You’ll Need the Scheisshaus After the Fried Steam

One day, this blog will become a United Nations World Heritage Site of unconventional translations.  I already have a section dedicated to this purpose.  However, other outlets — like Welt Online, sometimes try to horn in on my territory.  This slideshow (G) collects attempts at German and English from all over the world, sent in by German tourists. [h/t K.S.]

My favorite is this bathroom sign from Panama:

But perhaps the best source for translations is menus.  Whenever I go to Other Foreign Countries, I immediately grab the menu out of my dinner companions’ hands and scan it.  I’m often disappointed (especially in Northern Europe, where everybody’s English is much too good). 

But not in India.  Here are just two of the precious finds I unearhted there.  First, from Hampi, India, "Momus Fried Steam":


And from Bangalore, ‘Alien Steak’:


I ordered the Alien Steak.  It looked like this:


And it was pretty tasty. Yes, it was real beef.

Thought About Your End Lately?

As we know, Germans refer to a television show or movie with an upbeat ending as "Happy End," as in Ein familienfreundlicher Film mit Happy End! 

That’s the good feelin’ the makers of this consumer product are trying to evoke:


Yes, it’s toilet paper. As Homer Simpson might say, it works on so many levels!

[photographed on-location in a bathroom in Frankfurt, Germany]

“Esra”: Forbidden Forever

I’m a bit late in getting around to this, but the German Federal Constitutional Court has issued a decision confirming (G) a lower court’s ban on German novelist Maxim Biller’s novel "Esra." The book revolves around the relationship of two figures named Esra and Adam, a first-person narrator, and was closely modeled on Biller’s personal life. The problem, from the perspective of German law, was that Biller inserted a very big clef into this roman a clef — his novel-girlfriend was identified as the winner of a German film prize, and her mother as the winner of an alternative Nobel Prize — which was also true of his real life girlfriend. 

"Esra" and her mother sued, and won.  The high court’s 5-3 majority (decision (G); summary in press-release format (G)) held that because Biller described personal crises the ex-girlfriend faced and "intimate sexual practices," the novel intruded into the "private sphere" of the real-life person on which the character of Esra was based. So, unless you already have a copy of this novel, you won’t be getting to read it anytime soon. The court also noted that Biller mentioned facts that would have made the woman easily recognizable to a wide pool of persons. In fact, working from the facts mentioned in the court’s opinion, you can find out her name in about 30 seconds of Internet research. (A useful reminder that most lawsuits are filed for symbolic reasons, not to achieve a practical goal…)

Three judges dissented, in two opinions. They attacked the majority’s test for determining the extent to which a fictional character was based on a real one as unworkable: all art, they write, is a "transformation of the real into new realities," and judges are poorly-suited to determine whether an author has undertaken the legally appropriate degree of transformation. The dissenters also objected to the majority’s focus on descriptions of sexual intimacy; since the reader never knows exactly what aspects of a novel are the author’s pure invention, they might not necessarily immediately conlude the character in the novel had actually performed these acts.  Both decisions, say the dissenters, are ones that judges are ill-suited to make; two dissenters even suggest that under the majority’s rule, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther would have been banned.

I tend to agree with the majority opinion here. The longer I live in Germany, the more sympathy I develop for legal rules that protect the private lives of ordinary citizens. These rules seem to have a strong Signalwirkung in Germany; in that the respectable press shies away from reporting details of public figures’ intimate lives to a much greater extent than in the United States, where even the biggest newspapers run columns analyzing politicians’ weight, hairstyle, home decoration taste, and even preference in underwear. Some people see this American obsession with personality trivia as a harmless distraction, but I think history, over the past six years or so, has shown that it can have grave world-historical consequences.

Of course, the laws themselves are the product of cultural factors. As the article I quoted a few weeks ago shows, even in daily interaction, Germans keep many aspects of their private lives to themselves, and therefore understand the rationale of laws that help them do this.  Another point in favor of the majority opinion is the ease with which Biller could have changed some of the details in the novel.  Because of the details Biller discusses, it’s not just the small circle of people who knew Biller would be able to identify the character.  That’s the risk anyone who sleeps with a writer takes. What Biller did revealed the woman’s identity to the much larger pool of people who know who won the German film prize in that particular year.  Finally, on an aesthetic note, I find novels in which writers neurotically dissect their personal lives kind of superfluous, so anything that discourages more of them can’t be all bad.  Here, I note that Biller very unwisely sent his ex-lover a copy of the book saying he wrote it "only for you" to show the woman how much he loved her.  The majority couldn’t help citing this fact on the first page of its opinion.

