Berlin Now Suitable for Foreign Tourists

And now, a meandering travelogue from Berlin.  I will be boarding a jet plane and flying to Big Sky Country on Sunday, so posting will be intermittent until January 7.

Berlin looks more prosperous and bourgeois everytime I visit; the days of the urban frontier seem to be as long gone as the days when cattle were kept inside the rear courtyards.  No more intentionally-created social burning points, only the old-fashioned kind.  But there’s still the occasional strolling madwoman screaming something about the minimum wage to leaven the mix of foreign tourists on their way to the next Blue Man Group performance:


Also pretty suitable is Tacheles (G), a gigantic building in Mitte which has been a shopping arcade, a "House of Technology," a National Socialist party complex devoted to fostering "work-culture" through such programs as the "Beauty of Work" office, and a prison for French POWs.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall, artists colonized the decrepit structure and turned into a graffiti-covered Gesamtkunstwerk which was, inevitably, eventually officially recognized by city authorities.  There are some nice views inside, such as down the dizzying stairwell:


A harrowing story of feline abuse has been painted on the bottom of one of these flights:


An unsettling evocation of an urban legend that has become a staple of German mythologizing about lawsuit abuse (the spoilsport in me just has to point out that it never happened).  The poem would appear to be a parody of some famous German poem I should probably recognize, but don’t.

Then it was on to the Polish Losers’ Club (Club der polnischen Versager (G)).  This was the subject of a loving evocation by sometime GJ contributor Ed Philp some months back.  It lived up to its reputation — full of losers like us!  As we nursed our Tyskie beers, one of the owners, Adam, engaged us in conversation.  At one point, for some delightful reason, he donned a gas mask.  It was nice, probably almost as nice as December 1st, when Piotr, another Club personality, promised to be the "perfect host" and engage everyone who wandered into the club in a conversation that would last "at least 20 minutes."

The decor includes a gigantic clam-shell for the DJ which, like all the other furnishings, was rescued from some trash-pile somewhere:


To the left of the clamshell, barely visible, you see a poetess sprawled on a chair.  No, she’s not sleeping — she’s waiting for an afflatus, which came every 10 minutes or so, and resulted in another line being scrawled hastily into her notebook.  Writers, who thrive where it’s cheap, are still a decorative feature of Berlin life.  In the bar of the Tilsiter Lichtspiele (Lichtspiele = "light-plays," an antique term for movie theater), one of them pulled a mouldering volume out of his Crumpler bag and made notes about it, while we more social types chatted about matters that surely struck him as irritatingly superficial. 

The Tilsiter Lichtspiele, by the way, is a movie theater in Friedrichshain that’s been there since the 1920s.  During East German times, the Tilsiter was a Volkseigener Betrieb, an untranslatable German phrase that means, roughly, an independent concern owned, in some mysterious way, by the people of the East German state.  Perhaps according to Section 223(a) of the Collective Ownership Provisions of the Third Law Governing Socialist Property Relations of February 23, 1958, as interpreted by Section 24(f) of the Regulation Ordinance of 1959 promulagated by the Friedrichshain Undersecretariat for Fulfillment of Planning Objectives.  A homely but gemuetlich bar in front leads to the theater.  Once inside, you walk carefully down a creaking flight of wooden steps beside the aisles.  The steps seem to each be of slightly different lengths, which makes the whole thing look like a movie theater your daddy built in his workshop on weekends.  The most prized seats are halfway back, in front of tables where you can set your drinks and slowly fill the ashtrays.

We also dropped by Henne (G),  a restaurant in Kreuzberg that serves one dish: chickens fried in milk batter.  The outside crust is smooth and crackly, with lots of delectable batter-only peninsulas.  The meat was so juicy and tender that I felt almost guilty about crushing it between my hard, cold teeth.  But I did.  On the walls hung deer antlers, a letter from John F. Kennedy announcing his regret at having to cancel a planned visit, and oil paintings almost completely obscured by the smoke of millions of cigarettes.  Plus, "Die letzte Mark."  Lots of bars in Germany have things like this.  It’s usually a wooden box with slits in the front.  Sometimes, the slits are numbered after the days of the month, some have the names of pub regulars on them.  They seem to be part of some sort of lottery system whereby every so often, one of the days or pub regulars is chosen, and gets all the money in the machine.  I wish I knew more about this, but everytime I’ve asked someone about ones of these boxes in a bar here, he’s been too drunk to explain it coherently (commenters, a little help here?). 

And then off to the Berlin Philharmonic.  We got the cheap seats on the podium, where the choir usually sits.  Dimitry Kitaenko conducted an all-Russian program with verve and precision.  Given the cloud of billowing white hair that crowns his 67-year-old head, you’d expect Kitaenko to have gesticulated himself into a lather.  In fact, he was all business, flipping his baton only when absolutely necessary, and often with clinical, almost robotic precision. I know because I saw him from the front, like the members of the orchestra.  22-year-old Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan played a blistering Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto, a bit too earnestly for this reviewer (G), but not for me.  Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonic building (G), which has never impressed me much from the outside, offers dozens of playfully crooked perspectives during each traverse of the foyer, and (after a little help) succulent acoustics.  A nice picture-panorama can be seen here.

I’ll leave you with a picture of the dome of the restored Neue Synagoge in the Oranienburger Strasse.  If you look closely, you can see the pigeons sitting on the Star of David.  My friend said "They should electrify it."


