Tongue Twisters: The Spoken Langauge in Austerlitz

As hard as I tried, I could not make myself like W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz. It was predominately the long, descriptive, and digressive style that contributed to my distaste for the book, as, by writing in this manner, Sebald effectively confused me and, as a Austerlitz’s story gradually became more complicated, made me want to finish the novel less and less. However, I do think that my confusions with this novel are suitable for what will most likely be my last Arts One blog post since it seems as though I have been nothing but utterly confused in most of my blog posts all year….

One thing that I found vexing, albeit intriguing, was the multiple different languages (as in spoken languages, not the “language” of images) used throughout the text and how and when they were used. Although I do believe that Austerlitz and the narrator mainly converse in French or English (Please correct me if I am mistaken!), several other languages are woven into the recount of the narrator’s prolonged conversation with Austerlitz through the various different character voices that are brought up throughout Austerlitz’s story. For instance, when Austerlitz recalls his first visit with Vera, he claims that she “stared at [him] over her spread fingertips, and very quietly but with what to me was quite singular clarity spoke these words in French: Jacquot, she said, dis, est-ce que c’est toi?” (153). From this point on, the reader is aware that the conversation between both Austerlitz and Vera is taking place in French, although, being an English translation of the novel, their words are predominately written in English. However, Austerlitz also states that Vera told him that, in the past, she and the young Austerlitz “spoke French, and only when [they] came home in the late afternoon and Vera was making [their] supper did [they] convert to Czech….In the middle of her account Vera herself, quite involuntarily, had changed from one language to the other” (155). One can see, in these excerpts, two of the ways in which Sebald indicates that there are different languages being used to communicate throughout the text. My favourite of the these two ways of illustrating language has to be the first. For by getting a character to speak a line in, say, French, the reader assumes that the character speaks the rest of their words in French, allowing Sebald to avoid employing the boring old phrase, “said Character XYZ in French”. However, knowing full well that not all his readers speak the languages that he uses throughout his novel, Sebald sometimes provides one of a general overview of what the character said. Take the bottom three lines on page 152, where Austerlitz speaks in Czech, for example. Immediately after the Czech sentence are the English words: “I am looking for Mrs. Agáta Austerlitzová” (152-153). Thus, the reader knows that was the gist of what Austerlitz had said in Czech, even if they cannot read Czech for themselves.

What confuses me about all this is when Sebald does the opposite of what was described in the last example in the paragraph above–when Sebald states something in English and then translates it back into French, Czech, etc., even though he has already established that these characters are, in fact, not speaking English. One such instance of this can be seen on page 173, wherein the narrator states “that [Austerlitz] had [his] things with [him] in a little leather suitcase, and food for the journey in a rucksack–un petit sac à dos avec quelques viatiques, said Austerlitz, those had been Vera’s exact words, summing up, as he now thought, the whole of his later life”. Although I get that these are the “real” words that these character would have been using (and, thus, these words are conveying the character’s real meaning), I am a bit perplexed as to how Sebald is adding value to the text with this method. After all, the English (or, in the original version of the book, German) readers may or may not be familiar with these languages. Thus, one may end up having to translate some of these sentences into English in order to understand them, which, as far as I can see, completely goes against the initial intent of keeping the words in their native language. Therefore, I am wondering if there is any value to keeping these words in their original language? And if so, how these words can provide any reader with additional value.

As a sidenote, something that I found kind of frusterating is when Sebald did not provide a translation (or give his readers a rough idea of what was being said) in another language. An example of this can be found on page 283, when, in French, “Austerlitz quoted from memory” a passage from a book about Colonel Chabert. Austerlitz then goes on saying that reading the book “reinforced the suspicion that [he] always entertained that the border between life and death is less impermeable then we commonly think…” (283). Although this is fine to do, I, as an Anglophone, who has, unfortunately, lost much of the French that I have learned, am not able to understand what is happening in this section very well. After reading the quoted passage, I have no idea how the excerpt in French shows how life and death are supposed to be closer than we think. Even though Google Translate can provide me with a rough translation of the passage, I can’t help but feel as though I have been left out of the loop, like Sebald did not intend for a non-francophone to draw much meaning from the passage. However, I do feel like this section is trying to communicate something significant. So, why did Sebald not translate this passage into English or give an English overview of what Austerlitz quotes?

1 thought on “Tongue Twisters: The Spoken Langauge in Austerlitz”

  1. Good questions here. Maybe you talked about some of this in class yesterday? I don’t have a lot of clear thoughts on this issue. I do like your point that by using the other language at the beginning of the conversation, the author can easily show that the characters are speaking in that language in what follows. I hadn’t really thought about how that works, but it makes sense that that’s a nice and effective way to show it.

    As for the times when there is both the English (or original German) and the other language, one thing that comes to mind is that translation is always questionable, that it never fully expresses the original. So for someone who can read both languages, they can see the original and possible get a different meaning than the translation could suggest. But for a reader who doesn’t understand the other language, having the words in that language may not add much of anything besides pointing to the fact of there being multiple languages being used in the book.

    But why would that matter? That gets to your last question, on why there might be other languages in the text that are not translated into English/German. There is a good deal of emphasis in the text on crossing borders, on being in different places, none of which is “home” to Austerlitz, as discussed in lecture. Perhaps this idea is also expressed in the multiple languages he speaks. His original language would have been Czech, but he also spoke French with Vera, and then he has to learn English. At some point in the text he talks about his childhood in Wales and feeling strange because he has to wear different clothes, and then speak different words (I wish I could find the place right now, but I’m not able to at the moment). He talks of losing his earlier words over time. So being exiled from his home is also being exiled from his earlier language(s). It’s interesting that when he arrives in Prague and talks to Vera, suddenly Czech comes back along with his other memories–he is, in a sense, coming back from exile geographically and linguistically.

    But that’s just to say that I can see why the existence of multiple languages in the text makes sense. It doesn’t explain why sometimes those wouldn’t be translated into English (or German). It does indeed have the effect of turning off/closing off the reader who doesn’t understand those languages. But maybe the reader then experiences, if only briefly, the same thing that an exile would experience when going to a new place with a new language?

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