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Learning German: an annotated parallel texts reading list

Something fun I've recently started doing is teaching German. Unusually, my handful of students are students of theology and jurisprudence at Islamic seminaries. The crossover between those interested in German literature and Islamic theology is small, despite a strong tradition that includes the poets Goethe and Muhammad Iqbal. (Navid Kermani is the only contemporary author I know who operates in this space.) I may well be the only person in the world teaching German specifically for Islamic seminarians seeking to engage with the rich orientalist scholarship publishing in that language. Seminal texts include Nöldeke's Geschichte des Qorans (1860).

What follows is my own personal syllabus of parallel texts, which are the best way to acquire a reading knowledge of a language. I thought I'd post this reading list online because it's extremely difficult to find German-English parallel texts (also known as dual-language books). I've assembled this list over many, many years of casually keeping an eye out for such books for my own benefit, and they reflect my interests in literature and philosophy. Doctoral students in the humanities who need to acquire a reading knowledge of German, or anyone else keen to access the riches of German literature and scholarship, may find this useful. The rhythms of German prose are very different from English, and parallel texts are the best way to get used to them.

Poetry: best suited to beginners

It's very easy to find the canonical poets in German-English parallel texts. In fact, this is how they tend to be published. I personally use these for beginners; a poem is a very short unit, about the perfect length for a lesson, as well as being grammatically simple, lacking the knotty, cumulative clauses of German prose. Here is a decent selection:

*Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Selected Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2003), edited & translated by David Luke

*Leonard Forster (ed.), The Penguin Book of German Verse (Penguin, multiple editions)

*Michael Hamburger (ed. and trans.), German Poetry 1910-1975 (Carcanet, 1977)

There are also editions of the poetry of Hölderlin, Rilke, Paul Celan, and I would also include in this category the published libretti of, for example, Wagner, and books with the texts of Lieder, which will be of interest to students of music.

Beginners' Prose

*Harry Steinhauer (ed. and trans.), First German Reader: A Beginner’s Dual-Language Book (Dover, 2007). Delightful little anthology of short passages of prose (fiction & nonfiction) and poetry from contemporary and classical German literature and philosophy (Goethe, Nietzsche, Hermann Hesse, etc), as well as more "textbook"-like themed texts by the editor.

Intermediate Prose Fiction

Penguin have published some parallel texts of short stories, which will probably be the only thing you find if you Google around for parallel texts. I list them here because they are the most widely known parallel texts. I have personally found them to be unsatisfactory, partly because they consist of some rather dull contemporary authors.

*Richard Newnham (ed.), Penguin Parallel Text: German Short Stories 1 (Penguin, 1964). Includes Heinrich Böll; the rest are largely forgotten now.

*David Constantine (ed.), Penguin Parallel Text: German Short Stories 2 (Penguin, 1976). This is better. There's Siegfried Lenz, Ingeborg Bachmann, Alexander Kluge and Thomas Bernhard (alongside some dross that was probably fashionable at the time.)

*Ernst Zillekens (ed.), New Penguin Parallel Text: Short Stories in German (Penguin, 2003). The only writer worth reading in it is Lenz.

But my preferred text, which you're unlikely to have come across even though it's widely (and cheaply) available, is this:

*Harry Steinhauer (ed. and trans.), German Stories/Deutsche Erzählungen (University of California Press, 1992). It includes the greats of the modern era, beginning with the likes of Goethe and Kleist, and the lesser known Johann Hebel, and ending with Arthur Schnitzler, Thomas Mann, Kafka and Heinrich Böll.

Intermediate Philosophical Prose

*Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (Wiley-Blackwell, 1980). This is actually a fantastic text for intermediate students to dip into, consisting of short reflections from Wittgenstein's notebooks, often no more than aphorisms, on religion, art, language and much else besides.

*Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Wiley-Blackwell, multiple editions). This is usually published in a dual-language format, with a translation by Wittgenstein's disciple, the great Elizabeth Anscombe.

*Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, (OUP, 1983) ed. and trans. by Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby. A very lucid and surprisingly easy-to-grasp series of philosophical letters by the Romantic poet, who was to Goethe what Coleridge was to Wordsworth.

Advanced Prose

*Jonathan Franzen, The Kraus Project (Picador, 2014). This is really a collection of writings by the great Viennese gadfly Karl Kraus, a high-modernist comedian who is probably the funniest aphorist of all time. Franzen has translated large chunks, accompanied with his own illuminating commentary.

*Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, ed. and trans. by Stanley Appelbaum (Dover, 2004). Once you're ready to go the whole hog and complete an entire novel, why not start with this? An enjoyably melodramatic love story that holds the attention as you grapple with the grammar. The English translation is pretty poor in literary terms, but treat it as a learning aide.

I have not read these, but I am aware that Stanley Appelbaum did versions of other well-known German writers. I mention them here for reference:

*Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha (Dover, 1998) ed. and trans. by Stanley Appelbaum *Hermann Hesse, Demian (Dover, 2002), ed. and trans. by Stanley Appelbaum *Franz Kafka, Best Short Stories (Dover, 1997), ed. and trans. by Stanley Appelbaum

For those interested in other kinds of prose than fiction, what might be useful at this stage are English texts published with facing German translations by Reclam in lovely, light pocket-size editions. Here are two I've enjoyed:

*Thomas Nagel, Wie ist es, eine Fledermaus zu sein? / What is it like to be a bat? (Reclam, 2016). Nagel's seminal paper on consciousness.

*John Stuart Mill, Utilitarismus / Utilitarianism (Reclam, multiple editions)

Bonus: only for absolute masters of German!

*Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Reasons (Northwestern University Press, 1969). This is the only parallel text of Heidegger's works I know of. The translation, interestingly, is by Terrence Malick, yes - the film director, who completed this translation during his previous life as an Oxford philosopher. I have spent more than a decade reading this book and I still don't understand a word of it. It's certainly something to work towards, though it might be a life's work.

Thanks to Ernest Schonfield of the University of Glasgow, for a few suggestions.


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