A German Olympiad ‘Werdegang’

One prizewinner in 2017’s ‘Deutsch(e) jenseits von Deutschland’, Beth Molyneux, first got involved with the Oxford German Olympiad right at its inception – and this year she was so enthused, she participated in every element of it that she possibly could! Beth was a joint winner in the ‘Migrating Communities’ essay category and a runner up in the Blog Post category. You can read her entries – and those of all the other winners – here.
In this blog post, she explains what got her involved in the first place and what she loves about the competition.

Prizes 2017The prize ceremony for the 2017 Oxford German Olympiad was the perfect culmination of what has been, for me and many other pupils around the country, an exciting, challenging and definitely worthwhile affair.

My involvement in the Olympiad started when I was in Year 8, with the theme Grimm Tales and featured me and my sister as Hansel and Gretel in a short film. At that time, I wasn’t aware of what the Olympiad was but certainly had fun making the video. It then wasn’t until sixth form when I was looking to extend my German outside of my A-level that this memory from year 8 came back to me along with the remembrance that there had been a sixth-former at our school who had helped us with our entry as well as submitting her own. Excited by this prospect, I gave ‘Oxford German Olympiad’ a quick Google and was pleased to find that it not only still existed but had been going strong for several years and, most importantly, entries were open for this year’s competition!

What I loved about the structure of the competition was how all the tasks tied into an overall theme but were so diverse, both within and across the age categories, which gave me a chance to explore aspects of German and Germany that I never would have before. The Olympiad provided me with a great opportunity to do some wider study of German culture and literature as well as the linguistic challenge of composing an essay in German, which was especially useful because I’m hoping to study German at university. I liked the sound of all the tasks in my age category and wanted to get as fully involved as possible so, instead of choosing between them, I decided to have a go at all three.

I started with the essay on Germany’s colonial history, which was probably the hardest task from a language point of view, as well as requiring the most research yet despite this I’d say it turned out to be my favourite task. After collecting the necessary initial research to find out what the story of Germany’s empire actually was, I thought it would be very easy for this kind of essay to turn out quite stale and technical but I wanted to make it come alive with a literary touch so I developed an extended metaphor, comparing Germany’s association with colonialism to an actor on a stage. This meant that I not only learned something new about Germany’s fascinating and unique history but was able to get creative and really have fun with what is a truly beautiful language. I think my enjoyment of this task showed in my entry and it definitely paid off, as this piece was joint winner in my age category.

Thomas_Mann_with_Albert_Einstein,_Princeton_1938
Thomas Mann with Albert Einstein in Princeton in 1938

For the second task, I researched the Austrian German dialect, struggling to fit all its quirks into just 400 words and for the third I chose to write about the author Thomas Mann, one of the many authors who left Germany as the Nazis came to power. He nevertheless fought hard for his beloved country jenseits von Deutschland, as you might say. This entry epitomised the competition for me because Mann is such a remarkable example of this year’s Olympiad title. My research into his life and work has gone beyond the competition as I’ve explored German Exilliteratur, even choosing it as the focus for my Extended Project Qualification in sixth form. Again, I had a chance to get creative with this task, choosing to narrate his history as a story, with dialogue and literary features, rather than as an essay, which was yet another discipline I would never have explored without the Olympiad.

As the deadline for round one entries drew near and I was giving those final touches to my three pieces, I happened to check the Olympiad website again and was delighted to find that this wasn’t the end – there was a round 2! The tasks in round 2 were even more diverse, giving incredible scope for creativity. Having read some Kafka before, I enjoyed being mind-boggled as I read his Die Sorge des Hausvaters and barely knew where to start with a response. Having this chance to respond creatively to Kafka’s work helped me to delve deeper into his intentions and the thought processes behind his work as well as considering the weighty existential questions his work evokes.

The poetry of HC Artmann was, if possible, yet more bizarre than Kafka and undoubtedly a piece of literature which, without the Olympiad, I would never have been introduced to. The biggest challenge I faced in the HC Artmann task wasn’t understanding the German he used (helpfully provided alongside the original dialect version) but interpreting the poetry itself. Baffled, I simply chose to reflect this uncertainty in my response, writing two poems in response to his Kindesentführer, based on different readings of the poem which I had taken. Only Artmann himself knows whether either of my interpretations are correct (if there is ever a correct interpretation of poetry) but the responses were enough to win the prize for this competition, generously made possible by HC Artmann’s widow Rosa Pock.

Winners blow trumpet
Some winners get to blow their own trumpet at the ceremony!

