Taking 'C' seriously in vienna

A few months ago I attended a conference on multilingualism at which there was much talk of "inter-comprehension". This seems to be the new Esperanto, the last redoubt before the world is invaded by Globish.  Basically, it means talking to someone in your own language and listening to them talk back in their language. So far, so good, but I was not quite clear about the comprehension part. However, participants enthused about learning what interpreters would call a C language in a matter of hours.

The heated and frustrating debate that followed did make me realise that it had taken me considerably longer to learn my C language and that, having battled with German for thirty years, I was still not comfortable with the Austrian brand of that language. Therefore, I shall be forever grateful to the "inter-comprehension" enthusiasts for making me sign up for the German refresher course organised in Vienna by AIIC colleagues.

I had not been to Vienna for more than fifteen years and I remembered it as an imposing city, but also rather sulky and dusty, jammed up against the - by then - shredded Iron Curtain. I re-discovered it as beautiful as in my memories, but as though awakened from its protracted post-war slumber, busily exchanging with the new EU member countries. In short, a self-confident, vibrant city once again at the heart of a redefined Europe. A city with parks, vast, green and leafy, (although beware of the ruthless Nordic walkers); a city with the treat of spacious museums and galleries, built in the optimistic days of enduring empires. No queuing here; culture is laid out sumptuously like a birthday party feast.

Many of us stayed at a charming family hotel in the residential neighbourhood of Döbling, just around the corner from the University premises. This part of Döbling is known as Cottage, pronounced as though a French word by the Viennese. Beethoven and Johann Strauss composed here. Originally, back in the glorious sunset of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, residents had to be accepted into the Cottage Residents' Association before being allowed to move in. The whole area is densely planted with lime trees, intended to protect the residents' exclusive complexion from Viennese sun. However, for us, the rain teemed and roared in an orgy of post-expressionist angst.

I think we were all a little nervous on the morning of July 6th, when we gathered in our classroom, perhaps dreading interrogations in German and ensuing public humiliation or simply unused to student status. It was soon clear that the 18 participants had very different language needs and expectations, ranging from those who had just added a German C to others who (so it sounded to me) had almost perfect German and were simply interested in learning more about Austria. Some had lived in Vienna for several years in the past; others were visiting the country for the first time. I must say that, amazingly, despite such diversity, the course succeeded in satisfying everyone.

I have since been trying to understand quite how our colleagues pulled off this feat, especially as this is the first course they have organised.

Part of the secret was undoubtedly the choice of speakers, who were without exception genuinely excited by their field, full of original ideas, and with true breadth of vision. They were able to make dry-sounding subjects like the role of Trade Unions in Austrian society or the education system thrilling and personal. We were particularly fortunate to have inspiring presentations from Hannah Lessing, head of the Nationalfonds for victims of the Nazi era, and from Andreas Khol, a former parliamentary leader. They come from radically different backgrounds. Hannah Lessing's grandparents were murdered in the death camps. Andreas Khol was a key figure in the conservative People's party that was to form a coalition with Haider's nationalists. Yet both conveyed a deep commitment to making their country a cohesive, decent society, after many decades of uncertain identity and selective reconstruction of the past. For, and this was a discovery for me, Austria's birth as a nation was belated and painful. Under the Austro-Hungarian Empire there was simply Cis-Leitha (the Western part, beyond the Leitha River) and Trans-Leitha (the Hungarian Kingdom). Clemenceau in the post-World War I carve-up of the vanquished territories famously stated that "L'Autriche, c'est ce qui reste". But over the last decades Austrians like those we were fortunate enough to meet have made this a very real country, certainly no leftover from any carvery.

And this brings me to another reason I think the course worked. It opened so many windows on to different facets of Austrian culture and history, yet often circling back to matching strands that have woven together modern-day Austria. The First Republic in the twenties and early thirties was turbulent with political parties having their own paramilitary gangs, leading to the Schattendorf trials, the ensuing riots and setting fire to the Law Courts in 1927 (which we visited), and eventually the setting up of the Austro-Fascist regime.  The leaders of these same warring political parties were thrown together in the concentration camps under Hitler. The spirit of consensus and compromise in Austrian politics since is attributed to this experience.

Austria may now be cohesive, but it is no less a complex place, as its literature attests. And Vienna is the city of Freud. As Hedwig Thimig explained in her fascinating presentation of recent Austrian writing, many of the authors who wrote about the end of the empire, preserving in print a lost lifestyle and culture, were Austrian Jews, some of whom returned from exile after the war. Other post-War authors have employed radically new use of language and violated literary and theatrical conventions, sometimes playfully, but often in a violent assault on readers or spectators. (For a demonstration, try Elfriede Jelenik's latest books!)

We explored together the specificities of Austrian German, learning or re-discovering words such as Kuvert (envelope), Schmäh (the Viennese brand of cheek and humour) and (my favourite) perlustrieren (stop and search). We were sorry to hear that many Austrian features are gradually being displaced by standard Hochdeutsch (English, it seems, is not the only imperialist language on the march).

Exposure to various speakers also made us realise just how easily Austrians will slip in and out of dialect, deftly using language register, vocabulary and accent to convey irony, distance, and humour. This clearly creates problems for interpreters, but is a fascinating feature of Austrian German, leading as it does to several simultaneous layers of meaning. In that respect, the course drove home the full measure of what it means to "comprehend" and has made me realise why it is that I can look forward to another thirty years (if I am lucky) of exploring this wonderful language and the cultures in which it is spoken. Who would want to learn a language in a few hours? I can only hope that our Austrian colleagues will organise some more courses to help us all on our - fortunately - unending journey of discovery.

Vielen Dank!

Clare Donovan is a member of AIIC and Director of the ESIT MA in Conference Interpreting program .






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