Hitler’s Hot Jazz Band (Transcreation II)


Although the Nazis claimed Jazz was “Negermusik” – devised by Jews to undermine Aryan culture – they did have a Hot Jazz band of their own, called Charlie and his Orchestra.

It was part of the weirdest propaganda effort of the war, devised by Joseph Goebbels and aimed at subverting the morale of Allied civilians and invading troops.

aaaaahitler and goebbels dancing to hot jazz

Charlie and his Orchestra featured a crooner, Karl Schwedler, who’d lived in the USA before the war and could warble his way through the latest hits with a tolerable, if decidedly Teutonic, accent.

Hitler's Crooner, Karl Schwedler

Hitler’s Crooner, Karl Schwedler

More to the point, he could twist the original lyrics to give them pro-Nazi slants – transcreation avant la lettre (or rather, seiner Zeit voraus)…

So Cole Porter’s You’re the Top‘s lyrics, which started out like this:
You’re the top! You’re a Waldorf salad/You’re the top! You’re a Berlin ballad. /You’re the boats that glide /On the sleepy Zuider Zee, /You’re an old Dutch master…

would become:

You”re The Tops, You”re A German Flyer/You”re The Tops, You”re Machine Gun Fire/ You”re A U-boat Chap With a Lot Of Pep/ You”re Grand, You”re A German Blitz, The Paris Ritz…

Many of the lyrics are battier even than this, with ludicrously sinister insults about Jews (I’m fightin’ for democracy/I’m fightin’ for the Jew, from I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams)  and “Negroes”:

“A negro from the London Docks,” Schwedler raps over the intro to the St Louis Blues, “sings the Blackout Blues.” Schwedler goes on to sing: I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down – cos da Germans, dey don bomb dis town! and blames “Churchill’s bloody war” for making him “feel so sore.”

More than a quarter of the British civilian population is estimated to have listened to the German broadcasts which played these recordings. Churchill is said to have found them hilarious.

In any case, this pioneering example of transcreation is a cautionary tale – transcreation can be used for evil, as well as good objectives. And, even under the direction of a Kommunikationsgenie, a Strategiemeister like Goebbels, it’s a weapon which can backfire badly – if you go for the wrong, badly-devised strategy, and sing from the wrong song sheet…



Kafka’s “Ungeziefer” in “The Metamorphosis”

franz kafka

franz kafka

I first came across Kafka’s Metamorphosis when I saw Mel Brooks’ Producers on TV. Plotting to produce a sure-fire Broadway flop, the characters look for the worst musical plot in the world – a premise so dire it’ll get booed off stage and close on the first night, so the producers can run off with their investors’ money.

Max, played by Zero Mostel, is reading through a list of plot ideas. When he reads this one: “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach -“  he tosses it aside, saying:  ‘ Nah, it’s too good.’

Despite that, as any pedant will tell you, the zoological specificity of Mel Brook’s line is far from precise as a translation of Kafka’s humour.

Describing Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, Kafka uses a vague term, “ungeheures Ungeziefer.” Although vague, that term carries some heavy symbolic baggage. And translators have struggled with it these hundred years (Die Verwandlung was first published in 1915). Aside from the Producers’ giant cockroach, the “ungeheures Ungeziefer” has been translated as “a monstrous vermin” and “a verminous bug”.

Etymology gives no clear guide on how to translate “Ungeziefer”, even when adding to the heavy symbolic load.
The etymological roots of “Ungeziefer” are in Middle High German (whose literature Kafka studied in Prague) –  “ungezibere”,  which means “non-sacrificial animal” (especially insects – and similar to the idea, in
other cultures, of the “unclean animal”.).

The difficulty is not so much in the specific words as the fact that Gregor’s point of view concerning his own state mutates as the story proceeds. The metamorphosis, in other words, is not a fait accompli at the beginning, but a process yet to be completed. Hence the imprecision in that first sentence.
In later passages the Ungeziefer is more precisely, but always contradictorily, described. The charlady, for example, calls Gregor a “dung beetle” (“Mistkäfer”). She seems to say it quite affectionately, but that term, too, is symbolically loaded. According to the ancients, the dung beetle was a protector of the written word, as well as a symbol of fertility – to the Egyptians, scarabs were talismans and amulets, used on seals,
rings and grave goods.

egyptian scarab beetle

egyptian scarab beetle

At the physical level Gregor, at different points in the story, starts to talk with a squeaking, animal-like voice, loses control of his legs, hangs from the ceiling, starts to lose his eyesight, and wants to bite his sister – not really helpful in determining his taxonomy.
Although Kafka famously wrote that he hated metaphors, these varied aspects of Gregor’s metamorphosis – both physical and symbolic – add to the resonance of the story, a resonance made more baffling, more moving by the very fluid nature of its inspecificity. That inspecificity contrasts with the earnestly specific way Gregor describes his physical condition, and intends to commute to his work as a salesman.
None of this  helps the translator looking for the perfect rendition of “ungeheures Ungeziefer”. I think I’ll put my money on Mel Brooks’ giant cockroach after all.