Das Mädchen schleppte sich… to the Oxford German Olympiad

This week, Sofia Justham Bello, talks about her love of German, onomatopoeia and how she approached entering the biggest event in the Oxford German Network diary: the Oxford German Olympiad. Click here to read her version of Hansel and Gretel.

My underlying motivation for taking part in the 2017 Oxford German Olympiad was my love for the German language. What particularly draws me towards German is its poetic nature and ability to combine individual words to form a larger word and meaning; for example, in my entry I used the word Menschenmenge (crowd) which can be broken down to Menge (an amount) of Menschen (people).

Prizes 2017Another reason that drew me towards entering the competition was the theme: “Deutsch jenseits von Deutschland”-German beyond Germany. This was intriguing as one could explore the role and power of German in any location, hence expressing the idea that language is not restricted to thrive in one place. In my opinion this theme is particularly encouraging and vital for our world today, as it reflects the need for different languages in our lives, increasing our ability to connect with people and understand each other’s cultures.

The category I took part in involved rewriting the story of “Hänsel und Gretel” in a different location. I chose to relocate them in modern day London, a multicultural city with an iconic landscape, which generates infinite possibilities for storytelling.

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Illustration from the 1903 edition of Ludwig Richter’s collection of fairytales

The timelessness of the Grimm tale was key to motivating me to write; personally, I find that Märchen offer a sense of comfort to the reader; despite their bizarre and often gory themes, one is fond of their nostalgic structure and magical familiarity. My story was similar to the original, but I altered small details to fit the setting, such as instead of following a white dove, the children follow a pigeon; and instead of stumbling across a life-size gingerbread house, my story ends with a cliffhanger that leaves them peering into a cake shop window.

Writing a short story in German was more of a challenge, and it took practice to write in the imperfect tense. However, it was fun to discover new verbs which I would have never encountered at school, such as when Gretel felt tired, and therefore dragged her feet along the street (Das süße Mädchen schleppte sich die Straße entlang – very onomatopoeic!).

I also found it fun to discover new idioms to illustrate the siblings’ resilience, such as Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund (“The Morning Riser has gold in their mouth”, i.e. the early bird gets the worm); such an idiom perhaps highlights the positivity and character the German language has, which is likely to have compelled so many people to take part in the Olympiad this year.

Sofia Justham Bello

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A new OGN competition is launched – it’s going to be a classic!

The Oxford German Network is delighted to announce the launch of a new essay competition for 16-18 year olds in the UK: ‘A German Classic’. The piece of classic German literature celebrated this year is Goethe’s Faust, Part I. To find out all about entering the competition, visit the OGN website here, where you’ll also be able to download a wealth of podcasts and other study resources to help you. The competition prize has been generously donated by Jonathan Gaisman, QC, whose first encounters with German as a schoolboy left him with a lifelong enthusiasm for German literature. In this week’s blog, he tells us how this passion came about.

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Faust und Erdgeist, a sketch by Goethe

My first German teacher, a perceptive man called Roy Giles, wrote in my initial term’s report: “He will do well at this language, because he likes the noise it makes.” And so I did: aged just 14, I was immediately delighted by the disembodied voice on the audio-visual tape, which was how my acquaintance with the German language began: “Hören Sie zu, ohne zu wiederholen”. The cadences of this unremarkable sentence, bidding one to listen without repeating, still enchant me today. The story on the tape told of the prosaic doings of a German businessman attending an industrial fair. He was called Herr Köhler. Presumably this was a joke, though one unlikely to appeal much to schoolboys. But what caught my attention was the dramatic plosive – unlike anything in English – available to those willing to launch into the sentence “Plötzlich klingelt das Telefon”. That this sentence, like its companions, was of an almost Ionescan banality deprives it of none of its nostalgic appeal: I was already reaching for the handle of the door.

Four years later, by the time I left school, I had passed well and truly through. In those days, studying a modern language involved intensive study of literature. We studied Prinz Friedrich von Homburg and other writings of Kleist, carefully read Maria Stuart, and more than dabbled in the shallows of Faust part I.  A personal enthusiasm bordering on obsession led me to commit large slabs of Faust to memory, and they are still there. Giles had introduced us to recordings of Gründgens‘ performance of Mephistopheles in Faust; another teacher, Mark Phillips, earned my particular  gratitude by playing me Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin.  And so the way was opened though literature to poetry, to Lieder, to Wagner and to the extraordinary contribution of the German language to the life of the arts from the 18th century on.

