LACK OF GOAT.

Jascha Hoffman has an amusing essay on translation in the New York Times Book Review from Sunday; I’d like to excerpt this passage on George Saunders in German:

Might some funny bits actually get funnier in translation? In the title story of George Saunders’s “Pastoralia,” a character is paid to impersonate a cave man at a theme park, his employers providing a freshly-killed goat to roast daily, until one morning he goes to the usual spot and finds it “goatless.” Among the many possible renderings of this made-up word, Saunders’s German translator chose ziegenleer, a lofty-sounding melding of “goat” and “void” with no exact equivalent in English.
“The German translation is accurate, but the word combination tickles some kind of orthographical, sound-receptive funny bone,” explained the Latvian translator Kaija Straumanis, the editorial director for Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester’s literature in translation press and one of the conference organizers. “The more high-minded you make it sound in your head, the funnier it gets, implying a rusted-out box into which this man is staring and seeing a severe and disconcerting lack of goat.”

My question to my German-speaking readers: does ziegenleer actually tickle your funny bone in that way? (Thanks to Paul for the link, and apologies to AJP for the lack of goat.)

Comments

  1. I remember reading something on the German suffixes that could mean “empty”. “-rein” meant empty of something you wanted gone (especially the infamous “judenrein” dream for Europe), “-los” meant without something you want (“Arbeitslos”, unemployed, “Obdachlos”, homeless) and “-frei” being relatively neutral, tending towards “-rein” in the sense of being tilted towards something you didn’t want (“Bleifrei”, unleaded). I don’t remember seeing “-leer” as a suffix much when I lived in Germany. By itself it isn’t a fancy word for “void”; it just means “empty”. But I guess it is pretty literary. Duden online has examples of -leer like “liebeleer”, loveless (giving an example of “a loveless existence”) and “menschenleer”, uninhabited.

  2. does ziegenleer actually tickle your funny bone in that way?
    No more than “goatless” does, viz. not much. To my mind, ziegenlos renders the mild informal jokiness of “goatless” better than does ziegenleer. As Lane remarks, the latter has a somewhat elevated tone. I also agree with his impression that one doesn’t encounter that many words with “-leer” as a suffix (as compared with “-los”-suffixed ones, say) – although I have no hard evidence in support of that impression.
    “The German translation is accurate, but the word combination tickles some kind of orthographical, sound-receptive funny bone,” explained the Latvian translator Kaija Straumanis … “The more high-minded you make it sound in your head, the funnier it gets, implying a rusted-out box into which this man is staring and seeing a severe and disconcerting lack of goat.”
    Straumanis’ strenuous take on the harmless word ziegenleer is funnier than the word itself. I would welcome a follow-up article with the title: “The Challenges of Translator Humor”. I wonder whether he is thinking of something like the made-up noun Ziegenleere, as in er traf auf eine Ziegenleere. That would be a nice professorial jokey-poo.

  3. Blimey, it’s Grumbly! I thought you must be hibernating.
    No, I don’t have any need for a word that means lack of goat. “Lack of goat cheese”, perhaps: geitostmangel (I just made that word up). Incidentally goats won’t eat cheese, I’ve offered it to them but they aren’t interested. Dogs love persimmons, but the excess sugar makes them go nuts and tear around the house.
    I would have thought ziegenleer was more like “devoid of goats”

  4. “goat.”

  5. Sir JCass says:

    “a rusted-out box into which this man is staring and seeing a severe and disconcerting lack of goat.”
    Or a “goat-forsaken hole”, as we might say in English.

  6. Or a “goat-forsaken hole”, as we might say in English.
    I’m pretty sure that’s funnier than ziegenleer.

  7. I resent the implication that there is anything either funny or unfunny about emptiness. Hello, Stu.

  8. Duden online has examples of -leer like “liebeleer”
    Liebeleer is an exotic, rare word I’ve never encountered. It strikes me as precious in the sense of over-priced. I recommend not using it, unless you are aiming for Professor Doktor Spiro Agnew effects. Lieblos is standard fare.

  9. hibernating .. Hello, Stu
    Hi folks. A ton of bricks hit my laptop, destroying it utterly – except for the disk drive, thank God. The last 2 weeks I have spent restoring things to my new i7 (!) laptop. From now on I backup critical data every day.

  10. Just to pull the intellectual level down a bit, I am pretty sure that the Asterix books are funnier in English than in the original French. (“Courdetenis” is a slightly funny name for an Egyptian, but “Ptenisnet” is much better.)

  11. German native speaker:
    I guess the translator was inspired by ‘menschenleer’; the association pretty much forces itself on the reader.
    The problem is that ‘menschenleer’ means ‘devoid of human life’. Coining an analogous word to describe the absence of a dead goat feels just wrong.
    I’d use ‘ziegenlos’. If my editor complained about a lack of flippancy, I’d suggest nominalizing to ‘Ziegenlosigkeit’.

  12. Apropos this topic, a recent article in the Guardian:
    “The Germans have a word for it – and it’s a very long one”
    is interesting.

