For a long time we were regaled with ads for motorcars which ended with some deep-voiced actor mumbling Vorsprung Durch Technik. And not translating it. I suspect it was the same actor who voiced that Irish butter ad – the one where he does his damnedest to seduce you into baking a large spud slowly and luxuriously in the oven instead of microwaving it like any normal person would – and then slathering it with Irish butter. I am something of a connoisseur of ads.
Anyway, at the time nobody except real Germans and German A level students knew what Vorsprung Durch Whatsit meant and most, like me, were too idle even to look it up. In a way, it was more interesting untranslated, like a mantra. Who really needs to know what Om Mani Padme Hum means?
But of course, worrisome Translating Mind would not, could not leave it alone. Way back in the past I had made a couple of attempts at learning German, the first being a term of adult education evening classes. I had been good at French at school. Unfortunately being good at French does not make you good at German. Two totally different Kettles of Fish.
The classes consisted mainly of nouns and verbs. Our teacher, a thin, weary man with an untidy beard and corduroy trousers, must have decided it would be too difficult to explain to us the masculine, feminine or neuter article so for a whole term we chanted (in German) such things as Cat Sits On Mat, Dog Walks in Park and Hedgehog Hunts in Hedgerow.
Part Two of each lesson involved a very long film. Every Thursday evening we watched this same film, starting from the beginning and never, ever getting to the end. It was something to do with two unattractive backpackers called Mary and John, who were really looking forward to sightseeing in Köln. Mary and John, having first changed their money at something called a Wechselstube, bought tickets at the Hauptbahnhof von Köln. That was how you always had to say it – von Köln. We never got any further than that and I have been unable to ‘wipe’ the Hauptbahnhof von Köln from of my mind ever since.
So, rather than look up Vorsprung Durch Technik I toyed around with it, idly splitting it into its component parts.
Vor I was fairly sure meant Forward, and the sprung bit was probably something to do with springing – the spring has sprung, the grass is riz, and all that – so Vorsprung must mean Forwardspringing.
Durch I actually remembered was ‘through’.
Technik I decided, losing interest now, must be Technicality. So, this car firm was Forwardspringing Through Technicality. (Yawn…)
This leads me, finally, to flea traps. I have eighteen cats and, now, in spite of expensive flea treatments and in spite of the fact that they are indoor cats and until recently were flea-free, I appear to have eighteen cats with fleas.
It only takes one. You open the door, and in it hops, and onto a cat it hops and then you’re done for. You take a cat to the vet and it comes back with a flea. Yipee! Rich pickings!
This afternoon two German Flea Killers or Floh-Vernichter (Flea-Make-Notter) or alternatively Destructeur des Puces (Destroyer of Fleas) and Matapulgas (Flea-Matador) arrived, one for upstairs and one for downstairs. German engineering is famously splendid, of course, but it seems only Germans are clever enough to assemble items designed by Germans. It took me an hour and a half to put together one kit and almost as long again to assemble the other.
I just couldn’t get that piddly little light bulb into its piddly little socket. The bulb socket was designed only for German fingers, for those mutig enough to risk a finger-and-thumb-ful of brittle glass. All Germans, I think, must be right handed.
And that was only the beginning. Then there were the little plastic supports which had to be placed inside the lid using something called the non-return end (benutzen sie hierzu die Rücklaufsperren an den Enden).
And then there was the sticky paper disc which, as I discovered too late, had to go in before you attached the lid to the base with your Rücklaufsperren. Super-sticky, this paper disc. I couldn’t detach myself from it. In the end I had to anchor it with the top of a biro and wrench my hand away. No mere Floh would stand a chance against a Schutzpapier this ferocious. It would be Vernichted, slowly and excruciatingly.
It would be an ex-flea. This flea would be no more.
It occurred to me that rather than bombing us during the Second World War it would have been wiser to drop great sacksful of Floh-Vernichter kits. Shortly thereafter the invading armies could have hopped across the channel and taken over the whole country quite easily. As we puzzled over our Rücklaufsperrens, our Glühlampes and our Schutzpapiers, we’d scarcely have noticed.