Reveling in the Untranslatable: On the Beauty and Complexity of the German Language
“German is the mirror that I managed to polish to an unusually high shine.”
Nachträglichkeit (noun): “Afterwardness”
Every time I return to Berlin—and this is now 17 years’ worth of returning—I also return to speaking German. I’m always flooded with thoughts and observations about this return. Speaking German elicits big, inarticulate feelings: It’s good, it’s familiar, it’s awful, it’s tumultuous, it’s suddenly great again. But why?
German is the fourth foreign language I’ve studied, the others being French, Japanese and Spanish in that order. Since childhood I’ve wanted to become fluent in a foreign language—any language—and, before German, had only gotten maddeningly close.
At 30 my husband Seth—then a graduate student in musicology—got a language-learning grant and moved for a summer to Berlin where I visited him. We took a shine to the city, both applied for year-long grants, and got them.
Seth’s grant was plush and included a summer’s worth of intensive language training for both of us. My grant was scrappy and underfunded; you were supposed to show up fluent, ready to talk geopolitics with other journalists. This was back in 2005.
Why did I stick with German so long? Why German? All of my answers feel like alibis, and maybe they are. Childhood ambitions don’t often play out precisely as envisioned; you feel lucky if they can play out at all.
Nachträglichkeit is a deliciously untranslatable German word and a foundational idea in Freudian psychoanalysis. It means that decisions or experiences initially taken lightly can acquire different significance with later events. The meaning “clicks” or activates afterwards. When one visits a concentration camp in Dachau as I did at 16, it hits differently to see the yellow Stars of David preserved there, all emblazoned with the German word for Jew: Jude, my first name. When you marry an American Jew who loves classical music and experimental Neue Musik specifically, the epicenter of which is Berlin: that’s another click.
I was ready to clear a big space inside myself to learn another language well. My ambitions were vaulted only when measured against my previous efforts. That space I cleared grew and grew and grew. German gave me a second world that kept magically expanding even as I explored so much of it. Over time I saw and marveled at its internal logic, the precise top-to-toe unique construction of it. Click, click, click.
Why German? both is and isn’t the right question. It’s true this language’s demands have formed specific grooves in my brain that I’m now fond of. But German is less of an object on its own than a mirror, reflecting light on a less visible but truer object: my relationship as a writer to language. German is the mirror that I managed to polish to an unusually high shine. My imperfect fluency only makes that relationship more visible and conscious.
Fließend (adjective): fluent
How fluent am I really? It’s a mysterious question. The answer isn’t stable or absolute. It depends on a million points of context. It reflects one’s lived experiences inside the language. I suppose I’m fluent in German, and yet I feel provisional saying that.
I usually return to Berlin rusty; because I have a monolingual child in tow, it’s difficult to find flow. Yet my vocabulary has steadily grown—17 years of magpie word collection will do that. Since I first learned German I’ve become a parent, acquiring the superpowers of split attention and automatic speech—both factors that strangely help my German. But the situation leaves me stuck with go-to phrases that bore me to tears; grammatical mistakes so long-codified in memory that I don’t recognize them as such; the conundrum of which language to speak with old friends I only see briefly.
Anger improves my fluency, as does problem-solving, tiredness, and drinks. Distraction helps, as do actual communicative stakes. When my son Lev broke their foot by “speed-walking” over a raised threshold in our apartment, I described the injury to the hospital staff. The word die Schwelle (threshold) bobbed into consciousness suddenly like a cork. Did I actually know this word? Where did I learn it? Meanwhile the nurse just waited, mildly impatient, for me to un-pause my recital.
Speaking German has shown me how my brain is changing over time, too. On a momentary timescale, speaking German reveals my fluctuating sense of attention, how interested I feel in a conversational topic or person. On a timescale measured in years, speaking German reveals how a person changes as they move from adulthood into middle age: how one learns to embrace certain absurdities, tolerate nonsense less, practice greater patience, slow down into the present more.
Schweben (verb): to suspend
I learned this word from a teacher who hailed from Wüpperthal, a town built between two mountain peaks. Citizens traverse the city via Schwebebahn, a suspended tram across the crevasse.Speaking German has shown me how my brain is changing over time.
Suspension while speaking a foreign language suggests many things: hanging out in thin air, grasping for a wire, forestalling doubt. Suspension is only terrifying if the forward motion stops and the tram rocks unsteadily side to side, awaiting a new signal. Flow, by contrast, feels unstoppable. It’s self-reinforcing, too: in a state of flow, good German easily becomes great German. You can suddenly say things that were never in reach before. It crests and crests. It’s similar to the flow writers always seek, only spoken flow is improvised and disappears instantly into the air.
