German Word of the Week: Marienkäfer

What is it about ladybugs that inspires such affection? 

Is it their pleasingly symmetrical half-oval appearance?  The fact that they don’t sting?  The splotchy decorations on their carapace, which resemble a child’s first attempt at fingerpainting?  Or perhaps their dogged, mild-mannered way of crawling to the top of whatever they land on, spreading their outer shells to reveal an unexpectedly complex structure of hidden wings, and flying gracefully away?

Whatever the explanation is, people love ladybugs.  Europeans, in fact, put them under the protection of supernatural forces.  In Germany, these critters are called Marienkäfer — "Mary beetles" (yes, that Mary).

Not to be outdone, the Dutch take ladybug adoration to its logical conclusion.  I have it on good authority from a Belgian friend (and remember, Flemish Belgians don’t speak Flemish, they speak Dutch.  Note that well.), that in Dutch, a ladybug is an Onze-lieve-Heersbestje.  Literally translated, "Our-dear-Lordbeastlet", or more flowingly, "the little beast of our dear Lord." 

Almost makes you want to move to Holland (or Belgium), doesn’t it?

[Hat tip to PDK]

P.S.  Off to England tomorrow.  Hope to post some updates while I’m there, but in any case check back next week, when I’ll resume "providing content."

Richard Wagner, Bone-Crusher

The Bayreuther Festspiele are now in full swing.  Unfortunately, the German Joys Cultural Affairs Unit was not able to finance a trip to the festival this year, so there will be no live reports. 

As a pale substitute, here’s something I came across while reading a biography of one of my favorite composers, Gabriel Fauré:

In 1884, as the result of a ‘weird and wonderful lottery’ organized by [a patroness] to assist the impecunious Fauré and Messager, the pair were at last able to travel to to hear Parsifal.  Fauré later wrote to his benefactress:

If one has not heard Wagner at Bayreuth, one has heard nothing! Take lots of handkerchiefs because you will cry a great deal!  Also take a sedative because you will be exalted to the point of delirium! 

He told her that he had left Parsifal with ‘broken bones’!

(Robert Orldedge, Gabriel Fauré, p. 12)

A Masterful History of Hail Insurance

Last night, as usual, I poured myself a nice steaming mug of hard liquor and curled up with a good book before going to bed.  Hours later, I was still awake, still flipping pages, transfixed.  I had stumbled on Detlef A. Huber's magisterial treatise Die Hagelversicherung — "Hail Insurance."  Of course, every educated adult is familiar with this extraordinary legal institution, but rarely do you see its history recounted with such verve and imagination as by Detlef Huber. 

The first hail insurance policy was written in 1733 near Leipzig by one Carl-Gottlob Waldscheisser.  Business rapidly took off, but was crippled when Kant, in 1774, published his Zur Entwicklung einer philsophischen Stellungnahme über die Hagelversicherung ("Toward the Development of a Philosophical Position on Hail Insurance"), in which he argued that the idea of insuring against weather phenomena which reflect manifestations of the innate order of the universe could not be tolerated in a just and rational society.  Under Kantian influence, the Prussian administration outlawed hail insurance in 1778, and it was only Hegel's famously obscure treatise on the same issue in that set the stage for a lift on the ban in 1834. 

After that time, hail insurance played a leading role in German history.  Many historians believe that an extortion attempt based on Prussian Chancellor Otto Von Bismarcks' participation in a questionable hail-insurance syndication scheme were the real reason for his fall from power in 1890, and the Hail Insurance Riots, caused by inclusion of a clause banning hail insurance "on German soil" in the Treaty of Versailles, were an important factor contributing to social unrest in Weimar Germany.  Finally Huber recounts the well-known story of the 1936 National Socialist law — the Gesetz zur Gleichschaltung des deutschen Hagelversicherungswesens ("Law on the 'Co-ordination' of the German Hail Insurance Industry").  With evident anguish, Huber chronicles how this law perverted the ancient German institution of hail insurance into a weapon of state profit and political oppression.

