I am extremely fortunate to count Dagmara Kraus, the poet whose work I translate, as a friend. Dagmara was born in Poland, lives in Germany, and speaks four languages fluently (English among them). We communicate regularly by email and Skype, discussing work, publication, penury, and other writerly matters in a bumpy and high-velocity mash-up of English and German, often switching between languages mid-sentence. We also tend to insert words from one language into the other, as conversational occasions demand, sometimes creating neologisms that expand the established vocabulary of contemporary Denglish (Deutsch-English). We play with the languages in this way, first and foremost, because we’re both writer/translators and we find it fun. But, as the Oulipo folks knew very well, play also gives us a way to open up a language and investigate its attributes and limits.
Every so often, one of us is able to visit the other, and it’s during these visits that a new kind of translational fun begins. I love to visit Germany because it gives me the chance to live in German. I get to hear the way Germans use their language: their intonations, their slang du jour, the rhythms and patterns of their speech. Where does the emphasis fall when Dagmara’s boyfriend delivers a punch line? Which syllable of a word should be elongated for comic or emotional effect? How would these elements differ in English, and how would those differences alter the phrasing (and shade the meaning) of the sentiment expressed?
Another ongoing project is Dagmara’s (Sisyphean) effort to help make me street-smart. She identifies regional accents, explains curious idioms, and elucidates cultural-linguistic particularities. We discover things together, and the new light my discovery sheds on things can be fun for her (as when the taste of pre-packaged Glühwein prompted the question in this piece’s title). Best of all, once Dagmara teaches me a something, she gets to hear me use it. Mach’ dir kein’ kopf (don’t worry about it) she tells me on Monday. On Tuesday, I use the phrase to help half a dozen Germans—including friends, strangers and a dachshund—to relax. In Germany, I get to let myself be a language sponge, a little stupid perhaps (Ahhh, so thaaat’s how it works, I’m forever proclaiming), but ready to soak up as many new things as I can.
When Dagmara comes to New York, our roles reverse. She sees me navigate the city’s mazes—cultural, linguistic, and geographical—with carefree ease, hopefully allowing these images to replace her memories of my naïve bumblings in Germany. I translate for her the accented English spoken by New Yorkers of all stripes (especially, fuggedaboutit, in Brooklyn) and decipher the garbled shibboleths delivered over the loudspeaker on the subway trains. I explain that, in American English, I’m ok sometimes means, No, thank you and what combination of condiments makes a coffee sweet and light. Dagmara has read Shakespeare in English, but some things simply must be seen (or heard) in the flesh: an everything bagel (a cosmically huge concept for breakfast), or a conversation that goes: We’re headed to the movies tonight. You down to come with? Yeah, I’m up for it.
In addition to the cheap ego boost I get from speaking my native language fluently, I also learn quite a bit during Dagmara’s visits because her questions force me to interrogate my own understanding of contemporary English. On her last trip, she raised several issues I had never considered: When is it accurate to call someone a badass? (I extemporized that the term denotes a combination of impressive skill, natural insouciance, and cool sunglasses, but I was, frankly, at a loss.) Why is brown-noser considered acceptable for use in almost any company (despite the offensively visceral image it summons), when most Americans feel uncomfortable saying ass-kisser in front of a schoolteacher? This last question, although it seemed frivolous at first, has stayed with me. Why should a vividly disgusting image be less offensive than a simple vulgarity? How often do we shut off our mind’s eye in the presence of socially accepted euphemisms? A euphemism is meant to dull the blow of a potentially unpleasant idea, but using a repellant image as part of the euphemism would seem counterproductive. Is this among the particular qualities that characterize the (American) English use of euphemistic idiom? Does our speech reflect a prudish inheritance from our Puritan forebears? Or a rakish nod to our nation’s eternally rugged frontier spirit? Perhaps I’ll have some answers for Dagmara by the time I’m next in Germany, impressing the natives with freshly-learned idioms. Or perhaps the questions themselves will turn out to be more fruitful than any answer, lingering in our heads to complicate and enrich our poems and translations, as questions often do.