My capacity for speaking German is not unlike imagination or good writing: Believe hard enough and the genie reappears. But belief also cannot be faked or summoned. It can falter, prove you wrong.
Die Darstellung (noun): performance
When I speak German I cannot stand the look of expectancy on my interlocutor’s face, the way their facial muscles twitch in sympathy or irritation. Thinking hard in front of someone can feel like the most terrifying circumstance I’d ever willingly enter.
I’m realizing now that composing sentences in front of another person is, for me, the exact-opposite condition of writing. Writing is private and messy while it’s happening, but the final results are not.
Stimmen (verb): to voice, to vote, to chime
German is indeed efficient: A handful of stem verbs can be modified with prefixes to produce shades of meanings. When you first learn these verbs, it’s like meeting Zelig: they seem to pop up everywhere, swapping out monocles, hats and wigs.
Stimmen is a lovely stem verb exemplifying this. Stimmen means to voice but also to sing, to give an opinion, to vote, to tune an instrument. Bestimmen means to determine, to earmark, to elect—fittingly, as the prefix be- often implies an action taken to its conclusion. The prefix ver- introduces a chaos element, an action gone haywire or transformative. Hence verstimmen, which means to sing out of tune or to become disgruntled. Other prefixes cast their own spells over stem verbs: like vor- (suggesting forward or generative motion), er- (darkly combining both chaos with extremity), zu- (suggesting closure or agreement) and many others.
Sometimes the prefixes just change the stem verb’s meaning. Other times prefixes are trennbar, or separable from the verb itself. You pull off a trennbar prefix and stick it to the end of your sentence or clause to complete the thought—assuming you remember, that is. Stimmen has many trennbar shades as well: abstimmen means to reconcile or fine-tune; to say “I reconcile X”, I’d have to say Ich stimme X ab. Without that ab at the end, the sentence feels unfinished and the meaning unclear. Again the prefix logic holds: ab- usually means to cast something off or trim it away.
Thinking about stimmen, a tuning fork of a verb, yields an overtone that grows louder into a question: Why has my relationship with German been so exclusively oral? It’s true all language acquisition starts with speech, and everyday language use prioritizes talking and listening, not reading the newspaper or Goethe. But I had never attempted to read anything substantive in German. Another click.
Seufzen (verb): to sigh
In early 2021 when the vaccines had been heralded but not yet arrived, when my passport worked but not reliably, I took a Zoom conversational course in new German literature. It was laughing in the dark, cultivating foreign language skills that winter; it was something to do. But the space inside me reserved for German sprang back open, filled and stretched yet again.Fluency in another language, I’m realizing, might be a lot like adulthood.
From this class I learned all the alternatives to writing “he said” in literary reportage: er erwiderte (he replied), er zustimmte (he agreed), er hinfügte (he added), er seufzte (he sighed). I also started reading German for style, measuring word choices and sentence cadence. The language’s ceiling, its rhetorical possibilities, lifted so high that clouds drifted through. I had not realized how conversation—even quality conversation—constrains what you can experience of a language’s possible effects. New words, new cadences, new formulations: we don’t build or acquire complexities like these in speech.
The next summer we visited Berlin again after a two-year hiatus. There I plowed through four Agatha Christie novels in translation in as many weeks. From those books I learned many felicitous words still in currency (e.g. das Getue, hubbub) but also many that aren’t (die Klapsmühle, funny farm).
Last Thanksgiving I read all of Kafka’s parables. The effort was doubly exhilarating: first, to make sure I understood every word in the finely balanced sentences; second, to marvel at how even perfect grammatical understanding only plumbs the meanings of stories like “Der Geier” (“The Vulture”) and “Das Paradies” (“Paradise”) so far.
German changes the reading game in fundamental ways. Grammar gets foregrounded, providing crucial hints to the lost. In diagramming syntax as a reader, you palpate which words relate to which, re-tracing the author’s own decisions. Sometimes the going was giddily fast, sometimes not. I learned to let it ride, not looking up every word, recognizing the mike-drop words whose meaning I needed to confirm to get the effect. But enforced slowness is inherently vivid. Difficulty always paid off in spades. My space was dark but lit by flashes of irregular lightning.
Fluency in another language, I’m realizing, might be a lot like adulthood: We don’t know what it’ll feel like until we’re well into it. By the time you stop faking parenthood, your kid has almost exited the house. So much speed, and yet also slowness: the years are made up of days, the days of minutes, the paragraphs and sentences of words.