In 1923 Howard Carter started working on the tomb of Tutankhamun which he had discovered the previous year. One of the experts working alongside him was Jakob Nimmerlein from Oberammergau, an archaeological expert who had been highly recommended by Carter’s financiers. Needless to say that Nimmerlein didn’t speak a word of English, just like Carter didn’t know any German.
After deciding which artefacts to pass on and which ones to keep for himself Carter started examining the Pharaoh’s body. Convinced that the young ruler had been poisoned he got a dilator and insisted on having a closer look at his intestines.
With a broad grin he waved the daunting instrument in front of Nimmerlein’s face and smiled, ‘I’m after Tut’s gut!’
Naturally what Nimmerlein understood was ‘Im After tut’s gut,’ meaning It feels nice in the anus. He turned away in disgust and left the site without a word, but their embassies kept exchanging unpleasantries for decades to come.
In 1948 Hermann Kuhling finished a novel telling a story revolving around a woman's underwear. He rang his publisher, only to find he wasn’t home. So he asked the publisher’s English wife (who, naturally, didn’t speak German) to tell her husband to visit him as soon as he returned.
‘And what is it you intend to show him?’ she wanted to know.
My novel called 'Lingerie', he replied. Yet, his answer ‘Mein Roman Lingerie’ came across as ‘Me in Roman lingerie,’ and he never heard from his publisher (or his wife, for that matter) again.
In 1962 George Bates, whose company had sent him to Germany to get their fair share of the Wirtschaftswunder, visited a friend he had met at the AA meetings in Hamburg. Hans Dorfmann and his wife had just purchased a house and were busy renovating.
Both men had stayed sober for exactly one year and were very proud of themselves. They celebrated with orange juice, and when they ran out of supplies, Bates offered to get more since he had to do his shopping anyway, and he asked whether he could bring them back anything else.
The Dorfmanns had a short discussion about the colour of paint for the bedroom. Finally Frau Dorfmann told him: Bring a bright shade of raspberry red.
Bates slammed the door behind himself and decided never to return. Why would Hans’ wife mistrust him so, knowing he had stayed sober for just as long as Hans had? Her words ‘Bring Himbeerrot in hell’ kept ringing in his ears, sounding like ‘Bring him beer, rot in hell!’
In 1969 General Charles McLiffey, a proud member of the SAS, was stationed in the town of Hochis in Lower Saxony, in the British occupied zone of West Germany. He had a profound interest in Germanic literature and mythology – however, his interest, of course, did not extend to the German language.
One day, completely out of the blue, he got his marching orders for Vietnam, and he decided to spend his last night in his favourite pub.
He involved the barman in a conversation about Germanic tales and legends and came to mention The Emperor’s New Clothes.
‘Did you know,’ he said, ‘that initially Andersen had placed the story in Hochis? Only when his publisher pointed out that no emperor had ever set foot in Hochis did he change it!’
The barman smiled and replied, The tale that almost took place in Hochis. But, as you can imagine, he replied in German, and the sentence ‘Die Sage, die fast in Hochis war’ sounded exactly like ‘Die, sage, die fast in Ho Chi’s war.’ McLiffey left the place in a huff and ordered one of his men to take out the barman.
In 1978 Jörg Bierbaum visited his cousins in Essex where they were living with their mutual grandfather. Alec was over six foot in height while his brother, called Smoke since he was a chain smoker, was a scrawny little alcoholic who’d fight his boozing grandpa to the death over the last bottle of beer.
One morning, during a particularly tough hangover, Smoke decided to stop drinking. He sounded very determined, and Alec encouraged him and suggested he’d talk to their grandfather.
Jörg hadn’t been able to follow the conversation entirely, so he asked Alec with a smirk: Pardon me, is Smoke going to ask grandad for advice, tall guy?
Yet, the words ‘He, will Smoke Opi um Rat bitten, Langer?’ were taken as ‘He will smoke opium, rat-bitten langer!’ and his cousins never talked to Jörg again.
In 1986 2-year old Prince Henry tried to push his 4-year old brother into the swimming pool but lost his balance and fell in himself. Prince William didn’t hesitate one moment and jumped after his little brother in order to rescue him, forgetting that he couldn’t swim.
Fortunately their parents reacted instantaneously and alerted the gardener who managed to pull both kids out of the water.
Lacking a more exciting cover story the Daily Mirror which also has a high circulation in Germany, brought the anecdote of the heroic toddler out on their front page, with photographs of the two little princes and the headline DIANA’S KINDER TOT. To German readers this headline says, DIANA’S CHILDREN DEAD. A nation of monarchy-addicted housewives was shocked and devastated, and millions of letters of condolence poured into the P.O. box of the royal family who didn’t know what had hit them. In a press conference shortly afterwards Prince Charles came to the conclusion that the Germans are a little batty, and that it was best to give them a wide berth.
When Charles Gray travelled to Heidelberg in 1998 he wanted to bring home a few antiques from the many auctions and antique shops. In one of these shops he asked the sales assistant for a good place to buy something very special, preferably from the British monarchy.
In the estate swimming pool where they have a draw for Charles I amphora, was her reply. But Charles Gray perceived the sentence ‘Im Arealbad, wo man Charles I Amfore verlost’, as ‘I’m a real bad woman, Charles, I am forever lost.’ This led him to believe that she was easy and had given him the go-ahead; he only found out differently when he was removed by mall security.
In 2002 Barbara Shelley spent her summer holidays in Bavaria. Her car broke down near the quaint little village of Aldersbach just as the sun was setting, and she went into a small inn where she intended to order a meal and ask for the nearest garage.
As soon as she entered the place she was reminded of her days as a Hammer film actress. There were only old men sitting at the tables, and when they saw a stranger come in, and a female one on top of that, they started whispering to each other while staring at her. Just like Klausenburg in the Dracula films, she thought, and she started imagining the medieval torture devices these people might keep in their basements for visitors like her...
The innkeeper, a dedicated horror fan, recognised her immediately and tried to make her feel welcome. Punning on the German word Star which means both celebrity and starling he exclaimed, A Hammer star(ling) came flying to us!
Unfortunately the actress misunderstood his ‘A Hammer-Star flog her’ as ‘A Hammer star, flog her!’ She ran out of the door without looking back and spent the night fighting her way through the dense forest to the next town, convinced that a mob of bloodthirsty villagers was coming after her with torches and horse whips.
Fritz Schwarz visited his mother in County Galway in 2005. She had left Germany when he finished college and ran a boarding house of questionable reputation in the estate of Erinmore; this was the reason Fritz had chosen Erinmore as his pipe tobacco.
In a pub in Galway he met a few Englishmen, had a good number of pints with them and got slightly drunk. After the call for last orders he lit another pipe and mumbled, ‘Where do we go now?’
‘...Fritz mutters, puffing always Erinmore,’ one of his mates added, trying to be funny.
Yet, what Fritz understood was ‘Fritz’ Mutter’s Puff in Galway’s Erinmore’, meaning Fritz’ mother’s brothel in Galway’s Erinmore. He didn’t consider the remark funny at all, and after the subsequent bar fight he woke up in gaol.
As you can see, all the differences between the British and the Germans are based on plain misunderstandings which could have easily been avoided if both parties spoke the same language. The solution seems simple – just let them learn each other’s language.
But it won’t work like that. The British will think, ‘If the Krauts learn English we can communicate in my language – so why should I bother with theirs?’
The Germans will have the exact same attitude, and everything is going to stay the same. No, in order to solve the problem both would have to learn a neutral language. And while they’re at it, maybe they should choose a language which could help them to communicate in their own countries as well. – How about Polish?