Saturday, November 08, 2008

German ways of expressing optimism

One of my favourite things when travelling and interacting people from other cultures is observing differences in conversational conventions -- and (most importantly) different forms and perceptions of "conversational humor". Aside from comedic protocol screw-ups (e.g. literally translating an essentially untranslateable expression to another language, earning -- at best -- puzzled looks and -- at worst -- thoroughly offending the conversation partner), it often provides interesting insights into one's own culture and habits.

This weeks special: German forms of expressing optimism.

There are many expressions in German that are horribly difficult to translate.

One of my favourites that could cause confusion is the German custom of wishing people luck by wishing them "Hals- und Beinbruch!" (literally: 'broken neck and broken leg') or 'Kopf- und Bauchschuss' (literally: 'shot in the head and stomach') or (for sailors) 'Mast- und Schotbruch' (literally: 'broken mast and ripped sail') upon parting.
A common reply for this would be "wird schon schiefgehen" (literally: 'I have no doubt it's going to go badly'). Counterintuitively, the semantics of this is optimistic -- e.g. whoever says that things are going to turn out badly indicates by this that he is not worried, and that he actually expects that things will be fine.

In essence, one expresses optimism by claiming that an improbably horrible outcome is a near-certainty.

Even though I try hard to not have an all-too-obvious German accent any more, I do catch myself all the time in using the above pattern, even though it does not translate. I (deservedly) earned puzzled looks today by clumsily attempting to use the following German saying to indicate my optimism about the future:

"Lächle und sei froh, sagten sie mir, denn es könnte schlimmer kommen. Und ich lächelte und war froh, und es kam schlimmer."

This has a certain elegance in German, which is totally lost in my clumsy translation:

"Smile and be happy, they told me, because things could be a lot worse. So I smiled and was happy, and things got a lot worse."

Aside from the clumsiness of the expression when translated, the semantics (e.g. the intention to express optimism) was thoroughly lost -- the effect was a thoroughly puzzled and slightly worried look by my conversation partner. I think it is situations like these where Germans earn their bad reputation for being thoroughly unfunny.

Other things that are good for causing confusion between a native English speaker who interacts with someone from the German-speaking world are differences when it comes to acceptable replies to the question "How are you ?". The usual form of this in German is "Wie gehts ?", essentially "How is it going ?". In the English speaking world, acceptable replies seem to be restricted to "good", "good good", or "great".

Proper replies to the question "How is it going" over here would be:
"Muss." -- literal translation: 'it has to somehow'
"Naja, ganz ok." -- 'well... ok ...'
"Könnte schlechter/besser gehen" -- 'could be worse/better'
"Bergauf" or "Bergab" -- uphill / downhill

If the other party feels inclined to have a longer chat, they could reply with
"Yesterday, we stood on a cliff. Today we have advanced by a significant step."
or "Katastrophe". This is usually followed with a short anecdote or complaint about something work-related. From a social perspective, this does wonders as an ice-breaker.

Whenever I catch myself in such a situation, I realize that no matter how much one travels, and no matter how much time one spends in a different cultural climate, certain components of the social interaction are nigh-impossible to change.

Anyhow, time to go to sleep.


dan said...

I think I somehow managed to become an expert at comedic protocol screw-ups. I love the English form of humor and I found that it can be the perfect ice-breaker when used abroad, or you can really look like a jerk and offend people who are not culturally geared for silly/absurd conversations.

Oh by the way I'm French. Why do you think I have this outrageous accent, you silly king?

Cd-MaN said...

I always found that knowing multiple languages essentially "extends" your set of metaphors. This is why (when possible) I prefer to interact in people's first language, even if they know my first language (which not many do :-)).

Troff said...

Break a leg!

halvar.flake said...

@johan: Good point, I should've thought of that.

Unknown said...

He, that's funny, it reminds me of a conversation I had with Niko when he came down under regarding greetings. In general, when people greets you here, they don't care really for your answer, they don't even necessarily expect a reply at all, UNLESS they are close friends and relatives. Being French, I usually wouldn't ask unless I cared (and then expect the same kind of conversation than in German), instead I would use a simple Hi, hello or equivalent. Anyway, Niko ended up to comment that they asked too much how he was doing wherever he went, to which I told him he could always reply "Why do you want to know?" ;). That being said, I usually reply "Good, what about you?" which will prove that you can't help yourself even when you know it doesn't matter.

As for expression translated literally, I guess French ones blend rather well, I never really had a total blank look yet. The contrary is not true though, some expression I heard here made me rather puzzled.

Anyway, the way I see it, it just makes the conversation more interesting, I guess you have to make sure to explain what you meant unless you like leaving a mystery in the air ;).


jmullee said...

a more idiomatic translation:

"cheer up, it could be worse!"
- so I cheered up - and it /was/ worse ;)