The Discreet Charm of Fontane

Theodor Fontane: Short Novels and Other Writings

edited by Peter Demetz, translated by E.M. Valk and Ulf Zimmermann and Krishna Winston
Continuum, 336 pp., $17.50; $8.95 (paper)

Theodor Fontane
Theodor Fontane; drawing by David Levine

The heroine of A Man of Honor, a short novel of Theodor Fontane, is a girl toward whom “it was impossible not to feel spontaneous warmth and friendliness.” The same is true of Fontane himself. He comes into the category—quite a small one—of instantly lovable writers, together with Montaigne, La Fontaine, Shakespeare, Turgenev, and Chekhov: not bad company to be in, though not many would claim that Fontane was as great an artist as the others. So why—outside Germany, and particularly North Germany—is he not more loved? Or, as Peter Gay asks in his foreword: “Who reads the novels of Theodor Fontane today, in English?” Who, for that matter, ever read them in English?

There are at least two obvious answers. The first is that Fontane does not translate easily. His specialty—and he became more and more skillful at it as he went along—is conversation. He uses it to establish his characters and, in particular, to bring out their charm. Many of them are loaded with charm; that, again, is a specialty of his. But people’s charm in conversation depends on the words they pick and the way they string them together, and it is difficult to render that from one language to another, especially if the first language is German and the second English. German is much more flexible in word order; changing that order can change the whole mood of a sentence. It is also particularly rich in verbs of motion with slightly comical overtones, and full of expletives (which may double as ordinary words in other contexts) like schon, ja, eben, doch that can be dropped into a phrase to alter the color, even the meaning.

Then there is the question of dialect. All Germans, however well educated, have some degree of regional accent. (Every German can play at being Professor Higgins.) The more educated a person is the less marked his accent will be, but an educated person may well use a stronger accent and more dialect words when speaking to his family or an old school friend than when speaking to a stranger. He may also do this with a member of a lower social class. In the nineteenth century, when Fontane was writing, class differences were, of course, much more marked. Every one of his novels contains set pieces of dialect conversation, and most typically they take place across the class barrier: between an officer and a cab driver, for instance, or beween a mistress and her maid. These conversations are meant to—and do, unlikely and condescending though it may appear to some presentday readers—bring out the rapport between the classes. Fontane wanted to stress this rapport, especially between the country gentry and the peasants, but also between the urban upper and middle classes and the working class. A German has no difficulty with all these nuances and transitions. But pity the poor translator. He…

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