Sprichst du Deutsch? 99 Luftballons…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

99 Red Ballons
Image: Denise Abé

I’m about one fifth of the way with writing my new book, which covers a lot of things, among them language and translation. In the book, my protagonist – Mr Fry – is searching for the answer to life, the universe and everything (aren’t we all?). We all know the answer is 42, but in order for an answer to make sense, we first need to make sure we ask the right questions: This is a point Douglas Adams made in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; and Cyrus Song is part Douglas Adams tribute.

In one Cyrus Song plot thread, Mr Fry is talking to animals, using a computer program called The Babel Fish: Clearly based on Douglas’ real fish in Hitch Hiker’s. Just like humans, animals speak in different languages. In another plot thread, our hero is contemplating what it might be like to speak to historical scientists, to see what they might make of life in the 21st century. Because finding answers which make sense, depends not only on how one poses the question, but to whom.

The book’s going well: Feedback from test readers is very good, and the actual writing process is a relatively smooth and fun one. It’s a book with a lot of deep messages but it’s also a sci-fi comedy tribute to one of my heroes. I’ve been compared to Douglas in the past, and to Roald Dahl, and Paul Auster. One magazine sub-editor compared me to Jane Austen, Enid Blighton, and Charles Dickens, all in one email. It’s all chronicled on this blog and I have documented proof filed away. It’s nice to know I can’t be pigeon-holed as a writer. But I suppose it would be difficult to categorise me, when I’ve won an award for a children’s story, and repulsed people with the beauty of COGS. But most of all, I’m a sci-fi writer. Cyrus Song is still on schedule for the end of the year, either self-published, or through an agent or mainstream publisher; depending on which suits me better. Getting the right agent or publisher vs. DIY is just the same as the question and answer thing above: If the correct questions are asked of the most appropriate partner, the answers will make more sense. Time and circumstance will dictate the publishing process of the book.

In a slightly tenuous link, one of my favourite songs of the 80s is an excellent example of how something can be totally different in another language: Of course it’s different; it’s in another language. But what I mean is, the meaning of a thing, in this case, a song, can lose much in translation. The song I’m referring to is 99 Red Balloons, by Nena. Most of us could sing an approximation of the English lyrics:

You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got
Set them free at the break of dawn
‘Til one by one they were gone
Back at base bugs in the software
Flash the message “something’s out there!”
Floating in the summer sky
Ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it’s red alert
There’s something here from somewhere else
The war machine springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
Focusing it on the sky
Where ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine decision street
Ninety-nine ministers meet
To worry, worry, super scurry
Call the troops out in a hurry
This is what we’ve waited for
This is it, boys, this is war
The president is on the line
As ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine knights of the air
Ride super high-tech jet fighters
Everyone’s a super hero
Everyone’s a captain Kirk
With orders to identify
To clarify and classify
Scramble in the summer sky
Ninety-nine red balloons go by

As ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine dreams I have had
In every one a red balloon
It’s all over and I’m standing pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
And here is a red balloon
I think of you, and let it go

These are nice lyrics and set to a catchy musical score, we have a proper “Choon”. But the English lyrics are not a direct translation of the original German words. In fact, the English wording is quite different, so that the words fit the tune. And we all know the song: It’s good. But when we hear the original German song and translate directly, the lyrics are something quite different:

German Lyrics

Direct Translation by Hyde Flippo

Hast du etwas Zeit für mich
Dann singe ich ein Lied für dich
Von 99 Luftballons
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Denkst du vielleicht g’rad an mich
Dann singe ich ein Lied für dich
Von 99 Luftballons
Und dass so was von so was kommt

Have you some time for me,
then I’ll sing a song for you
about 99 balloons
on their way to the horizon.
If you’re perhaps thinking about me right now
then I’ll sing a song for you
about 99 balloons
and that such a thing comes from such a thing.

99 Luftballons
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Hielt man für Ufos aus dem All
Darum schickte ein General

‘ne Fliegerstaffel hinterher
Alarm zu geben, wenn es so wär
Dabei war’n da am Horizont
Nur 99 Luftballons

99 balloons
on their way to the horizon
People think they’re UFOs from space
so a general sent up

a fighter squadron after them
Sound the alarm if it’s so
but there on the horizon were
only 99 balloons.

99 Düsenjäger
Jeder war ein großer Krieger
Hielten sich für Captain Kirk
Das gab ein großes Feuerwerk
Die Nachbarn haben nichts gerafft
Und fühlten sich gleich angemacht
Dabei schoss man am Horizont
Auf 99 Luftballons

99 fighter jets
Each one’s a great warrior
Thought they were Captain Kirk
then came a lot of fireworks
the neighbors didn’t understand anything
and felt like they were being provoked
so they shot at the horizon
at 99 balloons.

99 Kriegsminister –
Streichholz und Benzinkanister –
Hielten sich für schlaue Leute
Witterten schon fette Beute
Riefen Krieg und wollten Macht
Mann, wer hätte das gedacht
Dass es einmal soweit kommt
Wegen 99 Luftballons

99 war ministers
matches and gasoline canisters
They thought they were clever people
already smelled a nice bounty
Called for war and wanted power.
Man, who would’ve thought
that things would someday go so far
because of 99 balloons.

99 Jahre Krieg
Ließen keinen Platz für Sieger
Kriegsminister gibt’s nicht mehr
Und auch keine Düsenflieger
Heute zieh’ ich meine Runden
Seh’ die Welt in Trümmern liegen
Hab’ ‘nen Luftballon gefunden
Denk’ an dich und lass’ ihn fliegen

99 years of war
left no room for victors.
There are no more war ministers
nor any jet fighters.
Today I’m making my rounds
see the world lying in ruins.
I found a balloon,
think of you and let it fly (away).

(Source: Thoughtco.com)

So we can see how much was changed in translation. And it does demonstrate the point nicely, that something can have a different meaning if you listen to it differently. As Mr Fry says in Cyrus Song, “To see more clearly, listen.”

And I have been asked if there is indeed an answer, to life the universe and everything: Is it in the book? Will it make sense? To answer those questions in turn: Yes, yes, and yes.

My first three books are available now.

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