Huber then turns to the modern era of hail insurance: the de-nazification trials of the National Socialist hail insurance executives and the rehabilitation of the industry into one of the "pillars of the economic miracle" (as it was called by German Finance Minister Ludwig Erhard) in the 1950s.  East Germany blamed pollution created by capitalist factories for the phenomenon of hail, but its legendary "people's campaign against hail" of 1959-1964 was nevertheless a spectacular failure.  Finally, Huber chronicles the conceptual battles fought among legal scholars and policy-makers during the 1970s "hail insurance wars" (thankfully, this time the wars were merely rhetorical), in which the "progressives" (who wanted hail insurance to be made available for damage to cars or other personal property) and the "conservatives" (who wanted to protect its traditional role as a protector of crops).

The amazing story of hail insurance is told by Huber with gentle humor and deep insight.  Therefore, Die Hagelversicherung is a strong recommendation for all readers of German Joys

German Word of the Week: Zukunftsmusik

Thanks for the comments about the Element of Crime post.  Erdmöbel: "earth-furniture?"  Since I am also a big fan of Prefab Sprout, I will be going straight to the store to buy some Erdmöbel.

But now, to the GWOW.  I was spending a normal Saturday morning pursuing one of my favorite hobbies: watching documentaries about advanced weapons systems. 

A U.S. Marine engineer described the possibility of encasing torpedos and perhaps entire submarines in a giant air bubble.  This would allow them to slide through the sea-depths as fast as air bubbles themselves; that is, with practically no resistance at all.  One day, we might see submarines that move almost as quickly as airplanes.  However, the German voice-over cautioned, this idea remains pure Zukunftsmusik (futuremusic)., as helpful as it is stodgy and unimaginative, defines Zukunftsmusik as "dreams of the future."  (Titanic magazine regularly features surreal and dystopian paintings by the artist Nic Schulz entitled Zukunftsmusic, with a "c" at the end.  Creeping Anglicization of the German language, or irony?).

OK, nice, now we understand the basic idea.  But there is a much better English term for this notion, I think.  In fact, there are two.  "Pie-in-the-sky" (adj) and "pipe dream" (noun).  Both of these terms describe a worthwhile, idealistic — but ultimately unrealizable — vision.  The ideas discussed in this essay, perhaps, strike me as being in that genre.  But perhaps Zukunftsmusik really means something that is realizable; that will arrive in a few decades, if we only work at it.  A new idea or invention that so close we can almost perceive it — like far-off music…

A Poem: “Met People” by Gottfried Benn

Culture Week takes a literary turn, with my own translation of a poem by Gottfried Benn, a modern German writer little-known in the English-speaking world. 

Benn, a dermatologist and venereal disease specialist (the two disciplines are, for some reason, always studied together in Germany), lived most of his life in Berlin, where he died in 1956.  He wrote novels, essays, and poems — some faintly gruesome and nihilistic, some limpid and lovely.

I know it’s cheeky for a non-specialist to translate a poem, but this one’s not particularly fancy.  Besides, some amateur apparently already translated it into Italian on his own website, so I won’t be the first.  Here goes:

Met People

I’ve met people who,

when you ask their name,

shyly — as if they could hardly claim

the right to have a name —

answer ‘Miss Christian’ and then:

‘like the first name’, they wanted to make it easy to grasp

not a difficult name like ‘Popiol’ or ‘Babendererde’ —

‘like the first name’ — please, don’t strain your memory!

I have met people, who

grew up in a hovel with parents and four siblings

studied, nights, on the kitchen stove

with their fingers in their ears

made good, outwardly beautiful and ladylike like countesses

and inwardly gentle and conscientious like Nausicaa

who wore the pure brow of angels.

I’ve often asked myself where the gentle and good

come from and found no answer,

still don’t know it today and have to go now.

What Explains Anonymous Burials

Now I’ve got a real question for my readers.  When I walk through German cemeteries, there is always a section for "anonymous graves," and almost every funeral home offers anonymous burials.  As this article on German funeral customs explains: "many people choose an anonymous grave with no headstone (something that’s found in Germany’s European neighbors but virtually unknown in North America)."  According to the same article, 27 percent of the burials in Hamburg are anonymous. 

My question to my German readers, and to everyone else who might have an answer, is:

1.  What’s the typical profile of someone who is buried anonymously? 

2.  Presumably you would have to arrange this before you die; how do you accomplish that?

3.  Most importantly, why would you choose to be buried anonymously?

I’m sure I’m not the only expat who’s asked himself these questions.  Any answers would be much appreciated.

