The first hurdle of this project. With France or Spain you can pick and choose, but when you get to Luxembourg you take what you’re given. If I’d been doing this a year ago, I’d have drawn a blank, as the only Luxembourgish book I found available in translation was one published only three months ago, Your Heart of Ice is Hot as Vice (Dein Herz aus Eis macht mich ganz heiß), by Guy Rewenig, translated by Sandra Schmit.
Rewenig’s a big name in a small country, and writes in French, German and Luxembourgish. This is a collection of four short books originally written in German and published fifteen or so years ago. The first three, A Real Canoeist Paddles With His Hands, Your Heart of Ice is Hot As Vice and With a Big Salute the Stag Jumps into His Suit, consist of unrelated aphorisms and vignettes; the fourth, Album of Errors and Comforts, is a satirical dictionary in the mould of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary.
The ungainliness of the English titles leaves you unprepared for the fleet-footedness of Rewenig’s writing (and Schmit’s – more on her input later). The best mode of illustration is quotation, which I hope you will forgive me for doing at length.
I am not who you thought I was. Actually I’m not even who I thought I was. Maybe we’ve just been thinking too much, instead of simply being who we are not.
I’ve sent a petition to NATO to drop some bombs on my voles. They are separatists who breach my garden sovereignty, threaten the vegetable peace, employ terrorist strategies, conspiratorially crowd together in dark catacombs. I insist, however, that the bombers do not harm a single leaf of my parsley!
Highest Safety Level
This morning, my airbag suddenly jumped out at me, even though I was only doing forty kilometres an hour on a deserted country road. My mechanic explained this to me: This new generation of intelligent airbags does not like to be humiliated by provocative slow driving which deliberately puts their raison d’être to ridicule.
The god I could believe in is a god who would allow me not to believe in him.
Overpowered by Softness
Sometimes, I am so in the right that I would love to hit out hard, but all of a sudden flowers grow out of my knuckles and my fist turns into a rose bush, sadly my opponent isn’t really fond of flowers, he knees me in the gut so hard that it is raining petals.
You see here the recurring themes: Rewenig is preoccupied with the absurdities of modern life, but also likes absurdity for its own sake, and whimsicality, and the dinky paradox.
The third book, With a Big Salute the Stag Jumps into His Suit, was written in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, and its political commentary is more prominent and perhaps more solemn.
After the End
The experiment called Humanity has failed dismally. All that is left is the anxious question: What if cockroaches are just as belligerent and capable of dictatorship?
Bitter, too. The longest piece of all, which comes at the end of that book is an escalating series of threats exchanged between two interlocutors that is mordantly funny in its inventiveness:
If you dismember my postman, electrocute my tax advisor and pour boiling oil over my wife, I’ll poison your Syrian hamster, hack your 37 goldfish to pieces, gas all the amphibians in your terrarium, gag your uncle and nephews, chase your grandmother into a deep gorge, drive your colleagues into a blazing fire and castrate your brother.
The fourth book, the dictionary, contains more of the same – witticisms and irreverences. Health is defined as the ‘prerequisite for dying successfully’, love as a ‘desperate, sometimes lifelong effort to find a copy of yourself in another person’. Some other favourites:
Amateur gardener – horticulture pedant. When temperatures drop under minus 15°, he puts a tiny wool cap on his beloved tomatoes. You recognize the truly radical amateur gardener by the numerous wool threads in his Bolognese sauce.
Diplomacy – variant of brainwash, redefines negative facts by means of positively connotated terms. Some examples: a) not “Students struck by lightning”, but rather “Young people’s thirst for knowledge quenched by penetrating contact with the laws of electricity during school outing” b) not “We lost the war and everybody is in jail”, but rather “In monkish seclusion we contemplate together the benefits of a future without weapons” c) not “Our economy goes down the drain”, but rather “Economics excels in free-style swimming through running waters” d) not “It’s the end of the world”, but rather “Humanity soon free from all existential dread” e) not “He’s dead and buried”, but rather “He now devotes his time exclusively to the contemplation of subsoil geological strata”.
Miscast – neo-Nazi on the police force. Leads to automobbing (job-related self-bothering, which can escalate into self-arrest). Most annoying symptom: self-pursuit. When a neo-Nazi is running through town all by himself, one can never be sure whom he’s after.
The acid test of the success of Sandra Schmit’s translation is that it made me laugh as much as it did, and yet to translate a book that contains so much humour and wordplay must have been quite a challenge. She writes as much in an informative afterword where she admits that some of the puns were so untranslatable that they ended up being omitted.
Although most of my laughter was genuine and spontaneous, sometimes it was provoked by seeing there was meant to be a joke that had perhaps worked better in German (a story about a whole family sharing a funeral urn, where following a posthumous argument ‘all the ashes were reduced to ashes’). Elsewhere I would have liked a footnote explaining the translation (a play on words involving ‘happy’ and ‘hapless’ made me want to see the original). To take another example:
Making a Stand
I’d rather be left alone
than right with everyone else.
This is neat, but it can’t be a direct translation. I wonder how it was done.
I salute Sandra Schmit, then, but I wish her proof-reader had been more eagle-eyed. There are too many mistakes in this book. Sometimes they are ambiguous (I couldn’t work out if a reference to spending Christmas ‘in perfect hormony’ was a typo or a pun; I suspect the former), more often clearly wrong. The mixture of American and British English can be distracting. But I don’t want to dwell on the negatives of a book that gave me a lot of pleasure. One for the road.
Instructive fairy tale 1
A dentist, who was also a fanatic railway modeller but unfortunately had to neglect his railway modelling projects because of dentistric [sic] duties, and inversely also got sloppier and sloppier at removing toothaches because of his time-consuming railway modelling activities, had the good idea to fuse profession and passion once and for all. Unbeknownst to his patients, he implanted entire model railway landscapes with innumerable tracks and marshalling yards into their missing tooth structure, the patients never noticed a thing, they just thought: There he goes repairing my fillings again, when in reality the model railway implantation dentist was dedicatedly repairing the semi-collapsed railway tunnel on the northernmost mountain connection in the penultimate lower left molar.