More about my father

Yesterday turned out to be a surprisingly alright day. Or, as my girlfriend observed: “One day I could kill your dad, and the next day he is suddenly all nice and entertaining.” At least it´s not just me. Because I feel exactly like that.

We spend much of the day with my parents. First, we had a lengthy bruch, and in the evening we were having dinner together at a restaurant. My mother gave a description of all the hiking tours she´d done with Irene, which was fairly boring. Then somehow our discussion drifted towards linguistics.

My god. Those last two sentences say so much about my family.

I think at first we were just talking about whether it is easier to understand American English or British English. I said that really depends on what you are used to – in my South Park phase I understood AE more easily. Now that I follow English football and some British comedy series I´m starting to get used to BE. My father replied “But many times you cannot even translate nuances. Take the English word “satchel” for example. There just is no exact German translation.”

Huh? What´s that got to do with anything? It´s about understanding what is being said. I don´t need a German word for “satchel”. As long as I know it is a specific type of bag I will understand what the speaker is trying to tell me.

In a long, winded discussion my girlfriend tried to point that out to him until he finally said: “But when you have to translate a book from English to German, it is important that you find a German word for satchel!”

“But translating books is an entirely different issue! We´re talking about whether or not you understand what native speakers are saying to you; we´re not talking about translating books!”

“Well, but I am!”

Okay. So not only does he change the subject in mid-sentence, he doesn´t even notify us in time so we understand what the hell is talking about; and in the end he cannot grasp that this is not how conversations work. His tone wasn´t non-chalant or snappy; he sounded genuinely innocent, like there was nothing wrong or confusing about his behavior.

It was a very egocentric change of subject, too, because he translates books professionally and he is currently working on one. So it is understood that we are talking about the thing that interests him most? Or that this is the only way the conversation can take?

That sounds like he is an arrogant jerk, but, again, he came across as completely innocent. Like he didn´t even know his behavior was absurd. Not in the sense that he doesn´t know the social norms. I think he is just completely fixated on himself, his views, and the things he´s currently doing, like he suffers from some kind of tunnel vision. And when that happens he mercilessly projects his views on us. You might say something, and he says: “Yeah, you´re right, I also think that…” and then say the complete opposite. That actually happened in this discussion, too. I will come to that later.

Next, he went on to a monologue about the book he is working on, and the difficulties he has to deal with. Then, suddenly, he asked me and my girlfriend: “How would you translate the word “pleasure”?” I was immediately extremely uncomfortable. I thought of “Lust”, which is similar to the English lust. It does not only have sexual connotation, though. When a German says “Ich habe keine Lust” (literally: I have no lust), it just means that he doesn´t feel like doing something, such as going to the cinema. Still, I found the sexual connotation embarrassing. Next, I thought about Vergnügen (enjoyment), or Genuß (I´d probably translate the noun Genuß as “pleasure”, but the verb, genießen, might be most accurately translated as “to enjoy”.).

Me and my girlfriend both replied that it was impossible to translate the word without any sort of context. While it is possible to give several meanings, like I did above, what we meant was that we couldn´t give him the meaning he needed if we didn´t know the context in which the word appeared. He insisted, though, that we just tell him what we had thought of first, spontaneously.

In retrospect, I believe he didn´t even want us to solve his problem. He wanted us to say something that would inevitably be wrong just so he could say: “Yeeeeeah……BUT!” and then explain to us why our answer didn´t solve his problem, because there was some phrase in his text in which our translation didn´t make sense. I felt like I was part of a scripted show. I have sometimes felt like that in class when the teacher asked a question so simple that it had to be trap, and we were supposed to dutifully give the wrong answer so he could enlighten us.

It´s a bit like someone saying “Well, judging just by what you see, you´d think the earth is flat.” – “Yeah, but I know it isn´t, so I don´t think so.” – “Yeah, but what do you see when you look around?” – “I see that the earth looks flat.” – “HA! But it isn´t! You know, actually the earth approximates an oblate spheroid, and it is just one of eight planets in our solar system! And did you know that until a few years ago, Pluto was seen as a planet, too?” – “Uh….yeeeeah, I knew that….” – “And it gets even more interesting…” Monologue about simple astronomy facts ensues, and I will be quite miffed because everything about it is as common-knowledge as it gets and he passes it off as secret new insights which I surely have never heard about. Which is not the case, apart from the term “oblate spheroid”, which I just had to look up on Wikipedia. And while I never had this particular conversation with my father, it is a fairly good description of his style.

