s teacher, who is also asked to submit the essay online. All sixth-formers in UK schools with a GCSE or equivalent UK qualification in German are entitled to take part, including students who are not taking a German A-level or equivalent qualification. Native and near-native speakers of German are not excluded but are required to declare their linguistic status on the submission form. Our prime criterion is the quality of intellectual and imaginative engagement with the work evident in the essay while taking account of prior opportunity.

Any questions should be addressed to the German Classic Prize Coordinator: Joanna Raisbeck, joanna.raisbeck@some.ox.ac.uk.

Viel Glück!

An Introduction to Effi Briest

This post was written by Katie Wilson, a first-year student of French and German at Oriel College. Katie gives us a glimpse of one of the texts studied in the first year of the German course at Oxford, and makes the case for Effi Briest as an early feminist novel.

Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest is the first text we study in Hilary Term (in Oxford, this is the term that runs from January to March) of the first year, and the first German novel we study during the degree. The text is about seventeen year old Effi, who is forced by her parents into an arranged marriage with an older man: Baron Geert von Innstetten. Becoming quickly entrapped in her inevitably unhappy marriage, Effi seeks to fight against boredom and depression in her marital home in any way that she can. We read the novel following the study of four German plays in Michaelmas Term (the term that runs from October to December). As interesting as they are, the plays are primarily focused on male characters, and all written by male authors. There are female characters in only some of the plays, and they’re not the heroines that female students want to read about.

Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), portrait by Carl Breitbach

The novels for Hilary Term don’t look much more promising on the surface. There’s still no female authors, and we’re treated to a round of soldiers, a magician and an ungeheuren Ungeziefer (the ‘monstrous bug’ of Kafka’s metamorphosis)*. Fontane’s novel, however, is a game changer. Although it’s written by a man, the novel is structured so that we share our experiences with the female protagonist. When Effi’s bored, Fontane takes up page after page to explain her boredom, so that we’re bored with her. When Effi’s happy, we’ll only experience a page of excitement because time flies when we’re having fun.

This is no accident. Sharing Effi’s experiences means we’re naturally sympathetic towards her, so when she takes actions that were unforgivable in her Victorian Prussian context – ie: having an affair with married womaniser Major Crampas – we understand her motivations and direct our animosity towards the privileged few that oppress Effi.

Hanna Schygulla played Effi in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 adaptation. (Prod Co: Tango Film Prod, Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Phot: Jürgen Jürges, Dietrich Lohmann, Ed: Thea Eymèsz, Art Dir: Kurt Raab).

Of course she’s young, naïve, and perhaps not the greatest heroine we could have hoped for. However, Effi Briest ticks all the boxes for a first wave feminist text that highlights women’s issues in Fontane’s context. Everyone should be very excited about studying this author!

* If you’re curious about translating the phrase ‘ungeheuren Ungeziefer’, check out this article by professional translator Susan Bernofsky.

Translating Songs: The Art of the Impossible?

This post was written by Dr Alex Lloyd, a lecturer in German at Magdalen College & St Edmund Hall. Dr Lloyd is a key member of the team behind the Oxford German Network, and a convenor of the Oxford Song Network. Today she tells us about when German and song come together…

How do you translate the words of a song into another language so that it still fits the music when it’s sung in the new version? This was the challenge my students set us when we offered to translate Friedrich Schiller’s poem ‘An die Freude’ [Ode to Joy] for the collaborative translation collection, The Idea of Europe: Enlightenment Perspectives.

Schiller’s poem is well known in the setting by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony. My second-year students suggested we attempt a translation which rhymed and scanned like the original and which could be sung to Beethoven’s tune. I had done translation workshops with students in the past which involved working with song texts (you can listen to some examples of German World War One texts here), and had also started to explore the theory behind producing singable or ‘vocal’ translations. So, we decided to try and fit our text to Beethoven’s music. Each student took responsibility for one or more verses of the text, and we discussed their ideas and solutions in our weekly translation class. The students enjoyed the collaborative aspect of the experience (it’s one thing translating by yourself, but quite another to have to reach compromises and negotiate!), as well as the challenge of thinking about text and music. One student reported: ‘It was great fun collaborating for this translation, as we realised we all emphasised different aspects of the original poem and had different interpretations of some of the images, so we had to pitch our ideas against each other to come up with a final version.’ When we were translating, we had to take a number of factors into account: the style and structure of the text, the register (formal or informal?), the literal meaning of words as well as the associations they have within society and culture. The first few lines of the first verse will show you what I mean:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!

