"I wish to God", said Gideon in mild exasperation, "that you'd talk - just once - in prose like other people".
Avid readers will agree when I say that for us, reading is equivalent to travelling. Whether we put on our walking boots and get our camping gear, pack a lunch box for an outing or board the Orient-Express with a wardrobe-trunk - to open a book is always to open that tiny door in Alice's Wonderland, change our size, name, fate, even, if necessary, sex, and start flying to those far-away countries.
Dorothy Dunnett now is an author who really takes you flying. What most of her "natural" readers, that is the English native speakers, will not realize is that for us foreigners the journey starts even before we have opened a single page.
The reason for the additional thrill we enjoy is that German editors have given up on translating Dorothy Dunnett halfway through both series. Isn't that funny? Halfways! And, as if this wasn't enough, the 7 books that originally were translated have not been reprinted so that in this country, Dunnett's work today is something you hunt for on flea markets.
But in the early Nineties, when I started discovering Dorothy Dunnett's world the German version, such as it was, was at least available in stores. It was in a supermarket where a long journey began which was to lead me to strange places like Timbuktu, Bruges, Moscow and Edinburgh, and to an even more exotic place called "Francis' mind". Standing in the queue at the checkout and browsing through the paperbacks positioned there for a "quick weekend reading snack", I came across Farben des Reichtums (Niccolò Rising) and, on impulse, threw it into my shopping trolley.
Thus, without fair warning I had embarked on one of the biggest reading adventures there are. Leafing through the first 50 pages I kept thinking: "This is strange. This is different. What is this? What an extraordinary language" (Mind you, this was a German translation!) "Do I like it?" When Nicol made me laugh the first time I knew I did and what it was: danger and delight! Surprises and new horizons.
Even though I had been reading English literature in the original for quite a long time (studying English at the University at the time) - in fact preferred it to the translated German versions - at this point the thought of buying the next book in the series in English did not even cross my mind. I was much too much taken up with getting a grasp of the context in German, so how could I contemplate trying it in the original?
Well, I should find out soon enough. At that time, the first books of the Niccolò series were still being translated, so there came the point when, frustrated with waiting for the next German version to be brought on the market, I switched to the Lymond Chronicles. With Das Königsspiel (Game of Kings) the journey started in the same way, with the same questions: "What is this?!"
In fact, in my opinion, it was an even stranger journey because this time, the guy even spoke weird! If you are an Englishman or American, would you please try for a moment your imagination and think about how one might translate "shy as a dogtooth violet" into another language? No, I won't tell how the toiling translator solved or rather not solved this problem. After the dogtooth, which I found quite confusing, a drunken hog appeared under a staircase and confused me even more, giving me, though, the first glimpse of the fun that might be waiting in all that entanglement. But still I asked: "What is this? Do I like it? I don't know, it is different." Of course, as with many others, it took Don Luis to make me realize what it was: danger and delight! Surprises and new horizons.
So, finally and completely hooked, I bought and read the first three books of the Lymond Chronicles in German, all the time waiting for the next Nicolo to be translated. And then the world came to a stop.
"Sorry Madam, no more books". NO MORE BOOKS?
Imagine you are on a long and wonderful journey on the Orient-Express (I'm all for travelling in style) and in, let's say, Bucarest, they usher you off the train. There you are, together with the other passengers on the platform, being politely and regretfully informed that unfortunately overnight the tracks have been removed and the train can go no further. "You can of course fly straight back to Frankfurt on our expenses." This image is, come to think of it, much too bright, since no German editor would ever bother with explanations, not to mention apologies.
Now, I'm afraid, this was the point where many of the few German readers who had found their way to Dunnett country (mind you, no advertising, no promotion, very few press releases) by way of hearsay, enlightened booksellers or, as in my case, sheer accident) gave up. They took the accepted return flight back to Frankfurt, or Mannheim or Diddelsbach.
But not all of us, no. Not the tough travellers. I can see them standing there on the Bucarest platform: two or three lone figures refusing to leave. The lady with the umbrella, the small, fat man with the bowler hat, the young girl with the creased gown, they start making inquiries, all the time looking for the lost tracks. And they find that there is a way to continue the journey, follow the lure, to find out what's happening.
"The train does not go any further. But around the corner there is a nice pack of mules. Choose one and continue the journey on mule back."
To compare English language to a journey on a mule back may seem an insult to some native speakers - no offense meant though! It's just the way it sometimes feels to us poor Germans. Bouncing up and down on a bone-hard mule back, struggling both with obtaining insight into Lymond's, let's face it, sometimes entangled ways of thinking and always intricate ways of speaking and the obstacles of a foreign language. Not enough with mastering Turkish, French, Spanish and - hurray - some German quotes, we drive our mules through the crevices and over the steep cliffs of Dunnett's sophisticated English. Kicked from behind when the mule refuses to move and we push too hard (some time I would like to read a collection of all the misunderstandings and misinterpretations owing to our insufficient knowledge of the language, it is bound to be hilarious!) and pulled from up-front when the plot just draws us on, we keep on travelling. More stubborn than any mule are we, the tough travellers. Not all of us are language students, or translators or teachers. For many, to continue following Dorothy Dunnett has meant taking up English for the first time since school.
To make the confusion even greater, since there has been no promotion work on the editors' side, the German readers have been left without any information whatsoever about the current state of Dunnett's work, that is: what has been written, completed, is still under preparation, has been translated, is not going to be translated, etc. This is why (after I had finally mounted my own mule and switched to the English version of the Niccolò series) when inquiring for the next Niccolò book and strolling through the book store while waiting for the answer, I happened to come across 3 (three) Lymond books in English whose existence I had no idea of until that very moment.
I will never forget that day. I had left Lymond (the "German Lymond") in St. Giles cathedral swearing to find his son. And there for me he still was. Suspended in space and time. The idea that this series might have been created and, in fact completed, much earlier had just never occured to me. For me, Dorothy Dunnett was still working on it.
I left the store with my arms full of books, a promise and an open horizon, and a whole new bunch of mules. Aren't you envious, you native speakers? I am sure there is an English equivalent to the French "Academie Francais" that guards and fosters the French language. Whatever it is called, it should give an award to German publishers who, thanks to their idiocy, narrow-mindedness and lack of courage have been forcing more and more Dunnett readers to study English. English? More than just ordinary, plain English. Ah, the vocabulary you learn!
When in some remote corner of the world (as remote as for instance, an editor's office) you hear someone with a thick German accent peremptorily fulminate: "Oh come on, don't be so pusillanimous! There must be a way to travel on. I concur with you that there are difficulties, but I'd rather be called truculent than giving in to a sycophant. So do not tell me we can't go on.", it must be one of the tough travellers who got there on the magic carpet of Dunnett's imagination and is determined to go on to new horizons, and be it on a mule.
Christiane Stein, Germany