So, my girlfriend insisted that the word “pleasure” can only be translated properly within the context of at least one sentence. My father said that this was no use to him, because the context can be quite different. She replied that, in that case, he should use different translations according to the respective different contexts. My mother and I agreed. My father went on saying that he wanted to use just one term because the text is more like a philosophical essay than a novel and he doesn´t want to falsify the meaning.

I had a solution for that one, too. I can be a real bitch, you know. I told him that he had to make up his mind if he wanted to translate it like a novel, in which case he should translate the word “pleasure” according to context, or if he wanted to translate it as an essay, in which case he should not translate “pleasure” at all, but use it as a technical term.

He somehow managed to express dissatisfaction with that one, too. I´m not even sure what he said, I think the discussion was starting to move in circles. I guess he said something like: “I tend to agree with you, but I need to really assure myself that it is correct to use several translations. The critics have very high standards, you know?”  Oh, so he wants a reply that can convince literary critics??? Then – maybe – he shouldn´t be asking three laymen!

Again, he was setting up his questions in a way that made it impossible for us to ever give a satisfactory reply. No matter what we said, it was never going to suffice. I, as a person who has studied neither linguistics nor literary theory, shouldn´t be measured by whether or not I could convince people who have. Nobody would blame me for not keeping up with a physicist, a mathematician or a biologist. I think I have kept up quite well with my father, given that he has a doctorate degree in German studies and roughly fifty years of experience in the field. Still, all I can give him is common-sensical advice from a layman´s perspective, and if he cannot value that, he shouldn´t be asking me.

My father suddenly switched to a pessimistic tirade about how German as a language was sooner or later going to become meaningless because all scientific literature is published in English now. And so would, oh my god, translating books. Well, translating them from English to German, maybe; though there are still plenty of people who don´t read English books. They might know their highschool English, but reading books in foreign languages is hard work for them, not leasure. Given that my father is almost seventy years old, I doubt the German language will die in his lifetime.

What ensued was a discussion about whether German was at danger or not. I´d like to mention that my father probably wouldn´t even mind if it was, other than for professional reasons. He thinks German is way too complicated as a language, which is also why he believes it is doomed. If he could have his way he would probably establish newspeak, which is surprising for someone who translates and publishes literature for a living. Sometimes I believe much of his pessimism is wishful thinking in disguise. In this discussion, however, it turned out that although he was making one authoritative statement after the other, he doesn´t know a whole lot about linguistics – other than my girlfriend, who has actually studied it. This made for quite an entertaining discussion, although my father had the annoying habit of sounding “surprised” at anything my girlfriend said. Dad, she does know more about linguistics than you! She studied it. She didn´t just make up what she says five minutes ago. Please believe me!

I promised to talk about how he projects his opinion on others, so here is a little excerpt from our discussion. It had shifted from the “dangers” of English scientific literature (fuck´s sake, for centuries Latin has been the language of science and for some reason neither English nor German has gone extinct!) to the sociolect spoken by many children of Turkish and Arab families. My father held the opinion that this sociolect was a harmless variety of German, not quite as problematic as English being the language of science, or the flood of anglicisms. My girlfriend, on the other hand, said that, from a linguistic point of view, the sociolect was a much greater change to the German language since, other than mere anglicisms for example, it went with grammatical aberrations and changes in intonation. She also pointed out that since many German youngsters are adopting the sociolect (it is natural to adopt the language of the people you hang out with, after all), the aberrations might become popular and actually change the way we speak.  Changes to grammar and intonation are, from a liguistic point of few, the first steps to erasing a language. Adopting new words is harmless.

So, sorry for the long scientific side note. My father then said that his only problem with the sociolect was that it was spoken by aggressive people who despise our society. There have been several brutal attacks by said youngsters against senior citicens or non-immigrant youngsters over the last few years, sometimes with the attackers insulting their victims for being German, so I guess this is what he was alluding to. My girlfriend told him that the sociolect itself is not an expression of aggression. While it sounds aggressive, it is just the result of mixing Arab/Turk intonation with German. (We once met a guy from Finland who told us he finds it totally intimidating when he hears two Germans talk to each other, so if we think Arab or Turk intonation sounds aggressive, they might think we are all soldiers barking commands at each other.^^)

She next said that what annoys her about the sociolect is that many of those who speak it simply can´t be bothered to speak or learn normal German. “Yeah,” my father said, “they refuse to integrate into the German society.” Yeah, dad. Especially the German youngsters who adopt the sociolect.