  13. If I were translating ziegenleer from German into English, I might come up with goatlorn rather than goatless. I don’t know if that’s any funnier, but I expect it’s harder for the reader to process.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    The improvement in translation can come all by itself. Orwell’s “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” becomes “Alle dyr er like, men noen [dyr] er likere enn andre.” in Norwegian. That’s a hard-hitting pun, using the double meaning of likere, “better, more attractive”. I haven’t done any digging, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the line was coined in Norwegian decades before Orwell. Without goats or other animals, though.
    Geitostmangel is a good, straightforward word, Crown, but there’s never been any need for it. Thank heavens. But last christmas there was smørmangel, so you never know.
    Some of the Norwegian Astérix translations are brilliant, others less so. Now I don’t remember offhand which is which, and I used to know them almost line by line by heart. I really should read them all all over again again.

  15. spherical: I guess the translator was inspired by ‘menschenleer’
    That’s very plausible, it didn’t occur to me.
    The problem is that ‘menschenleer’ means ‘devoid of human life’. Coining an analogous word to describe the absence of a dead goat feels just wrong.
    ziegenleer would suggest “devoid of goat life”, because of the resemblance to menschenleer. One way to translate menschenleer into English is to use the word “deserted”. Similarly, “devoid of goat life” could be shortened to “deherded”.

  16. Another native speaker of German here and another vote for “ziegenlos”. ziegenleer is confusing, it could even be “empty as a goat”, as compound adjective with animals tend to follow this pattern: hundemüde is tired as a dog, dog-tired. I could possibly also live with ziegenfrei, but to decide I’d have to see the sentence. The funny isn’t very strong, either way. It probably works better in context.

  17. Professor Doktor Spiro Agnew

    ?
    Iono. Gedeløs and gedefri could be sorta amusing, I guess. Personally I’d need to go over the top and make up something like ubegediget – not endowed with a goat.

  18. Mildly amused by the lack of Sylvia references.

  19. From the Guardian article ‘Germans have a name for it’ I stumbled on Uncovered: lost British accents from prison camps of first world war. A bit old (2009), but quite amazing to read what linguists can get up to in all kinds of situations.

  20. This reminds me of the way that the names of characters in the Asterix comic books are translated. Readers in pretty much every language swear that their localisation is by far the funniest. And they all have a point.
    For example, the character of Asterix’s dog is named Idéfix in the original French, which is translated into English as Dogmatix, which is arguably funnier given the additional pun.
    Another example, the wife of the village chieftan is Bonemine in French, and Impedimentia in English. Neither is as funny as the Turkish version: Dediğimdediks.

  21. Professor Doktor Spiro Agnew ?
    I meant by that a German version of Spiro Agnew, who made a name for himself with alliterative pretentiousness (“nattering nabobs of negativism”).

  22. marie-lucie says:

    Pseudonym: Another example, the wife of the village chieftan is Bonemine in French, and Impedimentia in English. Neither is as funny as the Turkish version: Dediğimdediks.
    The wife of the chieftain is Bonnemine, which means something like “healthy-looking”. The Turkish version ends in -iks, which is strange: only the men in the French version have names ending in -ix. Could the Turkish translator have been unaware of this pattern? Are there other Turkish instances of women’s names with this ending? (I agree that the name sounds very funny, with, to my mind, a rhythm that reminds me of old-fashioned French trains).

  23. Those lost British accents of Bathmat’s are fun to hear. They all say something like ‘fæther’ for father; I don’t think many people would say that nowadays.
    drhine, thanks for that article. For once, the Guardian comments are very interesting.

  24. Those lost British accents of Bathmat’s are fun to hear. They all say something like ‘fæther’ for father; I don’t think many people would say that nowadays.
    That’s still in the east of Scotland accent – “father” with the first syllable rhyming with “may”.

  25. What’s surprising, given the Great Vowel Shift, is that we don’t all say “fayther”.

  26. I’m not surprised I don’t say fayther. John, I’m glad you’re back!

  27. Me too!

  28. Power was restored at home about 4 hours ago, so I’m catching up again. Still no heat nor hot water (probably Monday or later, depending on if it needs a boiler mechanic to restart), and the outside temp is 45F/7C, so we’re bundling up.

  29. Another survivor who just got power and is catching up. Ziegenleer just means devoid of goats. To me it sounds like a ponderous attempt at humor. But then, so is “goatless”.

  30. Heat and hot water restored.

  31. Grumbly: It was almost certainly not Agnew himself who coined that n-phrase, but Old Bill Safire, Terror Of The Descriptivists from Bolshoi Olyania to Krasny Sigorsk.

  32. I want make a play on words involving Ziegen and Ziegelstein (and Grumbly’s ton of bricks), but I can’t think how to make it funny. Goats and bricks are both fundamentally somewhat funny, but still I just can’t manage it.

  33. I want make a play on words involving Ziegen and Ziegelstein (and Grumbly’s ton of bricks), but I can’t think how to make it funny. Goats and bricks are both fundamentally somewhat funny, but still I just can’t manage it.

  34. Goatless in Gaza.

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