[Joy, the gods’ own spark of beauty
daughter of Elysium,
Fire-drunk pilgrims’ solemn duty
to your kingdom we shall come!]

This is not the sort of thing that comes up in everyday conversation.

Often, it’s actually quite difficult to translate a text without losing something of the original – references, sounds made by the position of words in a sentence – and to say just exactly what the original text did. To translate a text so that it also fits the rhythms of a song is a very tall order. Indeed, this kind of translation has been called impossible. We had to think about the style and structure of the music as well as the text: phrasing, rhythm, stress, range, word painting. We also needed to think about the needs of the singers (not putting awkward vowel sounds on a very high note, for example), as well as the function of the song (the tune is used as the European Union’s anthem though performed without words), and the needs of the audience members who are listening to it. To use a technical term from translation studies, we had to ‘compensate’, by trying to introduce things elsewhere to achieve the same effects overall. Vocal translation encourages us to ask questions about the dynamic relationships between text and music. Perhaps have a go at translating your favourite song from English into German. Can you make it fit the music without sounding really strange?

Singable translation might be difficult, but it’s something we can encounter without thinking about it. Many people at Christmas sing the carol ‘Silent Night’ which is actually a translation of a German song, ‘Stille Nacht’. Or, take David Bowie’s famous song ‘Heroes’ which he also performed in German and in French.  One of the students who worked on the translation is now doing an extended project on the way hymns change between languages, and another will be taking a course on advanced German translation next year. A group of students and I performed the singable English translation of the ‘Ode to Joy’ at the launch of the book, The Idea of Europe: Enlightenment Perspectives, in November. ‘It was a lovely surprise to be a sent a video months later of our translation being sung at the relay reading event in the Taylorian!’.

And you can see a clip of Dr Lloyd and her students singing ‘An die Freude’ here…

 

Why I chose German ab initio

Last week, we heard an overview of German at Oxford from Prof. Henrike Lähnemann. This week, Hannah Hodges, a current second-year undergraduate of French and German at St Peter’s College, tells us what motivated her to study German from scratch or ‘ab initio’.

The popular YouTube videos “German compared to other languages” didn’t really help me when justifying my decision to choose German as my ab initio language. Who would rather commit to four years studying the language whose word for butterfly is Schmetterling and not papillon or farfalla ?

Now in my second year of the ab initio German course, I stand by my decision to take up German as part of my degree. Why? Well, despite its reputation for being complicated, German is actually quite a logical language (at least compared to the endless list of French grammar exceptions anyway!). I may still stressfully pause before I say anything in order to figure out which translation of the I am going to use, but I can (kind of) see the logic behind the dreaded cases. Moreover, after spending seven years trying to decide when to use the passé composé, imparfait, passé simple or passé antérieur (what even is this?) in French, you can imagine my relief that in German there are only two commonly used past tenses and it’s not (too) important which you use in speech. And future? No need to worry about verb stems: with German you can use the present tense and just add a word like morgen (tomorrow) or nächstes Jahr (next year) which makes it pretty obvious you’re talking about a point in the future – logical, right?

Joking aside, the thought of reading Thomas Mann’s paragraph-long sentences does at times make me question my own choice, but the usefulness of German in understanding the development of modern European thought and being able to read seminal texts in their original language such as Immanuel Kant’s Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? (Answering the Question: what is Enlightenment) is rather rewarding. But perhaps the best thing is that German has the reputation of being a difficult language. Therefore, when you casually drop into conversation that you only started learning it a year and a half ago and someone asks you what the longest German word you know is,  you can confidently roll off the compound noun  Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung. Moreover, you can explain why the word is logically constructed. Trust me, people will think you’re amazing. So, don’t be put off just because the word for daisy is Gänseblümchen.