Little Mausi gone to Heaven

As I promised, this is the Week of Culture here at German Joys. 

And what marks a culture more than its death-rites?  Many experts report that we’ve all got to die.  So, of course, do our pets. 

To investigate further, I obtained some travel funds from German Joys Cultural Research Fund and paid a visit to the Duesseldorf Pet Cemetery (Tierfriedhof — The German word for cemetery, Friedhof, can very roughly be translated as "yard of peace"). 

Outside the entrance stands a carved stone plaque with poem on it which reads as follows (my translation)

Entrance_plaque"Dogs are the dearest of all to me" I say,

And you say "the thought’s a sin!"

But a dog stays true through the fiercest storm

And man?  Not even in wind.

A lot of love and care went into these pet graves.  And a lot of order.  No matter how filled with plastic kitsch, each grave had a logical design, and was impeccably maintained.  They were like a series of postage-stamp Schrebergarten

The red candle or lamp on them is called a Grabkerzen, and is theoretically never to be allowed to go out.  Shamefully enough, I only saw one still-burning Grabkerze at the pet cemetery, which doesn’t speak well of Germans’ real attachment to their dead pets.  At least the unilluminated neglected pet graves won’t product the effect you see at German human cemeteries at night, where you will be surrounded by hundreds of eerie, flickering red lights.  Or are they the glowing red eyes of ravenous Satanic trolls and devil-wolves, just waiting to spring out of the bushes and devour you alive?

But I digress.  Now, back to the cemetery.  Some graves bore stuffed animals (see BaBalus_grave_1lu’s grave to the right), some plastic hearts, some faded photos of the deceased companion.  Most of tSpeedy_we_miss_youhem had the beloved creature’s name engraved on a stone, like Balu here.  Speedy (left) got a picture and a heart-shaped marble headstone with his photo and the epitaph "Speedy we miss you a lot!" Other graves were more restrained.  Many had no plaque at all, just a modest assortment of flowers or small design in the earth. 

But the one grave that moistened the eMausis_graveyes even of German Joy’s icily obective correspondent was the grave of dear, sweet little Mausi (right). Yes, there she is, curled up, eternally dreaming of scampering mice, elusive flies, and warm windowsills.  Rest in peace, Mausi.

The First German Joys Prize in Lyrical Amateur Translation

I have the pleasure of now awarding the First German Joys Prize in Lyrical Amateur Translation. 

We English speakers are lucky.  Why?  Because almost everywhere we go, people translate guidebooks, inscriptions, pamphlets, and announcements into our language.  Often they are wise enough not to hire a professional native speaker to do this.  Instead they hire someone whom they know, or who has an enthusiasm for the subject matter.   This amateur translator then creates a surreal, often gorgeous new work of human creativity.  It is this process, which I will call Lyrical Amateur Translation, that I want to celebrate with this Prize.

This last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a wedding in the small Belgian town of Hastière.  Although Hastière claims to be the "Pearl of the Upper Meuse Valley" (and it is quite lovely), the website has had only 3,455 visitors.   (Can’t we do something about that, Joysters?)

The wedding itself was held in the local church, a modest gray-stone structure whose foundations date back 1000 years.  I picked up an information brochure called "The Romanesque Abbey Church of Hastiere," originally written by Abbé Pirotte, head of the "Gallery of our Past." 

The French original of this guide to the Church was translated in 1985 into English and lovingly-hand-typed onto sheets of foldeed A4 paper with a pink cover.  Abbé Pirotte hired a man whose name I will not post here (for fear of being misinterpreted), but who is indisputably a master of lyrical amateur translation.  Here is Page 14, the final page of the tour of the church grounds (I’ve tried to reproduce the formatting as much as possible):

Dear Pilgrim and Friend,

You are leaving now this church where you have been seeing what a fruit is created by the labour, the faith, and the hope of the men. 

Firmly fixed on the side of the Meuse, one foot on land, the other in water, the church is there as a place of welcome.

This monument had talked to you a different language from the one of everyday life.

For ten centuries, it had been contemplating the passing men.

It saw their misdeeds during the successive wars.

It has growed and acquired various artistic works through the ages.

