Style and legitimacy

As documented in Wolfgang Leonard’s book Die Revolution entlässt ihre Kinder, the Russians relied heavily on ethnic Germans who grew up in the Soviet Union to build legitimacy for the occupation of East Germany following WWII. German-speaking communists such as Leonard were installed in positions of influence and played a major role in manufacturing the propaganda narratives that cast the Russian occupiers as liberators who would usher in a new and more just political order. While such wholesale manipulation of public opinion is certainly not unique to this historical moment, a prerequisite for public acceptance of wholly tendentious political dogma is invariably the patina of legitimacy that is purchased through artful rhetoric. For even the Russians recognized that style — or, as Aristotle defined it, “the way of saying things” — is crucial for getting your message across effectively. Accordingly, they had loyal Germans write the propaganda material that was to be read in East Germany, instead of trying to write it themselves. Certainly, the East German government would have collapsed in mere weeks if Russian native speakers had been in charge of editing the country’s newspapers.

Strong mastery of rhetoric is thus prerequisite for “hegemonic narratives” to achieve acceptance. Conversely, when one runs roughshod over the dictates good style, legitimacy can quickly crumble. I have always found official pronouncements that exhibit a poor command of the language to be deeply unsettling. Why is this? It is perhaps because the state unmasks itself as crude and unthinking at the very moment it expresses its very real and dangerous power over the individual. This contradiction is a primary source of humor in Kafka’s writing; the linguistic gaffes of officialdom are quintessentially Kafkaesque.

Take the following sign, for example, which can be found at multiple locations on the fence surrounding the US embassy in Berlin, right next to Brandenburg Gate.


To state the obvious: This is deplorable, ear-shattering English. The number of problems the translator manages to pack into just two sentences is quite impressive. Let’s enumerate them individually:

1. A flagrant preposition error: “in the area” would work; “on the area” is extremely odd. The best solution would be to remove “in the area” altogether and just say “in front of.” This is sufficiently clear and avoids stilted sentence flow.

2. Incorrect word choice: “Verursacher” may mean “causer” in a literal sense, but “causer” is not permissible English. Generally, this type of sign would say “at the owner’s expense” in the English-speaking world. If there is in fact a crucial legal distinction between “owner” and “causer” in Germany, such that “owner” cannot be used, then alternate phrasing is necessary, such as “at the responsible individual’s expense.”

3. Superfluous wording: “of all kinds” is unnecessary; “other objects” is sufficiently broad.

4. Questionable usage: Although “in case” is not incorrect, its usage was clearly inspired by the German construction “im Falle” (despite the latter’s absence from the German version). “In case” is generally used to refer to precautionary measures for emergencies such as fire or accident and is often not an appropriate direct translation for “im Falle.” It would be better to drop “in case” altogether and simply say: “Non-compliance will result … .”

5. Passive construction: This is a pithy point, but “it is forbidden by the police” is a poor passive construction. Why not start the sentence differently, i.e with “The police forbid …” or “Vehicles and other objects may not be…”?

6. Information left out: What happened to “Der Polizeipräsident in Berlin”? My guess is that this was simply dropped because it is difficult to render in English. Yet if this information can be omitted, why is the rest of the translation so slavingly faithful to the German, at the expense of readable English?

How could a sign like this get made? Isn’t it a bit contradictory that, on the one hand, the US embassy in Berlin is a major NSA listening post, where analysts pore through Angela Merkel’s text messages, but, on the other hand, embassy officials are unable to effectively monitor the signs that get attached to the fence outside the building? While it does appear that the sign was devised by the local police, were no embassy officials involved in its creation or approval? For the passer-by, the following question thus arises: Are the officials inside simply inept, or are they instead asleep at the switch? Neither eventuality is particularly reassuring. Yet the cogs of power are menacingly real.