I love the power of a piece of perfectly punctuated prose. It seems that good men – and bad – love powerful writing, too. And we agree, I hope, that everyone is entitled to a distinct pattern in their patter.
What joy, what larks, as a sprinkling of semi-colons and subjugate clauses becomes my signature, giving a sense of voice to my page…
Punctuation promotes comprehension. It encourages engagement with a concept, it advances understanding of an issue and generally gives confidence to the reader. Those are indisputable truths. [Or they would be unless you’re bouncing around on Twitter, in which case there’s a distinct case for being careful how you punctuate anything.]
Sarcasm. Irony. Rhetorical comment. Poignant witticisms. Innocuous comments about ERRONEOUS CAPITAL LETTERS. And, inevitably, the “use” of speech marks to highlight ‘I’M TALKING, HERE! You see how that works? Or rather, doesn’t? As a one-off, it’s impossible to work out whether I’m being ironic, sarcastic, sincere, or failing miserably at interpreting Dustin Hoffman.
Incidentally, in case you don’t fancy the next 3,900 words or so?
SPOILER: I’m going to talk about the Germans for a bit.
CAVEAT: I’m doing this to support a point, not supporting historical events.
Now then. Where was I – oh yes: there are two particular books that have been imbued with distinct tonal qualities; an identifiable notion of contemporary grammar; and a style pitched carefully and somewhat methodically at their readers … and as a result, the 9,000 or so copies of their first imprints are priceless.
Eventually, both works sold millions of copies; they still sell well today; and – at the time – they acted as protagonists for their authors’ voices. For readers, advocates, allies (and enemies) in the years to come, they have been sources of inspiration and desperation, alike.
Two initial works; two initials work
In 1995, the book in question was titled ‘Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance’; a memoir by a little-known law professor who, 13 years later, was elected America’s 44th president.
In 1925 the published tome had the sub-title, ‘A Reckoning’. It was the first instalment of a work that’s now widely referenced as being the author’s blueprint for the reformation of a political landscape under great duress. The second instalment was headed ‘The National Socialist Movement’, and both were written while serving nine months of a 5-year sentence for treason. It is autobiographical in some parts but philosophical, prophetic – prosaic, even – in others. It was dictated to a fellow inmate, Rudolph Hess, and in January 1933 the author became Germany’s chancellor. The book? Mein Kampf.
Hitler was the original Grammar Nazi. The reason for mentioning Obama’s work, coincidentally, is that both works were published on 18th July. Go figure.
Years later, for students of language if not history, both books offer thought-provoking content. The difficulty arises for many of us as readers, however, in the fact that one was written in English (a language in which there is little doubt about the selection of one lexicon over another, and the form of punctuation to use), but the other was written in German – a language that’s resisted any kind of transformation over the last five decades.
So for individuals for whom English is not the native tongue, there should be very little room for negotiation, or error, regarding the author’s intended meaning when the copy needed translating … n’est pas? Oh dear.
The translation game
Manheim, Soskin, Reynal and Hitchcock, Cranston, Murphy and Ford. Add Dugdale to the list and not even Captain Flack would dispute the fact that’s a roll-call with cadence. These are just some of the linguists who’ve translated the original German text in detail. From the outset – and let’s move way, way over to steer an alternate course away from discussions about the effects of punctuating functionalism versus intentionalism, or abbreviation versus redacted text – physical output shows that the process of getting to grips with the Fuhrer’s style is no easy feat.
We’ll ignore the fact that one of those translations was approved by the Third Reich. Another is the work to which most contemporary scholars refer, even though it’s a bit like knitting snot in some parts. The third was written by a man who, cunningly, contemporaneously self-published a book criticising the controversy surrounding his *own* work – but at the same time emphasised *that* translation’s superior qualities. The ultimate sockpuppet, perhaps.
[There were several elementary typographical and grammatical errors in both of his works; punctuation that – quite frankly – shot itself to pieces all over the place; and his introduction of the translation of Mein Kampf included a recommendation for (you guessed it), Mein Kampf, A Translation Controversy. Keeping up with me? Good. It was a circuitous self-publishing coup: write a book, then write *another* book to be read in conjunction with the first book – and it doesn’t matter how bad either one is, they’ll both sell in their millions.]
Bear with me. This was an important piece of non-fiction, parts of which informed, if not shaped, the transition of a nation and reframed modern history.
Anyway, the point is this: the source material provided at least three final texts, varying significantly in length. 600, 400 and 560 pages respectively. Differences in volume (font sizes aside) stir immediate debate over the idiom and vocabulary used, and it’s clearer than ever at this point that there’s room for error, if not negotiation, when it comes to moving punctuation from one language to another and therefore affecting the whole *feel* of the work.