German at Oxford

In February we ran an open day for prospective students of German at Oxford. In the recording below, Prof. Henrike Lähnemann gives an overview of German at Oxford.

We offer German at a variety of entry levels, from post-A Level to beginner. The first-year course is designed to provide a structured introduction to the areas of the subject which will then be explored in depth later on. It is closely tailored to the entry level in order to equip all students with the necessary knowledge and skills. Whatever the starting-point, students study the same course for the second, third and fourth years.

In the first year, you will consolidate and improve your language skills while exploring issues of twentieth-century German society and developing an appreciation of German language and literary culture. A key element for post-A-level students is a course entitled Deutsche Gesellschaft und Kultur seit 1890. This is taught in German, in lectures and small classes, and is the basis for an integrated study of modern German language and literature. In tutorials and classes students on all of the first-year pathways will explore a range of literary texts and develop their oral and
written presentation skills in both English and German. The emphasis is on literature from 1890 to 1933 – a period of huge social change and industrial advance, and of the redefinition of the modern German nation through politics and war.

But students are also introduced to texts from other periods of German cultural history, from the medieval to the contemporary. The second and final years permit you to choose from a wide array of subjects, including the study of literary texts and cultural history from 800AD to the present day, modern linguistics and linguistic history, and a constantly evolving range of special authors and special subjects, including: Old Norse Sagas, Yiddish, women’s writing, medieval Minnesang, Nietzsche, cinema studies, the literature of the GDR, contemporary writing, advanced translation.

One of the great attractions of the Modern Languages course is the year abroad. Many students go as language assistants to schools in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. This offers an excellent opportunity for becoming integrated in a German-speaking community, and it is well-paid work which leaves time for you to continue your studies, travel and pursue other interests. Students of
German have also worked for international companies, in art galleries and museums, and at dance or theatre school. Others have studied at one of the many German universities with which Oxford has ties. Immersion in the language and society is an enormous benefit to our students. The key is to enjoy and to learn.

Most students at Oxford study German with another language, but it is also possible for post-A-level students to take “German sole” – in which case the first year course includes film, and medieval
and philosophical texts. Alternatively post-A-level students can combine German with Classics, English, History, Linguistics, a Middle Eastern Language, or with Philosophy.

A Two Minute Introduction to Goethe

This post was written by Isabel Parkinson, who studies German & Philosophy at Worcester College.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born, rather poetically, on a summer’s day in Frankfurt in 1749 just as the church bells were striking noon. In true sensitive-artist style he studied law as a young man and detested it, preferring to attend poetry lectures instead and write Baroque-style verse for his lover. Goethe became a literary celebrity at just twenty-five when he wrote Die Leiden des jungen Werthers – a quite beautiful story that’s not only unchallenging enough to be read for pleasure, but has been so excellently translated that no knowledge of German is required. It’s achingly melancholy and endearingly optimistic in equal measure with a core of reverent, self-sacrificial, and occasionally obsessive love; the young hero Werther is so desperately infatuated with Lotte that he sends his servant to her house when he himself cannot visit, just to have someone in his home who has seen her.

Werther made Goethe an overnight success, and by the 1790s he was collaborating and communicating with the other major player in the German literature scene, Friedrich Schiller. In 1809 Goethe published his third novel, Elective Affinities. It is written in prose, rather than in the epistolary style of Werther and is a similarly excellent story, with not so much a love triangle as a love square or maybe even a pentagon.

Goethe turned his hand to many things – politics, science, prose – and his epic reworking of the classic legend Faust is an example of his dabbling in the closet drama genre. Part One is closely connected to the original famous legend, while Part Two – published in 1832, the year of Goethe’s death – pushes the story and the soul wager to its conclusion. The rich detail and sheer length of Goethe’s Faust may unfairly paint it as an impenetrable work; these misconceptions hide a vividly imagined and often quite humorous tale. It is true that one can make much of the religious, moral, and philosophical questions, but they are balanced with lighter touches such as a shape-shifting poodle and Mephistopheles accompanying Faust on a double date through a garden – and what Oxford student can fail to identify with the dissatisfied academic who trades his soul for knowledge and pleasure?