German reading project

Thoughts: Wer Fürchtet den Tod, by Nnedi Okorafor, translated by Claudia Kern

Right, let’s skip the apology for taking so long and just assume it at the beginning of every post, OK? OK.

Another German book, but this time with a twist – it was translated FROM English INTO German! The English title is Who Fears Death. To everyone who read it in English, I apologise in advance for anything I misunderstood because of my imperfect German! I haven’t read the English version.

Also there are spoilers coming!

I was really nervous about this one – it’s a brick, and not just a brick but a sci fi brick, and not just a sci fi brick but a post-apocalyptic African sci fi brick, and my knowledge of the African continent is embarrassingly embryonic, and combined with my child-German I was legitimately worried that it would impair my understanding.

But happy news! Wer Fürchtet den Tod is really clearly written, and the language didn’t impair my understanding. I have skimmed a few Goodreads reviews just to make sure I didn’t miss anything major, and there are a few complaints about the simplicity of the language, but you know what? It really helped me out, so I’m grateful for it.

It occupies this really weird space, half post-nuclear war and half pure fairytale. The scenery and world are very detailed and the images strong, but there are pure fairytale, almost magical details. The main character, Onyesonwu, is a shapeshifter, and her mother can’t speak any higher than a whisper since she was raped (and Onyesonwu conceived), which I couldn’t help seeing symbolism in. The way a lot of the tech is described means it basically functions in the narrative as magic, even when it’s based on real technology. For instance, the device they use to get water from the ambient air is described in the same way as a fantasy novel would describe something magical, and yet something about it recalls (to this white Brit) inventions you’d see shared in Facebook video adverts, designed to make life easier in the developing world. You know the type of thing? Some of the tech had that type of feel – real and rooted to the setting. The book straddled a really interesting line.

It deals with weaponised rape, child soldiers, light-skin/dark-skin discrimination, structural misogyny and FGM, so it’s not an easy or lighthearted read (I learned a lot of words, LET ME TELL YOU), but it’s a powerful one. The way Okorafor deals with FGM in particular is really complex and nuanced. I don’t think any one book should bear the responsibility of being the be-all and end-all of debate about an issue, but I’ve never seen FGM dealt with ever at all in spec fic, and Okorafor has made an incredible contribution to that conversation which needs to be had.

Firstly, FGM is a coming-of-age ritual in the place Onyesonwu and her mother have ended up after her (beautifully drawn) childhood in the desert, and as an outsider both in terms of being new to the village and being mixed race and therefore automatically despised, Onyesonwu wants to belong as much as she can and she sneaks out of her house against her mother’s wishes to participate in the ritual. The other girls who have come of age in the same year as her are all bound together with her by this ritual in a strong friendship. It’s almost a community-building or reinforcing thing, and the village elder women make it look really attractive too, offering a safe space to discuss sex and also taking on themselves the protection of Binta, one of the girls, who has been repeatedly raped by her father.

But it doesn’t last – their intervention with Binta’s father is ineffectual, and the ritual has magically (literally by magic, I mean) destroyed all pleasure in sex for the girls until they marry, which they only realise later. In the end, the injustice of placing the burden of community morals on the unconsenting girls is unignorable, as is the violation of the way in which it’s done.

I do agree with some of the other reviews’ complaints about the middle – the journey does wander a bit, and petty squabbling between the characters overshadows the bigger picture a few times. The end gets a bit mad, but that’s something I enjoy in an ending, to be honest, so your mileage may vary.

Definitely recommend this one, both for the story and for any German learners looking for some practice!

German Reading Project: Der Kleine Prinz, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, translated by Grete and Josef Leitgeb

A whole book this time, and not just chapters! Der Kleine Prinz is both short enough and simply written enough that I managed it without too much heartache.

My general German skills update: I’m improving in some ways and stalling in others. I can almost contribute to iai conversations (depending on what they’re about). I’ve stopped freaking out so much about not being able to express things, and will try (in friendly situations…). My writing is abysmal. My listening is not horrendous. My speaking (on a good day) can get away with a lot. My reading is trundling along, but I should read more. I’ve come up to the point where I basically just have to sit and learn grammar points. It’s the first plateau and the easiest one to overcome, but urghhhh articles are stupid and cases are stupid and why is everything.

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German Reading Project: Die Tribute Von Panem by Suzanne Collins, chapter 24

Rereading The Hunger Games so closely, I really have to hand it to Collins. She brings across the sheer injustice, the unfairness of life in Panem, without ever overtly saying “this is unfair”. That is “show not tell”ing. Katniss’s ability to outsmart trouble in the Arena is behaviour that wins her admiration and praise from her Capitol watchers, but when she gets around the rule change suddenly it’s not so cute. Essentially what happens is that the Gamemakers position themselves as a threat within the confines of the Arena, and they don’t like it when they’re treated in the appropriate way (the way that they themselves have driven all these kids to react to such threats, no less).

What makes this twist stand out is that Katniss has all this time never entertained political thoughts. She’s overtly non-political, as we saw on the rooftop of the training centre. It’s not treated as a poke in the eye to the Capitol, but as a pure survival tactic, and that it proceeds to be punished so ruthlessly is what makes the world of Panem feel so horrendous. It’s a good evocation of a totalitarian world that really rules by terror, and in particular the kind of terror that relies on a network of arbitrary invisible rules, the least infringement of which will result in dire consequences for anyone even remotely connected.

I’d also say this is why so much other (recent) YA dystopian fic fails. They try to emulate the Hunger Games, but only the spectacle. All circus, no bread. It’s all about tests and competition-to-the-death, and no one else has managed to capture the fear that Collins evokes so well. No other YA revolution fic that I’ve read has managed to capture the sheer grubbiness of how Panem is won back, the fakery, the lies, the way Katniss is manipulated from beginning to end – and is punished even there for going off-script. God damn, what a good book series. Even with the later worldbuilding issues, it’s pretty fantastic.

Anyway, this is all far in the future. In Chapter 24 we’re still in the Arena, feeling vaguely bad for accidentally poisoning Foxface/Fuchsgesicht and being herded towards Cato…

Best word:

Lunte riechen: to smell a rat (or literally, smell a fuse/match? I guess as though someone’s just lit a bomb fuse? Incidentally, die Lunte is also a fox brush, appropriate for talking of Foxface.)

German Reading Project: Die Tribute Von Panem by Suzanne Collins, chapter 23

I’m sort of fudging a bit here. I didn’t take Die Tribute on holiday with me because I wouldn’t have had a dictionary without bothering Spuggy every two minutes and it would have been more hassle than it was worth. Also, I felt like I had enough homework to do what with the editing of my own story. So I’ll cut it back down to one chapter between English books, just so I don’t let too much time get between me and them.

I know, I know, I just love arbitrary rules. They help me get things done.

Best word of chapter 23:

naschen: to nibble. Reminds me of Gnasher.

And in Hunger Games-specific words, this chapter gives us the famous nightlock – or der Nachtriegel. This time the German has gone for a very literal approach, “nacht” meaning “night”, and “riegel” meaning… “lock”. The English reference to nightshade/hemlock is mostly lost (nightshade is der Nachtschatten and hemlock is der Schierling, or die Hemlocktanne for the hemlock spruce) but the literal name is still pretty effective, I think.

German Reading Project: Die Tribute Von Panem by Suzanne Collins, Chapters 19 & 20

Almost caught up with my little backlog again. More words than usual, because these chapters had lots of good words.

Chapter 19

ein Aussätziger: a leper. A useful word to know! …OK this is why I can’t hold a conversation in German.

ausgezeichnet: excellent. Like in Bill and Ted’s Ausgezeichnet Adventure! I’m joking. In true German fashion, the actual film is called Bill & Teds verrückte Reise durch die Zeit.

zimperlich: squeamish. A word that is legitimately good to know when reading these chapters of Die Tribute Von Panem.

Chapter 20

munter: energetic. One of those words that means very different things in German and English

das Tohuwabohu: hullabaloo!

Dickköpfig: obstinate. What else?

German Reading Project: Die Tribute Von Panem by Suzanne Collins, Chapters 16, 17 & 18

A threefor! Since my phone broke, it’s been harder to distract myself from reading on public transport, and I also noticed that if I finished chapter 18 I could finish off Teil 2 of the book, so I pushed on through.

Best words:

Chapter 16:

das Dickicht: thicket. You can almost see how it fits together!

Chapter 17:

grummeln: to chunter

This is also the chapter where I looked up the word “blind” Just In Case. It means “blind”!

Chapter 18:

die Niedergeschlagenheit: despondency. Fulfils the need for both super long word, and Hunger Games-specific word!

Confession time: Rue’s lullaby is in this chapter and it made me sort of giggle. Like, it’s mostly done well, and it rhymes, but the third line of each stanza just feels like too many syllables squished into one place. It makes me think of this song because apparently I am Satan.

German Reading Project: Die Tribute Von Panem by Suzanne Collins, chapters 14 & 15

Well, this little project suddenly feels a lot more urgent.

So, Chapter 14/15 is the trackerjacker part, full of gross words, and also the Rue part, full of heartwarming words.

Best words:

Chapter 14:

die Jägerwespe: trackerjacker. I… much prefer this to the English term. Anyone who’s ever talked with me about The Hunger Games probably knows that my biggest problem with the series (and it’s not a big problem, in the grand scheme of things) is the naming. I am not a fan. Jägerwespe (hunter wasp) may be a more boring name, but it’s also the kind of thing that people might conceivably call something. And fine, Collins was a children’s writer before she was a YA writer, which might explain her direction, but whatever, personal opinions!

eitrig: purulent. Just because I feel like it would be dishonest to not highlight a gross word in a chapter like this.

Chapter 15:

die Heckenkirsche: honeysuckle. I like that it starts with “hecken”!

das Moos: moss. Moos!

German Reading Project: Die Tribute Von Panem by Suzanne Collins, chapters 12 & 13

It’s all water and fire in these chapters!

Favourite words!

Chapter 12

hinken: to limp. It just sounds like that’s what it should mean!

Chapter 13

das Stinktier: skunk. Come on, need I say more?

German Reading Project: Die Tribute Von Panem by Suzanne Collins, Chapters 8 & 9

I’ve got to the stage where reading a single chapter isn’t taking me days and days anymore, and anyone who’s ever read The Hunger Games will know that there’s a tipping point where the story stops being merely compelling and becomes furiously magnetic, so I’m going to read two chapters between English-language books now. Finishing Chapter 9 took me to the end of Teil 1: Die Tribute and into Teil 2: Die Spiele, so exciting stuff!

Favourite words are:

Chapter 9

die Schwippgalgenfalle: a twitch-up trap. The best part of German is the long, unpronounceable words, am I right? I had to look this one up in English too, mind.

Chapter 10

smaragdgrün: emerald green. I just love the word “smaragd”. It’s just so unlike all other German words, and the internet tells me this is because it comes from Latin – but “smaragdus” sounds weird for Latin as well. And the internet tells me this is because it comes from Greek, and… I know nothing about Greek so can’t comment. What a great word. I want to shout it while toasting with tankards of mead. Smaragd!

German Reading Project: Die Tribute Von Panem by Suzanne Collins, Chapter 7

Reading in a second language you’re not very good at yet is an intense experience. I wonder if this is what it was like to learn to read in English when I was young. I know I can’t learn to speak or understand in the same way as I learned my first language – that ship has long since sailed – but maybe reading works that way. In German especially. I started learning French at school and Japanese at university, so speaking, listening, reading and writing were each given emphasis and time devoted to them. But I’ve spent five years learning German through osmosis, and now that I’m trying to read, I’m finding that there are words I know if I sound them out, but I’ve never seen them written down before. I’m learning how all the little different pieces fit together, where when listening I tend to pick out the key words and discard everything else.

Reading in German is work. But it’s rewarding work. When I read in English, the words flow, the images are smooth. The words are doing all the work. When I read in German, it’s almost like I’m shouldering some of that work myself, actively making things happen, forcing the story on through sheer willpower. I’ve caught myself being so proud after a chapter that you’d think I wrote the book myself.

Anyway, favourite word from chapter 7!

der Bienenkorb: beehive. It means bee-basket! A basket of bees! It’s simultaneously cute and horrifying!