Take the title, for example, ‘Mein Kampf’. You can translate ‘Kampf’ as ‘campaign’, ‘battle’, ‘fight’, or ‘struggle’. Linguists will suggest context is the deciding factor here, but at this point, we’re simply talking about the two-word title of a book … so there’s not much context to be had. And if we’re taking the orator’s tone of voice into consideration to interpret his text, then a reader depends largely on the stenographer’s punctuation for guidance. Mr Hess.
Two words are not enough to establish a tone of voice: there’s no room to punctuate anything – unless you’re Churchill, as I’ll demonstrate in a moment.
But there it is. There’s the rub. And that’s where today’s Grammar Nazis step in to start preaching righteous indignation about who, or how, a piece of content should take on a whole new persona, depending on how it’s been punctuated.
Hang on a minute, just what is, ‘the rub’?
Take a breath. (I ramble. It’s in my nature, as a writer.) In Elizabethan times the term ‘rub’ referred to rough ground, the likes of which would provide infinite frustration for both Messrs. Walters and Drake: the ‘rub’ deflects attempts to bowl with accuracy. You have to bowl over it, it alters the course of the boule. Ball. Bowling item. Spherical object tossed for pleasure.
A rub, therefore – Shakespearian or not – is the heart of a problem as made infamous by Hamlet: ‘to sleep; perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause…’
… and in the case of the ubiquitous controversial tome we’re talking about here, the tone invoked by use of the phrase ‘Mein Kampf’ – particularly if interpreted as being ‘My Struggle’ – was more likely to be a catalyst for promoting awareness and even empathy or synergy among plebian readers than Mein Feldzug (my campaign), or Mein Schlacht (my battle), which in terms of tonality, would have had more overt military inferences from the outset.
Remember: in its original form, this was dictated to a [dare I say it?] somewhat sycophantic colleague in a well-furnished cell at Landsberg am Lech prison.
At that time, the work was pitched more as a personal commentary on what the author believed could be a potential future, less as military machinations in the making. All right, all right; it evolved into the latter but the early pages question it’s raison d’être as a by-the-book manifesto per se from the outset. And that involves AH’s self-doubt about his own personal capabilities to lead or be respected as a leader.
Quote: “Ich wollte nicht Beamter werden”. Translation, any which way you like it without the benefit of punctuation: “I did not want to become an official.”
The rub, then, is that although he perhaps should have predicted its forensic analysis, the author gave very little consideration to the ramifications of Hess’s writing style and ability to take down orated text verbatim. An unpunctuated, short, toneless title – devoid of animation or character in any shape or form – became the foremost factor in the work’s relevance, intent, and credibility.
Tonal quality, toe-nail inequality
When you’re conveying a tone of voice from one language to another, it becomes vital to choose words and punctuation that will – accurately – give the same semantic impressions to a diverse range of readers. It’s a talent. Good copywriters are hard to find, good translators doubly so.
In this case, it’s widely acknowledged the content of some passages suffered greatly at the hands of first one translator then the next; linguists and historians are still debating the ramifications of multiplicity in modern-day presentations of the original copy … and it’s been interesting to see which amends, edits and comments were deemed worthy of inclusion in Bavaria’s 2015 edition, hanging by their toenails as they are to the last rites of copyright law.
However. Whatever you think of the book, almost all of the translators managed to convey the author’s original tone and authenticate the words even, by using English language, idiom – and pauses for breath – that were indentified in recordings of Hitler’s German oratory skill. I use the term ‘skill’ advisedly: a speech does not have to contain words of wisdom with which you agree, to – contextually – be deemed impressive (in the correct sense of the term ‘impressive’, which denotes neither positive nor negative connotations). A distinct tone of voice? That man? Also indisputable.
This was a book first published on the cusp of an era in which the spoken word was to become a weapon as powerful as any military armament. Accurate reports in newspapers made propoganda of political statements; personal appearances to troops rallied moral and put spirit where there was none; speeches were given by radio, television appearances were made … those voices all became conduits to the belief in future freedom. And if free speech is a birthright, then the ability to transcribe the tone of voice with which it was – is – delivered, with integrity, using the right punctuation, is a duty.
Here is a wonderful, wonder-full example:
The British nation can be counted upon to carry through to victory any struggle that it once enters upon, no matter how long such a struggle may last or however great the sacrifice that may be necessary, or whatever the means that have to be employed; and all this, even though the military equipment at hand may be utterly inadequate when compared with that of other nations.”
We can be counted on. We’re reliable. That’s us: when it comes to depending on using second-grade goods to get the job done, there’s no one better at it than a Brit. Those are epic words indeed.