“I think they´re just too lazy to speak correct German.”, my girlfriend said.

“Yeah, laziness is a form of aggression. You are absolutely correct.” my father replied.

Huh, what? Her opinion is entirely different from his, so why does he feel confirmed? And even if he had confirmed her, why does he express it in such a condescending fashion, as if he was the teacher and she was the student who had given a correct answer? She had already proven several times that she knows more about linguistics than he does!

This is the type of behavior that upsets me most about him. When he claims that you hold the same opinion as he does, you just don´t know it yet. When in doubt, he simply defines laziness as a form of aggression, and next you are busy explaining to him why these are two different things, and you can be sure that he will chime in with another piece of complete nonsense you have to refute. See why Dr. Stoneface reminded me of him?

It´s almost like my father cannot let it happen that we have different opinions. Even if he has to redefine words to keep up the illusion. Or confusion, in this case. He is not overtly authoritarian. I can contradict him all I want. It´s not like he tells me to shut the hell up. He is much more manipulative than that, and he might not even realize it. He cannot make me agree with him, so he “agrees” with me and doesn´t acknowledge that we simply don´t hold the same opinion. I will contradict furiously, which makes me look (and feel) like I´m looking for fights and arguments for the hell of it. Like I just don´t want to agree with him because I´m an immature brat who always has to be terrifically original and absolutely needs to rebel against her benevolent, bright, generous father who takes her oh so seriously and fosters her intellectual development. You can imagine how good that feels. With my father, you can either let him own your thoughts by pretending that you are agreeing with him even when you don´t, or you can feel like someone who disagrees with everyone on principle.

I don´t think he is doing this on purpose in order to supress me. If anything, he is just a real egomaniac. It looks to me like he doesn´t even realize we´re not agreeing. Reality is a negotiable parameter to him, in the same way as it is in Orwell´s 1984. Indeed, my father reminds me of O´Brien.

My father can completely lose sight of who he is talking to. I think it doesn´t make any difference to him if he is talking to my girlfriend or to Irene. He also loses sight of the fact that I´m his daughter and that this might imply that I feel uncomfortable talking to him about anything remotely to do with sex – or at least that I cannot academically talk about whether the term “pleasure” should be translated to a German word that has strong associations with lust.  We are not two scientists at a conference having a professional conversation. He tends to forget that. Sometimes he also completely misrepresents my opinions and then goes on a monologue about why they are wrong and he simply fails to see that what he is shooting down is not even the opinion I have uttered. If I try to correct him, he will do anything to keep up the illusion that it is the opinion I have uttered, at the cost of redefining every letter from a-z and confusing the shit out of me. I don´t get it.

And this, like I said above, is my definition of a constructive encounter with my father. Having written all of it down, I wonder why.


2 Responses to “More about my father”

  1. vicariousrising Says:

    This is not unlike my mother’s behavior, although my mother tends to spew more nonsense because she’s too lazy to research anything or have real concrete knowledge about anything.

    If you disagree with my mother, she accuses you of being contrary out of spite. And she also will say you have opinions that you don’t when it suits her to get consensus on her side. My husband hilariously called her on it once by merely exclaiming, “No one ever said that. Where did you get that crazy idea?” it shut my mother right up because no one dares speak to her that way. She’s not a fan of my husband, to put it mildly.

  2. My father is always completely absorbed by whatever subject he is currently dealing with. He is a perfect illustration of the saying that once you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. He isn´t dumb or lazy, but I think he isn´t too good with empathy, and he is stuck in a role which he´d like to play. He just can´t imagine that others may already know what he just found out, and he seems to be unable to see himself as anything other than the professor who lectures others.

    Even though my girlfriend always contradicts my father, I believe he “likes” her. I think in his worldview she simply fills the gap my sister left when she moved to the other side of the world. When my sister returns, though, my girlfriend is dropped. Even though she is practically part of the family, my mother told me she couldn´t stay for my sister´s birthday dinner. It was no problem, though, for my sister to bring her boyfriend to my birthday dinner (which was fine with me, I like him, but still it´s sort of a double standard).

    I guess your husband isn´t a great fan of your mother, too?

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