Originally published on the College Voice‘s Abroad Blog, Fall 2009.
One of the best things about being on an exchange program like mine is the chance I have to live with other international students. I live in a single apartment in a building of about 20 single and double rooms. Half of my housemates are German, and the rest are exchange students from more countries than I have fingers. A solid grasp of English is common among most of us, but some of my friends speak better German than English, which is always an exciting challenge of communication.
We have to meet on some lingual middle ground, starting in less-than-perfect German, sometimes translating from English to German through French or Spanish (or both, depending on the company), and ending with a few revisions for grammar’s sake. My neighbor, a German fluent in English, French, Italian, Arabic, and who can read and write Latin, claims language comprehension is best between 2 and 5 beers. I suppose he would know.
It seems even the Germans disagree on some linguistic points, and as far as getting help on my language homework goes, I’ve learned it’s best not to ask more than one of them. The conversation inevitably spirals into a disagreement about usage and nuance. One such sticking point is the correct way to express that something “makes sense.” In proper, academic German this is expressed as: es hat Sinn—literally, “it has sense.” Colloquial German allows for something to “make sense” as well: es macht Sinn. The former construction is typical, both in its Germanness and its inefficiency.
Literal translation is never a good idea, both for the sake of comprehension and for that of the dignity of any language, but such is German – some things are had and some things are made. Sense is had, as are Hunger, Thirst, and Right(ness), as in “I have rightness” instead of “I am right.” Presumably, one has right only with regard to a particular issue, and, frankly, being right seems like a lot of pressure. In the same externalizing vein, both Sadness and Fun are neither felt nor had. Rather, sadness is done, to a person, by something, and fun is made unto him or her, hopefully by something else.
Es macht mir Spaß. “It makes fun to me.”
Es tut mir Leid, “It does sad to me.”
It’s one hell of a passive construction. Personally, I find the emotional detachment refreshing – freeing, even. No longer must I be sad, and instead merely react to something making me that way. Sad things exist in the world, and I come in contact with them on occasion. Unfortunately, Fun is equally far from the German speaker, and German grammar makes no attempt to bring the two any closer.