Tuesday, July 9, 2013

cycling / translating Grimms in a grim mood / Fundevogel

I didn't bring my camera when I went cycling today so I couldn't take a picture of the river which was rippling blue, poplar leaves flipping their little skirts in the breeze, herons perfecting their profiles on the rocks.
There's only so much I can shove into my hip pack which is all I take when I'm cycling. There are the keys to unlock the gate and get back into the house. Change purse with money in case my electrolytes or blood sugar bottom out. I have been known to carry an empty change purse. A couple of tissues to blow my nose and mop the sweat off my face--not in that order. Lip balm because it's this girl's best friend. A roll of compression bandage in case I fall. I'm a bleeder. A fall could be messy. A cell phone would be useful in the event of an accident, but I don't have one. Some form of bike repair tool would be useful too, but I would never trust a bike I'd repaired myself.
All to say that there is no room in my overstuffed hip pack for a camera too. You will have to believe me when I write that cycling by the river as it opens out against the horizon has great salubrious effect on a grim mood. Is it the view? The exercise? Expending all that brooding energy on pedalling until you've sweated so much that your face stings with salt. There's no energy left for the  black hole questions that have no answers.


Being in a grim mood might be the ideal time to tackle another Grimms' fairy tale. I started translating one a few weeks ago but lost interest. I liked the drawing (see above) more than the story. That set mouth, walking with purpose in her over-large clogs, eyes closed because she knows where she's going without having to look. No neck. Shoulders rounded from the weight of her task.

The illustration belongs to a story called Fundevogel, a word which doesn't exist in German and has no equivalent in English. I tried to solve that--for my own purposes, if not the stringent criteria of the Internationales √úbersetzungsgericht that meets biannually in Zurich. I began by breaking apart the word as one does with German.

Here let me insert that I always tip my hat to Jeffrey Eugenides who called German a language of train-car constructions. It's the perfect description. If you're looking for the exact quote, it's somewhere in the 500+ pages of the novel, Middlesex.  

Funde are findings as in a murder investigation. Vogel is a bird. If I were to translate Fundevogel literally--Bird Findings--you might wonder if I meant Bird Droppings. The word that makes more sense is foundling, not findings. In German, the word foundling is Findling. If the brothers Grimm had used Findling, the German title would have been Findlingvogel, which sounds way too jingly. Fundevogel has a nicer rhythm.

The story opens with yet another of the wicked, negligent, slovenly or simply invisible mothers so prevalent in Grimms. I came across a comment in a novel the other day, in which a character calls Grimms' portrayal of mothers sexist. Is it? It's not flattering, no, but maybe the brothers Grimm are telling us something about mothers who don't want to be mothers and find themselves saddled with demanding, squalling bodies. Not surprisingly, who do they punish? Those same children. Of course, those kind of mothers only existed in long ago Germany.

In this story, the mother fell asleep under a tree with her baby. A bird snatched the child from her lap   and carried it to a high tree. The mother isn't mentioned again--how she felt when she woke up, whether she looked for her baby, whether she continued on her way through the forest, thankful not to have to carry the baby any longer. She was only necessary in the story to explain the presence of the baby.

The story is repetitive with everything happening three times and incidents being described once, when they happen, and again when one character recounts what he or she has seen to another character. I lost patience translating it. The message or moral is worthy of the best and worst novels: Stick by your friend and you'll live happily ever after.

I've said friend and not lover, because it's never clear in the story if the foundling is a boy or a girl. It's called an "it".

Do you know this? There are three genders in German, masculine, feminine, and neuter. The word child is neuter. Das Kind. The child who is found in a tree is an "it". When it's referred to by name as Fundevogel, it's called he--because the word Vogel (bird) is masculine. That's got to do with grammar, not genitalia. Throughout the story it's never clear whether the child found in the tree is a boy or a girl. Nor, for the purposes of the story, does it matter.

Note that many things are "it" in German. A book, a car, a dress, a picture, an animal, a horse... Neuter sounds value-laden, but in fact there's no shame in being neuter in German--not when a book, a horse, and a dress are neuter.

This makes me wonder about writing in German within the LGBT community. Whether it's easier or more complicated than in languages where the only available genders are masculine or feminine. ???

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