Words are important.
I am just at the end of a short speaking tour of Germany where I have been giving lectures about Trollope’s life and works to local groups of the Deutsch-Englischen Gesellschaft in the Nord Rhein Westfalen region – the great industrial heartland of the Ruhr which has produced the nations coal and steel.
In the talks I sought to demonstrate how Trollope’s traumatic childhood experiences of the poverty brought on by his father’s bankruptcy affected him profoundly and how the tireless example of his mother, writing novel after novel to keep the family finances afloat, provided the model for his own industrious production line approach to writing. I have attempted to show how this acknowledgment in his posthumously published Autobiography by Trollope of his commercialism – that he was writing primarily to make money – ran counter to romantic ideals of the artist inspired to create his art and so led to the decline in his critical standing in the years following his death.
So far so conventional.
I have, however, gone further and argued that once his financial security was assured, Trollope, in his later style, became much more adventurous and experimental in his subject matter. While not turning his back on the need to provide happy romantic plots he was also tackling controversial topics such as prostitution in The Vicar of Bullhampton, marital breakdown in He Knew He Was Right, and bigamy in Dr Wortle’s School and John Caldigate. He was also venturing into new genres. The last two mentioned novels include elements of clue based detective fiction more than a decade before Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes appearance with, for example, the innocence of a character being proven when the investigator discovers vital evidence has been forged because the purported date of a letter being posted is prior to the date on which the stamp affixed to the envelope was first produced.
I conclude my talks with reference to Trollope’s venture into dystopian science fiction The Fixed Period which includes euthanasia and provides the blueprint for Hollywood movies such as Blade Runner and Logan’s Run.
I seek to demonstrate that in his quiet approach to the human consequences of these and other social ills on his very real, sympathetically drawn characters Trollope is as sigificant a commentator and social critic as Dickens without resorting to standing on a soapbox and haranguing his audience on the matter as Dickens was prone to do.
I hope, from the responses that I have received from the audiences, that my words have had the desired effect and will influence them to investigate Trollope who is little read in Germany where translations of all but his most popular novels are hard to come by.
When I mentioned, before embarking on the speaking tour, that I was coming to Germany for this purpose, a friend asked me whether I spoke German. I replied that the talks would be delivered in English to members of an Anglo-German cultural exchange group who were effectively bi-lingual and used to hearing speakers in English and that my comnand of German was only adequate for polite small talk – good enough to get me into trouble but not good enough to get me out again.
As if to demonstrate this, on my arrival in Dusseldorf, I was met at the airport by the president of the Essen group, with whom I had exchanged a couple of emails only to arrange how we should recognise each other at the arrivals hall. He drove me into Essen and let me out of the car at the hotel entrance with my hand luggage for me to check in while he parked the car and brought in my suitcase from the boot of the car.
“Guten Abend, Herr Doktor Green.” Said the receptioist in the very correct, formal way that is polite between Germans when meeting strangers. In my schoolboy German I then negotiated the signing of the hotel register, getting my key and being told that my room was on the first floor.
I then stood waiting in the hotel lobby. The receptionist looked at me.
“Was ist dann los? Kann ich Sie hilfen?” She enquired.
“Ich muss fur mein Freund Bernhard warten.” I replied. “Er kommt mit dem Gepack.”
I saw a look of panic cross the receptionist’s face.
“Aber Herr Doktor Green, das Zimmer ist nur fur ein Person!”
And it was at that point I realised the full implications of what I had said. To talk of a person by his first name only was very relaxed and implied a long and close relationship. I would have been more correct in this German context, but most unfriendly in an English social context, to have referred to him as “Herr Doktor So and So” (you always give people their academic title if they have earned it as an indication of the proper respect for learning in Germany). And the word “Freund” is sufficiently ambiguous to encompass the concept of boyfriend especially when used in conjunction with a first name only with reference to him bringing in the single suitcase.
I was, I recognised, in deep and embarrassing trouble from which it was certainly beyond the power of my schoolboy German to extricate myself and from which I was only rescued by Bernhard’s arrival with the case and a clarifying explanation of what had happened. Such is the power of words. Especially words in translation. Even more so where the translation is inexpert.
The speaking tour has coincided with Theresa May’s speech in which she finally confirmed that Britain was expecting to negotiate a hard Brexit from the European Union. Needless to say this approach has met with dismay amongst my audiences on the tour, comprising as they do members of a group devoted to the promotion of Anglo-German cultural exchange. My ice-breaker opening line that I am pleased to be able to come and address them now before I have to get a visa to visit has invariably raised a laugh but there have been earnest discussions over dinners and drinks about the implications.
I have found myself explaining how a British Prime Minister, in the face of the evidence that a hard Brexit will have potentially significant adverse economic consequences for Britain, would for reasons of short term political expediency decide to cut off Britain’s nose to spite its economic face, with the apparent consent of the majority of Brits who voted on the matter. I pointed out that she was simply accepting the Realpolitik: that the UK population’s desire to restrict immigration and breach the principle of freedom of movement meant that the 27 other EU countries would never allow the UK, under those conditions, to have unfettered access to the single market. It is better for her to take that as read from the outset than attempt to overcome it and reveal any weakness by then failing to do so.
The other external event this week which overshadowed the tour was the impending inauguration of Donald Trump as the new president of the United States. On the day of my arrival he tweeted that NATO was obsolete. This was translated by the German press in the lunchtime news broadcasts using the almost identical German word “obsolet”. However, this word in German has strong connotations of being superfluous to requirements rather losing the English sense of being out of date and needing to be overhauled and updated which is implied in its use by a native English speaker.
Bernhard (remember him!) contacted the newsdesk and explained this misconstruction in their translation and suggested an alternative German word “veraltet” (approximating to the English word “aged”) should be used which better captured the correct nuances of the English term. He was cock-a-hoop when the evening news bulletin indeed went out using his proposed alternative word.
Rightly, he argued that it was even more imperative when dealing with a new and important figure on the international srtage, one of whom there is a great deal of apprehension and suspicion in Germany and other allies of the USA, that there should be the greatest care taken in ensuring the true interpretation of his words (however casually they may appear to be tossed out) in order to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and divisions between allies.
Words, in this context of international relations, are more than just important. They are matters of life and death.