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What’s in an Umlaut?

To the Editors:

In James Fenton’s scrutinizing review of Frank Bidart and David Gewanter’s edition of Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems [NYR, August 14], he seems to have made a slight mistake when, after correcting Lowell’s spelling of “Koenigsplatz” to “Königsplatz” (a very minor detail indeed), he continues to give the spelling of Fräulein mistakenly (and twice) as Fraülein. This would not be worth one’s attention if it were not for the exacting and detail-focused nature of his review. The combination of in German does not exist.

Jens F. Laurson
Washington, D.C.

James Fenton replies:

Naturally I am mortified at the misprinted Fräulein and the nonsense made of my text. As it happens, I spent some time thinking about that word as it occurs in Lowell’s poem. In the editions of Life Studies that I have it appears as fraulein and as Fraulein, always italicized but without the umlaut. In the German parallel-text translation of Lowell, by Manfred Pfister (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1982), the translator corrects “Koenigsplatz” to “Königsplatz,” but leaves Fraulein as Fraulein, as follows:

I found my Fraulein stitching outing shirts
In the black forest of the colored wards…
Ich traf mein
Fraulein, wie sie Ausflugshemden nähte
im Schwarzwald des Negertrakts…

It occurred to me that, to a German ear, as to mine, the Mad Negro was indeed more likely to say “frowline” than “froyline,” and that the word was perfectly fine without an umlaut. However, I realized I couldn’t say this without knowing the full history of the text. Now I wish I had.

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