Having submitted my grand total of five entries across Rounds 1 and 2 I felt not just immense satisfaction and pride at having accomplished this but also, most importantly, a passion for German literature, not initially kindled by this competition but certainly refreshed and burning brighter than ever because of it. I had dedicated a considerable amount of time to my entries and felt like I’d given a small piece of my heart and soul to the competition which was in a way its own reward. I probably didn’t realise how much the competition meant to me until I received the email with my results; I screamed so loudly that my parents came rushing upstairs thinking I had hurt myself! Besides the success itself was the exciting prospect of attending the award ceremony in Oxford at none other than the Bodleian library, an event which lived up to and surpassed expectations. I travelled down from Manchester with my Dad, the weather reflecting our mood in a sunny and more-than-usually beautiful Oxford and as we waited on the steps of the Weston Library, I realised the full scope of the competition as we saw students of all ages begin to gather. The event itself was incredibly well organised, managing to balance a comfortable and informal intimacy with the grandeur appropriate for a prize ceremony. Judges, organisers and participants alike were friendly, excited and welcoming. And the best part? With heavily book-based prizes, I left with yet more German literature to explore!

Beth Molyneux

Fancy having a go at the Olympiad yourself? The next competition is just around the corner! We’ll be announcing the theme for the Oxford German Olympiad 2018 later in September!

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How to start reading Kafka?

This week, ahead of the third OGN reading group, Karolina Watroba thinks about how to tackle one of the most famous German writers of the early twentieth-century: Franz Kafka.
Kafka1906_cropped
Franz Kafka in 1906

Franz Kafka is probably the most famous German-language writer, and he has certainly been one of the most influential authors of world literature in the twentieth century. His unique style has even given rise to a brand new adjective, ‘kafkaesque’ – so if having one’s name turned into a common word is anything to go by, Kafka has really become an inseparable element of our culture. It might seem overwhelming to actually have a go at reading something written by a literary legend like Kafka, which is why I want to share five ideas for how you can start reading him!

1. Translations of famous opening lines – different every time!
The first of Kafka’s texts I read in German, and in fact one of the very first pieces of literature written in German that I decided to tackle in the original language, was a novella called ‘Die Verwandlung’ – ‘The Metamorphosis’. It later turned out that I would study this story in my first year at Oxford – it is one of the prose set texts for first-year students here. ‘Die Verwandlung’ was originally published in 1915, and it begins with one of the most famous opening sentences in the history of literature:
‘Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.’
In Ian Johnston’s translation: ‘One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed, he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.’
You’ll find eight other English translations of the opening sentence to compare in this fun article from The Guardian. Kafka’s works are in the public domain, so you can find them online for free. Check out this bilingual edition of ‘Die Verwandlung’.
2. Expect the unexpected!
Perhaps the best-known, and the most influential of Kafka’s texts, is his unfinished novel Der Prozess The Trial. He wrote it at about the same time as ‘Die Verwandlung’, but it wasn’t published until 1925, a year after his death, when his lifelong friend, Max Brod, decided to go against Kafka’s will and start publishing his hitherto unpublished texts, rather than burning them. Der Prozess boasts another unforgettable opening sentence:
‘Jemand mußte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daß er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet.’
In John Williams’s translation: ‘Someone must have been spreading slander about Josef K., for one morning he was arrested, though he had done nothing wrong.’
Even in this opening sentence, it is already evident that, in many ways, Der Prozess is written like a detective story. So if you like suspense and investigations, you’ll find Der Prozess very interesting – partly because it reverses the conventions of this genre and constantly challenges your expectations of it.
3. Short forms for the short of time
If both ‘Die Verwandlung’ and Der Prozess seem too long to start with, why don’t you try one of Kafka’s many shorter pieces? He wrote numerous little texts that range in length from just one line to one or two pages. Those published during his lifetime are conveniently collected in one volume, Ein Landarzt und andere Drucke zu Lebzeiten (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994). There you’ll find such little gems as ‘Wunsch, Indianer zu werden’, or ‘Der neue Advokat’, as well as ‘Die Sorge des Hausvaters’, which will be the text for our reading group next week. These texts are very brief (‘Wunsch, Indianer zu werden’ is just one sentence, six lines!), but also incredibly intriguing – and simply unlike anything you’ve ever read.
4. Get an introduction to the critical debates
While having a go at reading Kafka is definitely the best way to get to know his works, at some point you might feel like having a look at some secondary literature on him. A great starting point would be Kafka: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2004), written by Oxford’s own Ritchie Robertson. This little book is accessible and thought-provoking, which makes it an ideal place to start exploring broader themes and concerns running throughout Kafka’s work.
5. Get an introduction to the critical debates (Teil 2!)
Another place to go if you’d like to discover new ways to approach Kafka, is a series of documentaries and drama called In the Shadow of Kafka, produced by BBC Radio 3 in May 2015. You’ll hear there, among others, German poetry expert Karen Leeder talking about meaning and communication in Kafka’s works, or Margaret Atwood – a famous Canadian writer – reflecting on what Kafka’s texts have meant to her since she was a teenager.
I hope that this post has given you plenty of ideas about how to approach Kafka yourself. Go explore!

 

Karolina Watroba, Magdalen College, Oxford