But whether in the Middle Ages or whether in the twentieth century,

         the same faith impels the men,

         the same hope drive them out of their limits

It is the same belief that only God can give the man

         his real reason of living

that brings the man his unlimited size.

German Word of the Week: Spießbürger

First, thanks to all Joysters for the additional German Words of the Week.   Truly the essence of the Internet: the multiplication of individual intelligences and sensibilities into a gigantic Überdialog of diversity.  Or words to that effect.  I have decided that I will choose the GWOW on my own, and let your perceptive comments speak for themselves.  Besides, I have no idea what an Eselsbrücke is.  Yet.

And now, gradually, I come to our fabulous new GWOW: Spießbürger.  This word brings us not only the famous umlaut (two little dots over the u), but an odd new friend, the ß.  It looks like a capital B, but it is actually pronounced pretty normally like an S.  So you pronounce this GWOW "SHPEESE-buerger."  Germans call it an S-Z, or "ess-tzed."  Get to know it.  It’s soft and rounded and very friendly.

Spießbürger means, literally, "spear-citizen."  This is not a degrading reference to Africans, it’s a degrading reference to Germans.  I’ll let the Wikipedia entry for the term speak for itself, in my translation:

A Spießbürger is a pejorative reference to a person who is distinguished by his intellectual stodginess, extreme conformity to social norms, hostility to changes in daily habits and rejection of everything unfamiliar.  At the beginning of the 20th century the short form Spießer [Spearer] and adjective Spießig [speary] were introduced by progressive and left-leaning groups as a Kampfbegriff [struggle-idea!] against the establishment.  The concept dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was used to denote a militia of spear-carrying foot-soldiers composed of ordinary citizens. 

No GWOW would be complete without a real-word example.   Mine comes from an ad for a savings and loan (Sparkasse) that I saw before a recent movie.  At first, you see a hippie encampment.  Perhaps the people are squatters, or maybe it’s a commune.  An older counterculture type — a prototypical anti-Spießer — wanders through the throng of pot-smoking, drum-playing, tie-dyed, nose-ringed inhabitants.  He’s accompanied by his young son.  They sit down, and the old hippie, lookíng a little tired, and very dilapidated, surveys the scene of controlled chaos with the little tyke.  Eventually, the lad looks up at his father with an yearning expression, and says: "Dad, why do Spießer get to live in nice houses?"  Then you see the logo of the savings and loan…

German Word of the Week: Gürteltier

Apparently, the GWOW is one of the most popular features on this site, so in a shameless ploy to maintain my hits, I will give you all the German Words of the Week you can handle!  Hell, if I had enough time, I would give you the German Word of the Hour.

This week’s GWOW is a fabulous one.  It is Gürteltier.  It means armadillo in German.  Many European readers might not know what an armadillo is, so here’s a picture:

Before I explain why this is the German Word of the Week, I’d like to write a short disquisition on armadillos. Here are three amusing facts about them:

  1. They are one of the few non-human animals that can carry leprosy, so they are frequently used for research into this disease.
  2. When they are frightened, they tend to jump straight up into the air.  This means when a car approaches, instead of just ignoring it and letting the car pass over them, they jump up and smack right into the bumper.  That explains the hundreds of rotting armadillo carcasses on the side of Texas roads.
  3. If you pick one up (hard to do, they run pretty fast), it curls itself into a tight little ball for protection.  You can then play soccer with it.  After you’re done, stick around and watch: the armadillo will wait 2 or 3 minutes to make sure the coast is clear, unroll itself, and stroll away as if nothing had happened.

OK, now we’ve learned a little about armadillos, and we’re all the richer for it. 

But why, you’re asking impatiently, why is Gürteltier the word of the week?  Because German animal names are comically literal and descriptive. Tier in German means "animal," and Gürtel means "belt."  So an armadillo is a "belt-animal."  Look at the picture. 

And if that’s not delicious enough, a skunk is a Stinktier (stink-animal), a predator is a Raubtier (rob-animal), a sloth is a Faultier (lazy-animal).  Mammals are Säugetiere ("suck-animals"), and marsupials are Beuteltiere ("bag-animals").  But my favorite German animal name is for the raccoon.  He looks like a little bear, and always washes what he eats.  Therefore, in German, he’s a Waschbär.