Of owls and other birds

UK Wild Llittle Owl

In a recent conversation with friends, the German saying Wat dem eenen sin Uhl [Eule], is dem annern sin Nachtigall (literally: ‘One man’s owl is another man’s nightingale’) came up. When my English husband enquired about the meaning of Nachtigall, our friends’ sixteen-year-old daughter suggested ‘mockingbird’ (Spottdrossel) as a translation. But isn’t that an entirely different kettle of fish?

After some discussion, it turned out that the daughter, who insisted she had verified the translation (‘Generation Y’-style, on her smartphone, of course), based her assumption on the German translation of the book title ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (Wer die Nachtigall stört). In this specific case, the mockingbird, commonly found in North America and the state bird of several US-American states while rarely sighted in Europe, was replaced in the German book title by the nightingale, a bird more prevalent there and thus more familiar to German-speaking readers. (Besides, Wer die Spottdrossel stört just hasn’t got this certain ring to it, does it?). Translation theorists refer to this seeming mismatch as ‘pragmatic translation’ or ‘cultural substitution’, meaning that a culture-specific word is replaced with a target-language word with a different meaning but a similar impact on the target reader (Mona Baker: In other words. A coursebook on translation. Routledge, 1992, p.31).

Getting back to the German saying, it is maintained that the owl represents doom or death, whereas the nightingale with its beautiful song is a bearer of good news, so an apt translation would indeed be ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’.

My favourite use of the German Nachtigall, however, is in the Berlin figure of speech Nachtijall, ick hör’ da trapsen!, which refers to the speaker’s hunch or premonition about something – perhaps a ‘ghost driver’. Read more next week …

The Pommes Buddha says: When the nightingale traipses, there is no escape.

> Audioversion