The Dangerously Non-Dangerous Book for Boys

In 2006, a British father and son wrote The Dangerous Book for Boys.  It’s supposed to evoke those long-past days when, instead of vegetating for hours in front of glimmering consoles, young boys dreamed of adventure, played outside, and sometimes got hurt.  It had information on Antarctic explorers, famous historical battles, building catapults, tying knots, navigating in the woods.  Plus anecdotes about bone-crushing sports and their heroes.  And some sections on history and honor and loyalty and other old-fashioned virtues. It sounds like a kind of updated Boy Scout manual.  I should note that I haven’t read the book.  As will shortly become clear, this post isn’t really about the book’s contents.

The book was a success in Britain, and soon an American version came out.  Some changes were made — mainly removing Britain-specific themes like rugby, and adding in more references to American history. 

Now, the German version is here (G).  But wait — we wouldn’t want to make Germany a dangerous place, would we?  No, we wouldn’t.  So the entire chapter on historical battles has been removed, as has the "Brief History of Artillery."  The Ten Commandments has been replaced by — wait for it — an essay on international human rights.  Any mention of rabbit hunting is also gone.  The first reviewer (G) on the page is disgusted: "[T]he English version was so successful because, among other reasons, it addressed subjects that run contrary to the gobbeldygook of ‘peace education’, and which boys would actually find interesting, at least in secret."

I’m with him.  These changes do at least two impermissible things.  First of all, they alter the contents of the book.  This is the capital crime, the cardinal sin, of the translator’s art. It would be equivalent to me translating a German novel and substituting all the sex scenes with uplifting homilies to chastity, because I personally believed that people like the ones portrayed in the novel shouldn’t be having sex.  Second, the ‘opinion elite’ sense of privilege seems to have struck again.  The changes were not made because the original references would not be understood in Germany (which would be a legitimate reason, given authorial consent), but simply to ‘disappear’ aspects of the book which might make the average German literary professional uneasy.  The chapter on human rights is especially ludicrous.  What, a reasonable 12-year-old boy might ask, is so bloody dangerous about human rights?

These changes reflect almost unimaginable self-aggrandizement, I would say.  Whatever German literary professional made these changes expressed the unmistakable belief that his values and his sensibilities are more legitimate than those of his audience.  The fact that many people may have bought this book precisely because it’s the kind of book that might have information about battles seems to be irrelevant.  The changes also reflect a fundamental distrust of the public — boys are being denied information about battles presumably because they might end up wanting to fight them.  I rather doubt that would happen, but who am I to question the immortal wisdom of a German editor?

I don’t want to be too hasty assigning blame here.  I don’t know whether the translator himself was responsible for any or all of these changes.  And if the authors approved them or instigated them, then I suppose we’ve just got to grit our teeth and accept it.  I have send off an email to the authors to see whether they know of these changes. I’ll let you know what I find out.

UPDATE: I got a nice response from one of the authors of the book.  He said that he understood there would be some changes to the book to make it more suitable for a German audience, but that he was not aware of the extent of the changes and did not approve them.  He said he would be complaining to the publishers. 

I should note that negotiating translation rights is a complex business.  It’s always good to keep in mind that authors may have less control over translations than the lay public might think.

Quote of the Day: Dividing Humanity

Continuing with the Prussian Virtues theme:

"The most radical division it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves."

— Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (quotation found here).

Fritz Stern on US-German Relations

Scott Horton interviews Fritz Stern in Harper’s:

German-American relations have seen their ups and downs over the last fifty years—I can still remember Helmut Schmidt complaining bitterly about Jimmy Carter’s unpredictability—but I can’t remember a time when German confidence in its trans-Atlantic ally was ever quite as low as this. Recently we even had Schmidt suggesting in an interview with ‘Die Zeit’ that given the choice between the Bush White House and the Putin Kremlin, the latter seemed safer and more predictable. A shocking statement. Do you see an easy path to the restoration of good relations between Berlin and Washington once George W. Bush is gone? What do you see as the flashpoints for the relationship now?

[Stern:] I doubt that the bilateral relationship on the governmental level will ever be as close again as it was during the cold war or even as it was right after September 11. Germany has to consider its European links and, increasingly, its links to Russia and Asia. The prerequisite to better relations would have to be the de facto abandonment of American unilateralism.

[h/t Koch]

Danish Disfigurement of Mainz

I visited Mainz last weekend to see Mahler’s Second played (outstandingly) by the Sinfonietta Mainz.  During a pre-concert stroll, I couldn’t help noticing this gigantic building, placed directly on the banks of the Rhine:


The somber monotony of the concrete outer shell, the gloomy dark-brown metallic side-grills (an unmistakable reference to fences and prison-cell bars), the bunker-like shape of the whole  — all mark this as one of Germany’s many grim memorials to the victims of National Socialism.

Oh wait, no, it’s the Mainz City Hall (G).  Designed in 1973 (when else?) by two Danish architects.  In fact, Mainz has taken a large part of its waterfront and old town and drenched it in concrete buildings that look just like this one.  You can read a spirited defense of this mass of concrete and brown metal here (G).

I’m not buying it.  Mainz as a whole may have its charms (nice cathedral), but its Rhine frontage, — which also features a large, ugly Hilton hotel — is hideous.  Mainz has the ugliest city hall I’ve seen since leaving Boston.