The Dark Days

Photo taken in Rodenbach, Germany, November, 2012

It’s late autumn in the Rheinland-Pfalz, and the days are foggy, frosty, and short. Even the kestrel, the little cinnamon-colored hawk who hunts in the fields next to my house, can’t seem to keep his eyes open, and the fiery orange and red leaf displays of early autumn have drained away to pewter.

Photo taken in Rodenbach, Germany, in November, 2012

All over Germany, Christmas markets have opened, but they haven’t yet lured me out into the cold. So where am getting my German practice these days? I’m sitting at home reading. And since I write YA fiction, what I’m reading is YA fiction: a lively, irreverent book from the Dutch author, Francine Oomen. It wakes me up and makes a nice contrast to the December gloom.

from the series, "Rosas schlimmste Jahre"

This book, Volume Two in the series called “Rosas schlimmste Jahre” (“Rosa’s Worst Years”), takes a lighthearted look at teenagers and body image. The title, Wie überlebe ich meinen dicken Hintern? (How Do I Survive My Fat Rear?), makes it clear that weight is a factor in Rosa’s worries, and since I’m currently writing an anorexia memoir, I thought it would be interesting to see what Rosa goes through. But language practice can’t just be relevant to hold my interest. It has to be fun. And fortunately, Rosa–alternately thoughtless, reckless, and dramatic–may drive her parents crazy, but she’s always fun.

I do have paper dictionaries, but when I’m already flipping pages, I don’t want to flip even more, so I rely on apps and websites for my language support. My first search is always Leo.org because it’s quick and easy and because I like that it puts the article in for me (der Hund) rather than tell me its gender (Hund, m). I remember the article better when I read it along with the noun. In a typical search, Leo gives me a link to the sound file and verb conjugation chart as well as displays a number of common phrases that use a word. Beyond that, it links to useful material in the Leo forum, where translators ask for help defining the exact meaning and usage of words. Leo also helps me by understanding the American keyboard spelling of German umlauts and can interpret “waehlen,” for example, to mean wählen or “stoss” to mean Stoß. I have the Leo app installed on my Android phone and on my iPad, and the Android app will even suggest the most likely words I might be looking for as I’m typing. That saves me time.

Beyond Leo.org, the next most useful website I rely on is Linguee. Linguee is a wonderful website that searches hundreds of other websites that put out information in both German and English. A search on Linguee not only gives me the meaning of a German word but shows it in context in dozens of different paragraphs along with its English translation in those same contexts. It’s unbelievably handy if I’m not exactly sure how a word should be used and what its alternative translations could be. I don’t know how I survived without Linguee. But I’m careful to put in the exact German spelling of the word, umlauts and all, because Linguee will only be as good as my spelling. A search on “waehrend” won’t pull up the same results as a search on “während.”

For certain kinds of searches, Duden Online is ideal. Duden is a German-only dictionary, so it shows no English, but it gives a word’s synonyms and its etymology, shows examples, links to a sound file, and gives me critical grammar information. It also clarifies which words are slang and which words belong to a regional dialect. (To be fair, Leo does this too.)

But what if I can’t understand the Duden entry? That’s where Google Translate comes in. I have the Google Translate bar installed on my web browser. When I come to a page that is in German (and is coded as being in German), Google Translate automatically pops a message up at the top, asking me if I want to translate that page. If I do, the result is instantaneous (but not always perfect) English. But the German isn’t lost. If I hover my mouse over a sentence, a little window pops open to show me its original German text.

So, while small breadcrumbs of snow whirl past the window and iron-hard frost grips the gray fields outside, I’m curled up with Rosa’s Worst Years, learning how to throw temper tantrums in German, with all my online reference sources for company.

Photo taken in Rodenbach, Germany, in November, 2012

To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page. Photos taken in November, 2011, in Weilerbach, Germany. Text and photos copyright 2012 by Clare B. Dunkle. No copying in whole or in part without the written consent of the author.

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