But, the American in me can never get used to the idea of banning a book (rather than awarding money damages after the fact), and the dissenters do make a pretty convincing case for what, in American constitutional law, would be called the "chilling effect" of the majority’s rule.  You probably don’t want novelists constantly looking over their own shoulders, monitoring whether they have altered enough details of a particular character who could be mistaken for a real person, and the majority’s rule would seem to bring about just this situation.

So, to sum up, if I could be split into 8 different people, I would rule just as the court did: 5-3.

Welcome to the Bee Bunker

Most German cities have a pedestrian zone lined with bars and fast-food joints where certain locals go to get sozzled on weekend nights. These pedestrian zones range from the reasonably charming to…Moenchengladbach.  Most of the bars in Moenchengladbachs’ Waldhaueserstrasse look like the kind of places that will greet you with the stench of ammonia and stale cigarette smoke once you open the door, but the bunker-like ‘Bee Basket Night Club’ takes the cake for uninvitingness:


Note the stains near the bottom of the walls, almost certainly caused by decades of human and canine — but mostly human — urination.

Kind of makes you wonder what exactly goes on inside there, doesn’t it? (Don’t answer that).

Let’s Rap at Erich Fromm Square

What comes to mind when you think of the psychoanalytical thinker and best-selling pop-psychologist Erich Fromm (G)? The answer probably differs depending on whether you’re German or American. His books were very, very popular in the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S., even (or especially) among the suburban bohemian-bourgeois.

Thus, the name Erich Fromm, for me, conjures wood-paneled living rooms in Colorado or California, in which young, well-educated people with feathered haircuts rapped about society and their needs. Thus it seems logical that Erich Fromm Square in Frankfurt:


Looks like this:


In other words, it looks like a wood-panelled "encounter" room from a psychoanalytical institute somewhere in in the American West, circa 1975, transferred to the middle of Frankfurt. Not a bad idea, that.  Although I have to say: if you’re going to put a blatantly phallic fountain in the middle of a public square dedicated to a psychoanalytical thinker, couldn’t you at least make it a little larger?

On a more alienated and technological note, here’s a shot of the Main promenade and the Frankfurt skyline by night:


And if you were looking for the more wonderful side of global warming, here’s a topless sunbather in Grueneberg park — in October!


Kitsch Delimited

From The American Prospect (of all places):

“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass. The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! The second tear makes kitsch kitsch.”

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

I think Kundera has it right. It’s not the naked content of the image or book or painting that makes it kitsch, it’s the sense that whoever created it is striving toward a particular effect, or trying to force the viewer’s reaction into some kind of reactive channel (usually, inoffensive wholesomeness).

Two conclusions follow: not all sentimentality is kitsch, and some things that are kitsch can nevertheless be appreciated for their non-kitschy qualities. The Cavalia show, for instance. Perhaps even Andre Rieu.* Of course, in order to extract the non-kitschy ‘genuine’ pleasure from these kitschy experiences, you’ll need to make sure everyone knows you are doing so. The dilemma is further explored here.

* Warning: both websites play music. Which, itself, is a sure sign of Netkitsch.

Manners in 1982


I found this at a bookstall in Frankfurt this weekend: Manners Today: Recommendations of the Special Committee for Manners. The Special Committee of the German Dance Instructors’ Association, that is. It was published in 1982, but its advice is timeless. Expect generous excerpts in the coming days! 

The Lynchian Tower of French Invincibility


Nicolas Sarkozy and David Lynch, shortly after Lynch was made (G) an Officer of the French Legion of Honor. David Lynch is venerated across Europe, and this is one cultural preference that I endorse without reserve.

I’m thrilled to know that this honor went to the man who directed ‘Eraserhead,’ the most unsettling film ever made.  To paraphrase Tom Jones, if the miasmic swamp-eroticism of ‘Eraserhead’ doesn’t turn you on, you ain’t got no buttons. If it doesn’t horrify you, you’re probably a psychopath. A film that has changed thousands of lives (including my own) and probably ended some, as well.

After the ceremony, Lynch quite sensibly "suggested to the French president to build ‘an invincible tower in Paris’ to make the country and its president ‘unconquerable.’"

In heaven, everything is fine. You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine.