A while ago I had occasion to see Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), an Oscar-winning film set in East Germany during the mid 1980s. Beyond helping me with my command of the wily Genativ, the film also provides me with an example, albeit it a simple one, of something the impact of which must literally be lost in translation for non-German speakers.
The example comes in a scene where playwright Georg Dryman (the protagonist), who has discovered that his actress girlfriend is having an affair with a powerful member of the Communist party, pleads with her to end the affair:
Christa-Maria: Ich gehe eine Stunde weg. (I’m going out for an hour.)
Georg: Wohin? (Where?)
Christa-Maria: Ich treffe eine Klassenkameradin, die gerade in der Stadt ist. (I’m meeting a classmate in the city)
Georg: Wirklich, Christa? Wirklich? (Really, Christa? Really?)
Christa-Maria: Was fällt dir ein? (What are you getting at?)
Georg: Ich weiß es. Ich weiß wo du hingehen willst. Und ich bitte dich: geh nicht ein. Du brauchst ihn nicht. Du brauchst ihn nicht. Ich weiß wie wenig du deine Kunst traust. Vertrau wenigstens mir. Christa-Maria, du bist eine große Künstlerin. Ich weiß es. Und dein Publikum weiß es auch. Du brauchst ihn nicht. Du brauchst ihn nicht. Bleib hier. Geh nicht zu ihm. (I know. I know where you want to go. And I’m asking you: don’t go. You don’t need him. You don’t need him. I know how little you trust your art. At least trust me. Christa-Maria, you are a great artist. I know it. And your audience knows it, too. You don’t need him. You don’t need him. Stay here. Don’t go to him.)
When I first watched this scene , I was immediately struck by the repetition of the phrase “Du brauchst ihn nicht” (“You don’t need him”). It is said four times, twice in succession at the beginning of Georg’s plea and twice in succession at the end. It’s a combination of the rhythm of the German word order and the vocal characteristics of the words themselves that make the German phrase superior to my ear.
If what little drama tutelage I’ve had is any guide, the emphasis of the phrase in English would probably be on the negation: “You don’t need him.” In German, the negation is not emphasized–the emphasis is instead placed on the verb: brauchst (need). Because the German word begins with a plosive (a “B”) while the English word of emphasis begins a flap (“D”), the physicality of the pronunciations are different. Call me crazy, but the fact that the emphasis in German comes with plosive consonant and not a flap gives it a subtle edge.
Further, though the emphasis in both languages is placed on the second word in the phrase, the word order is different between the English and German constructions. I believe the German construction has a far superior rhythm or cadence. Consider that as a literal one-to-one translation, the English phrase would actually be “you need him not.” Far more lyrical, is it not? It can be expressed almost as one exhalation.
I’ve heard that Faust is immensely better in the original German, but I’m not willing to tackle that one yet.