The humourless German, © German nationalists

This is re Margaret’s post re Stewart Lee’s. The first references I know to the stereotype are not British but are to be found in the early German romantics. They note (1), as does Lee, the various expressive possibilities afforded by various languages; (2) the failure of German writers to exploit these former to the extent achieved by other “nations”. Here for example is Herder (Johann Gottfried Herder: Selected Early Works, 1764 – 1767, ed Menze & Menges):

[N]ational particularities of language are marks of beauty that no neighbor may take from us by translation, and that are sacred to the patron goddess of language; they are beauties woven into the genius of a language that are destroyed when separated out. They are charms that glow in a language as the breast of Phryne shimmered in the silken mist, under the aqueous, clinging gowns of ancient statues. Why is it that the British so love the humor of their writing? Because this humor is untranslatable and resembles a sacred idiom. Why did Shakespeare and Hudibras, Swift and Fielding make so thoroughly their own the mood of their nation? Because they first explored the treasure groves of their language and wedded their humor, each in his own way and according to his capacity, to the idioms of the language. Why do the English defend their Shakespeare even when he goes astray among the concetti and wordplay?–These concetti [would “conceits” be such a bad translation?], wedded by him to wordplay, are precisely the fruit that cannot be abducted to another clime. The poet knew so well to pair the peculiarity of the language with the peculiarity of his wit, that they appear made for each other; at most, the former resembles the resistance of a beauty who acts demurely out of love, and whose maidenly reticence doubles her attractiveness.

It must be difficult, indeed, to penetrate these mysteries, because we have so few German humorists. Rabner is not wholly a German Swift, neither in his characters, nor in his style. Among our writers of comedy there is perhaps no one who makes the grade [translatorly cringe], except for Lessing, who does so in large measure. In this realm, too, there is no party that has injured the genius of the German language as much as the Gottschedians. Except for a few invectives and vulgar expressions that were retained, all was watered down by a thoughtless manner of writing and by the poor translation of French books. A language, which, because of the stylistic influence of Weise, Talander, and Menantes, had retained little of its manhood, was completely emasculated; the inversions as well as the idioms of the Swiss were ridiculed instead of being tested; in short, this sect served the German language on behalf of the earthly rather than the heavenly muses, and what the Greek king said of the consumptive but voracious beggar applies here: [etc etc]

My non-scholarly and ill-considered suggestion would be that Shakespeare & Co may have been so good, and the German romantics frequently so bad, because the former were much less bothered than the latter about such collective niceties. Love is a lousy optician.

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