German literature and culture had thus passed into my bloodstream, and become part of my imagination and mental being. So it was inevitable that I would take modern languages to university, where I was lucky enough to be tutored by a third fine teacher, Francis Lamport, at Worcester College, Oxford. Sadly, before long, but not before adding authors such as Büchner, Grillparzer, Kafka and Mann to my acquaintance, I abandoned the outer form of German studies, and dwindled into a lawyer. But the fire within was alight, and it burns still. The few years between the ages of 14 and 18 when I studied German represent the dominant intellectual influence in my education, and the one for which I am most grateful.

The simple aim of this prize is to enable other students to set out on the same journey which has enriched my way of seeing the world, to discover the inspiration of the German literary canon, and to avow the great truth uttered by Karl der Groβe himself: “The man who has another language has another soul”.

Jonathan Gaisman QC

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Faust spricht mit dem Erdgeist (1969), Margret Hofheinz-Döring (copyright Brigitte Mauch)

Deutsch(e) jenseits von Deutschland – German(s) beyond Germany

The Oxford German Network recently launched its annual national competition: the Oxford German Olympiad 2017! Now in its fifth year, this year’s theme is ‘Deutsch(e) jenseits von Deutschland – German(s) beyond Germany’. The OGN Team put their heads together to suggest some of the questions and topics you might like to think about when you enter the competition…

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A Pennsylvania Dutch badge design

Peoples have always migrated and taken their languages and stories with them. Moreover, languages and cultures are almost never confined to one geographical area or one nation. Of course, the English language provides a good example of this – but so does German! German and German dialects are spoken not just by those living in Germany, but also in Austria, Switzerland… and parts of the USA, and German culture has found its way into all sorts of unexpected places. So this year, the Oxford German Olympiad explores German peoples, language and culture beyond the borders of Germany. There’s a lot out there to provide food for thought!

Historically, Germany didn’t even come into existence until 1871 and Austria didn’t exist as a defined republican state until 1919. They’re both very young in terms of ‘nation states’. So what does that mean for what we might consider ‘German’? Would travelling back in time open up a world in which all of ‘German’ existed only ‘beyond Germany’?

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A shop sign in Liechtenstein. In Swiss German ‘Hoi’ means ‘Hi’ – ‘Hoi zäme’ is for greeting more than one person.

Like English, German is the official language in more than one country. Do people in Austria speak ‘German’ or ‘Austrian’? And what about Switzerland? Officially divided into German, French and Italian speaking areas – the German you’ll encounter here is again very different and even varies with each Kanton! Did you know that German is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg?

Like Britain, France, Spain or Portugal, Germany became a colonial power, but only in the late nineteenth century under Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was a latecomer seeking a “place in the sun” – “einen Platz an der Sonne”. There are still traces of that heritage, e.g. in Africa, where the German Empire settled colonies in areas that are now parts of Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Ghana, and other modern African countries.

Can you think of any famous German migrants in the UK? You could start with looking into the ancestors of the Royal Family or the ancient Rothschild financial dynasty… A wave of migration to other parts of the world was caused by National Socialism in the 1930s and early 1940s, but Germans also moved across Europe and across oceans for religious and economic reasons from the sixteenth century onwards. Religious reforming communities, like the Mennonites and the Amish, which have Dutch and Swiss origins in the sixteenth century and still maintain some of their linguistic heritage (e.g. ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’) to this day, can be found in parts of the USA, South America and elsewhere.

People migrate for many reasons: they may follow a friend or partner, work for an international company, seek an education abroad or just want to try living somewhere else. How many people in the UK do you know who originate from a German-speaking country?

Of course, texts also migrate – above all through translation – and can be adopted and adapted by other cultures. Think of the international cultural influence of Goethe’s Faust or the many well-known fairytales collected, adapted and published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the nineteenth century. Pick a piece of German you find interesting – a song, a poem, a news article or part of a story – and try translating it. It’s fun! You’ll find words that are almost the same, and words that are challenging. Are any untranslatable?

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Rumpelstiltskin ‘spinning’ a tale, from an edition of Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane and illustrated by Walter Crane, 1886.

You’ll find lots more inspiration and interesting ideas on the Oxford German Network’s competition pages, as well as all the competition tasks and guidelines. The deadline for entries is 12 noon, Friday 17 March 2017 (note that submission is online only). If you have any queries you can email the OGN Coordinators at ogn@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.