So: which wartime leader was growling into a bakelite receiver, pausing for emphasis at every comma? Which leader, political and military, spoke so eloquently about our nation’s superiority on the battlefield using cadence and fragile phrasing to enhance his content so magnificently?
Trick question. Verbatim or not, those words were not spoken, they were written. It’s a translation (and if you study the original, you’ll see even schoolboy linguists would struggle to mess it up), of a quotation from ‘Mein Kampf’.
A controversial tone of voice
Ironic, is it not. Sometimes, words simply MUST must be delivered in context, to ensure we’re hearing the right voice speaking the content in question.
There was a time when every German citizen was duty-bound to know the text, at least in part, by heart: newly-weds were given copies as good luck gestures for goodness sakes. But if Hitler’s declarations of intent and the words emphasising the Allies’ engineering inferiority were supposed to motivate German troops as they floundered in Flanders fields, then, well, out of context and by association with the *wrong* tone of voice – that passage reads quite differently.
It’s a critique of our superiority, not our inferiority. We, the Brits, had stiffer upper lips than the mighty Hun. We were staunch in the face of adversity, impervious to the reality of insufficient resources or inadequate military equipment to take on The Foe.
The truth is – and forewarned is forearmed, I’m going to digress even further this time – we made a technological advancement in vehicular transport during that period, the scope of which has yet to be paralleled.
Not so great escapes
As a graphic illustration of *great* scenes of context, and how this concept plays a part in our perceptions or mis-conceptions regarding the subsequent facts, cast your mind back to Steve McQueen’s motorcycle chase and Bud Edkin’s legendary leap over a barbed wire fence in an attempt to outrun hordes of German despatch riders.
Forgive his nefarious genes and vespered origins – it’s an easy image to recall. McQueen is sitting on his bike, parked next to the signpost that shows his only hope for a Great Escape into neighbouring Switzerland, away from the murdering Hun. And he’s sitting on a Triumph T140E.
Why, [startled Dorothy in Kansas voice], how strangely prophetic that, of all the motorcycles sitting around in the German hinterland, McQueen finds the one and only British-made bike, parked up with a full tank of rationed fuel.”
Why did McQueen want to ride a Triumph [sic]? Because at the time, German motorcycles were distinctly less reliable than British machines.
The real twist here is that, apart from McQueen knocking himself off a bike by acting as a German outrider at the same time he’s being shown as a gung-ho hero biding his time under cover in a nearby ditch (and the vain idiocy of Bushell, as in Sqdn Ldr Roger Bushell, no relation, being one of my family’s names; along with Walters – as in Guy, author of The Real Great Escape – also no relation to my knowledge, but Walters being my maiden name) …
… the real twist here is that if the Germans hadn’t invaded Poland then the British motorcycle industry, our car factories, the large goods’ vehicle plants, military vehicle facilities, no, none of these would have been duty-bound to make economical mass-production their goal and reliability their primary concern.
The individuality of 300 motorcycle companies and as many car manufacturers was lost as a result during that period. Gone were small production runs, scarcity of parts for obscure marques and non-functional elegance. Character-building engines and bomb-proof bodywork became the norm: chassis engineering was fuelled by the need to prioritise a reduction in a vehicle’s weight, optimise limited natural resources and develop a simply superior vehicle.
Every company and each marque was fighting against a tidal wave of contenders for the same parts if they wanted to maintain the fluidity of their production runs. The conclusion for many of the smaller companies was that – in pursuit of reliability and improved performance and superior quality – eventually they priced themselves out of manufacture. Ironic justice. We won; we lost. The main contributors to mobilisation campaigns had been chosen for their immediate suitability to the military tasks facing them; war demanded the expansion of the industry through need and then forced it’s decline through pressure.
Perhaps it was inevitable then, that the word ‘reliability’ – in or out of punctuated context – became associated with the dogmatic attitude of the British in their determination to not only use what was at hand, but also develop a technologically superior version of what was to come as well. I realise, I’m labouring the point. You’ll be pleased to note, endeth the lesson about reliability and British engineering – but Hitler knew we were made of stern stuff. So it should be a thought-provoking exercise to examine his words in, or out, of context.
NB – not ‘Nota Bene’ (but Nota Bene).
Obama. Churchill. Hitler, even. These men have gracefully carved out an audible niche in history with their rhetoric and its associated punctuation. We’ll continue to study it, I’m sure, and extract what meat we can from the bones of strategic nomenclature so defined in the annals at the National Archives.
What we would benefit more from however, and what most of us are unable to do – but should – is to spend time getting to grips with the punctuated words of orators whose work is not ‘decreed absolute’ in a single version, so that we can appreciate their rhetoric in its original tone of voice.
