German Language in English Literature – A Rant

I like everything Sebastian Faulks has ever written. So this is not personal. But in his latest book, Paris Echo, which I liked very much, I came across the latest instance of a phenomenon that has long annoyed me: the use of bad German in English writing. Imagine you’re reading this incredibly poignant scene on page 253:

It had a gallows and a gas chamber, but it was not an extermination camp and only a minority died there – those marked ‘Nacht und Nabel’, Night and Fog, distinguished by a yellow badge that meant they were not expected to return and could be worked to death. As for Andrée and her three friends, the processes of Nazi logic were perhaps still unresolved at this point in their journey.

Only ‘Nacht und Nabel’ does not mean Night and Fog. Because that would be ‘Nacht und Nebel.’ (‘Bei Nacht und Nebel’ also means in a clandestine way.) The sudden emergence of a reference to the belly button (which is what Nabel means, the word being related to the English word navel) breaks the pathos of the passage and just makes it ridiculous. (Unfortunately, in the 1980s BBC comedy series ‘Allo ‘Allo that is set in World War II German-occupied France there is a person who gets all their vowels wrong and may well say Nabel instead of Nebel. That is how ridiculous the stuff is that suddenly springs to mind when you read this kind of thing.)

Don’t get me wrong. My point is not “oh, there’s a typo in this book, so this celebrated author is clearly rubbish.” My point is that in so many English books German language is used for effect – only it’s not real German language. It’s some comically warped English version of the German language. (Right now you have to take my word for it. I haven’t systematically collected the incidences of it as evidence, but I have built up a lot of pent up annoyance. I will start collecting other instances, as I go along.)

The reason I’m so annoyed about it, is that we’re talking here about a cultural elite, getting stuff wrong, that could easily be got right, laying bare a disturbing attitude. The attitude is either that we don’t need to worry, because, of course our grasp of the German language is so good that we definitely don’t need to look it up, or just, you know, ask someone to check – only it’s not. Or it is that we want to use German words, but it doesn’t really matter that much whether we get them right because it’s more important to look like we’re clever enough to use foreign languages, than to actually be it. In any case it’s a toxic mix of arrogance, carelessness and laziness.

It may not even be the authors fault. Who knows? Maybe it was correct in the manuscript and in all the versions, right up to the one that got printed. In his acknowledgements Faulks thanks five literary agents and seven people at his London publishers. I’m not saying they should all have proofread his German. But with so many people deserving thanks at a high level of the process, surely they should be able to find someone who can make sure that they don’t print something about a Night and Navel operation at a labour camp.



  1. There’s an hilarious example of this in the tenth episode of the first season of NCIS — which is one of the biggest TV shows ever. The German is so bad that I cannot explain what could’ve possibly happened.

  2. It happens with people who should know better too. The most common involve the transposition of I and e. Lied means song but Leid, suffering. A great music school has Schubert’s songs rebound as Leider von Schubert—unfortunately by Schubert. One doesn’t want to mix up hören and horen.

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