Category Archives: German Literature

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?