Today, I'm offering you some free writing inspiration courtesy of incorrectly translated German. We've got testicle dances, tar birds, and elves made of ice. Come and see!
Or: Writerly shenanigans with words, cuz that’s how I roll.
In case you didn’t know, I grew up in Germany and speak German fluently. I also speak a fair amount of French and a smattering of Italian, and I’ve had four years of Ancient Greek. This is the reason why in
many of most of my novels, I make up words such as “Saltmarch” and “banegold” and have characters who speak in dialects. (I’m trying to dial back the dialect stuff, since it turns off some of my readers. See? I love y’all enough to kill my darlings!)
*ahem* Where was I?
Oh. Languages. Yes. Well, today I read something German that included the word “heimsuchen.” I’ve always considered it a peculiar word. It’s used to describe uncomfortable or scary events, mostly related to natural disasters. It’s translated as beleaguer, infest, devastate, afflict, obsess, haunt.
So, a stalker “heimsucht” a victim. Or Moore, OK, was “heimgesucht” by tornadoes on May 11th. Or the spirits “heimsuchen” the graveyard. Et cetera.
But directly translated, “heimsuchen” means “homeseek.”
That just flips my bangerang switch penchants all over the place. Homeseek. It could be a verb: the action of a specially programmed missile. It could be a noun: a tiny creature you carry around with you on your quest, only for emergency use when you’re hopelessly lost in Thornbird Forest. It could even be an adverb, although I don’t recommend those and don’t know how you’d use “homeseekily,” anyway.
Ooh. A title. Pillars of the Twelve: Homeseek (totally arbitrary number). Go do something with that.
The more I thought about this strange word “heimsuchen” and its incorrect translation “homeseek,” the more excited I got about finding other German words or phrases to translate into fantasy/sci-fi inspiration. So I did some pondering and came up with the following. Use at will–it’s all free inspiration! Credit me if you like, or not. But don’t be surprised if I use some of these myself. ; )
German word: PECHVOGEL
Correct translation: jinx, unlucky person
Direct translation: tar bird
A mech bird that dumps tar or something equally unlovely upon citizens for public infractions? A bird made of tar, created by a wizard to plague people?
German word: SÄUFERSONNE
In this case, the correct and direct translations have to be one and the same, because I don’t know of an English phrase for this. The word translates to “drunkard’s sun” and refers to the moon: Either the person is too drunk to tell the difference and thinks the moon is the sun; or s/he spends the day sleeping off a hangover and never sees the actual sun, so the moon must suffice.
But it makes me think of the phrase “drinker’s sun,” which leads to “drink the sun,” which could be really creepy in some evil ritual by the bad guys in a fantasy story.
German phrase: HEILIGER STROHSACK
Correct translation: Holy mackerel!
Direct translation: Holy straw sack (Batman)!
German word: HEUSCHRECKE
Correct translation: grasshopper, locust
Direct translation: hay scare
German phrase: SCHWEIN HABEN
Correct translation: to be lucky
Direct translation: to have pig
I think this would be awesome in a fantasy novel with villager characters. : )
German word: EISBEIN
Correct translation: knuckle of pork (in cooking)
Old usage: ice skate (noun)
Direct translation: ice leg
German word: ENTLARVEN
Correct translation: to unmask
Direct translation: to de-larva
Maybe Tolkien’s ents start out as larva? I dunno. O_o
German word: ELFENBEIN
Correct translation: ivory (the dentine, not the color)
Direct translation: elf leg
What’s the connection between elves and elephants? Write it!
German word: HOTTEHÜ
Correct translation: horse (babytalk)
Direct translation: rightleft (noun)
German word: FRIEDHOF
Correct translation: graveyard
Direct translation: peace yard
German word: EIERTANZ
Correct usage: to beat around the bush
Direct translation: egg dance
BONUS: can also translate to “testicle dance” O_o
German word: JEMANDEN MUNDTOT MACHEN
Correct translation: to muzzle someone, to shut someone up
Direct translation: to make someone mouth-dead
So there you have it, folks! Some of my favorite, inspiring mistranslations. Feel free to share which of these inspires you — and then go write it! Or draw it, or paint it. Whatever you want!
Me, I’m having visions of mouth-dead elves made of ice, tending to peaceyards full of larva that hatch into tiny trees, all whilst dodging the tar birds sent to drink the sun.