AMERICAN LITERATURE

About a month ago I read a blog by a frustrated writer who would read no more. She had purchased a recently highly praised novel by a young American novelist. The blogger quoted the first paragraph of the novel; one sentence seem to run an entire paragraph. Obviously someone was trying to save on confusion and annoyances of periods.

I started the first sentence, an enormity of one disconnected sentence attached to another by commas and eventually the author or her editor, or the publisher who was paying by-the-word stopped printing the subject of each clause and frequently dispersed with the verb, leaving prepositional phrases abandoned, and floating adjectives and wandering adverbs heading off to the new planet in the solar system. Obviously, the adverbs and the adjectives don’t know where they’re going because no one knows where the new planet is. For the reader everything is as clear as mud.

I stopped reading. There is a literary movement afoot to make American more like Latin, German and Russian, without the excess declensions, specialized prepositions and multiple conjugations along with a fondness for the subjunctive where it’s not needed. In fact any language with declensions and conjugations up the wazoo provides a model for New York publishers and editors. Thereupon, all the authors pretend learnedness to be pretentious. Remember each of them have inked deals with Mephistopheles.

My analysis of the current American language in novels is correct. I did not appreciate it until reading Mein Kampf, this Spring. The translator, Konrad Heiden, observed about the German work,

Most of Hitler’s stylistic peculiarities represent no problem for the translator. The
mixed metaphors are just as mixed in one language as in the other. A lapse of
grammatical logic can occur in any language. An English-language Hitler might be
just as reductant as the German one; a half-educated writer, without clear ideas,
generally feels that to say a thing only once is rather slight.
There are, however, certain traits of Hitler’s style that are peculiarly German and
do present a problem in translation. Chief among these are the length of sentences,
the substantives, and the German particles.
A translation must not necessarily be good English, but it must be English such as
some sort of English author – in this case, let us say, a poor one – might write. On the
other hand, it would be wrong to make Hitler an English-speaking rabble-rouser,
because his very style is necessarily German.
No non-German would write such labyrinthine sentences. The translator’s last – often a feat of tightrope-walking – is to render the ponderousness and even convey a German flavor, without writing German-American sentences. In general I have cut down the sentences only when the length made them unintelligible in English. (The German language with its cases and genders does enable the reader to find his way though tangles which in a non-inflected language would be inextricable.) Contrary to the general opinion, the German text contains only one or two sentences that make no sense at first reading.
The substantives are a different matter. Here it has been necessary to make greater
changes, because in many cases the use of verbal nouns is simply incompatible with the English language. No pedant, no demagogue, no police clerk writes that way. I have used the construction where it seemed conceivable in English, elsewhere reluctantly abandoned it. German stylists may say that Hitler’s piling up of substantives is bad German, but the fact remains the most numerous German writers do that same thing, while this failing is almost non-existent in English.
In approaching Hitler’s use of particles, it must be remembered that he was at home in the Lower Bavarian dialect. Even without the dialect, much German prose, some not of the worst quality, abounds in those useless little words: wohl, ja, dean, schon, noch, eigentlich, etc. The South Germans are especially addicted to them, and half of Hilter’s sentences are positively clogged with particles, not to mention such private favorites as besonders and damals which he stews about quite needlessly. His particles even have a certain political influence, for in the petit bourgeois mind they are, liked carved furniture, an embodiment of the home-grown German virtues, while their avoidance is viewed with suspicion as foreign and modernistic. There are no English equivalents, and an attempt to translate them results in something like the language of the Katzenjammer Kids. Sometimes, however, it is possible to give a similar impression of wordiness by other means.

The translation follows the first edition. The most interesting changes made in the later German editions have been indicated in the notes. Where Hitler’s formulations challenge the reader’s credulity, I have quoted the German original in the notes. Seeing is believing.

Likewise, American novels, published recently, are actually translations drawn from more ancient, clumsy, illogical, word-favoring languages. That is the state of American literature today. Seeing is believing.

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