Hitler is not the best example, here. NB – Napoleon Bonaparte could be. Indeed, although he used one of my favourite words when he said, ‘There is no man more pusillanimous than I when I am planning a campaign,’ he also recommended such action himself when he uttered, ‘Read over and over again the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus, Turenne and Frederick the Great. This is the only way to become a great general…’ He was, I believe, talking as much about absorbing their tone as their wisdom.
Yes, tonight Jominie…
Most of Bonaparte’s military genius is made transparent to students of the Napoleonic Wars only thanks to the work of Antoine Henri Jominie, a Swiss soldier and military theorist. Jominie was prophetic enough to see military history as a body of empirical data from which one could derive principles to shape future conflict strategy; he’s celebrated largely for his portrayal of the Napoleonic wars, as NB himself wrote down very little about his military ideals. The trouble is, Jominie only wrote in French, which is why students at academies, Westpoint included, learn French – so that they can study the punctuated text in its original form. No shit.
Read the following paragraphs out loud. I make no apologies for including the whole text. And you *will* hear the crescendo of tone that’s forced upon that little voice in your head by the punctuation; you *will* feel the invigoration he conveyed to depleted, demoralised troops:
Soldiers, you have, in fifteen days, gained six victories, taken twenty-one stand of colors, fifty pieces of cannon, several fortified places, made fifteen hundred prisoners, and killed or wounded over ten thousand men. You are the equals of the conquerors of Holland and of the Rhine. Destitute of everything, you have supplied yourselves with everything. You have won battles without cannon, crossed rivers without bridges, made forced marches without shoes, bivouacked without spirituous liquor, and often without bread.
The Republican phalanxes—the soldiers of liberty, were alone capable of enduring what you have suffered. Soldiers, your country has a right to expect great things of you! You have still battles to fight, cities to take, rivers to pass. Is there one among you whose courage flags? One who would prefer returning to the sterile summits of the Apennines and the Alps, to undergo patiently the insults of that slavish soldiery? No, there is not one such among the victors of Montenotte, of Millesimo, of Diego, and of Mondovi! Friends, I promise you that glorious conquest: be the liberators of peoples, be not their scourges!’
Incremental numbers, building in one’s minds eye; contrasts and the impossible made possible; appeals to the vulnerability of the human spirit; rank and file positioning as men to be respected among their own peers… wow! Check out those commas in the first paragraph! And pass my sword, would you?!
OK, I’ve rambled on beyond the pale now. My final point, finally, is this: Mein Kampf, written by the original Grammar Nazi, was intended to be a dictat for good, and yet – on closer inspection – its content turned out to be nothing but a manifesto for evil. Perhaps we should not forget that the political content we’re crafting today is something that could equally (hopefully) be read by citizens as a reference to contemporary culture, for many, many years to come.
And with that in mind, punctuation is important.
And with that in mind, we should certainly uphold some grammatical standards.
And with that in mind, we should definitely be proud to have principles and sets of rules by which we ply our trade – but maybe we should also take time to consider the beauty, dignity, and elegance of a language that is constantly reinventing itself as it is absorbed by readers; evolving as we speak (and write) to communicate with our fellow human beings, and subject to curation by the very audience for whom our raison d’etre as writers is manifest.
Trying to force ‘good grammar’ into any piece of writing, today, is a bully’s tactic. Our language should be loved for its ability to convey all things, to all men, in ways and means that actually reflect humanity’s unique form – whatever form that may be. Otherwise, we live – but we never learn.
And – as a final, final, final note – I humbly suggest that we can all learn something from Winnie’s works. If ever you want to be reminded of the reasons for taking language seriously, well, those volumes are filled with words that melt like marshmallows on a radiator: he was far more than a ‘half-decent’ author, he was a lyricist – using cadence and punctuation to its full potential – and I am convinced he ‘heard’ his own words as he wrote them down. It is the only way he could have punctuated them so perfectly.
By the way, I mentioned, earlier, that Obama’s ‘Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance’, and ‘A Reckoning’ (Mein Kampf in its first form), were published on July 18th?
Also on the 18th of July, but this time in 1994, Winnie uttered words by which an audience was able to distinguish his voice in inimitable fashion. Hansard records that a certain Mr Granville asked the Prime Minister if he would recommend the striking of a 1939–44 civil star, in recognition of the part in the Battle of Britain played by the people of London and the fortitude they showed in resisting enemy action.
For my part, I believe that the Prime Minister’s retort was duly and truly considered. Phlegmatic, curt, and yet – as you let your imagination entertain a wisp of cigar-smoke to prolong the response – his two well-chosen words, parted by a solitary comma, were as expressive in their jowled brevity as any rhetoric he’d ever delivered before: “No, Sir.”
Can you hear him? Can you?
Heaven knows, we may all fall short of writing les mots juste to which a country will refer for inspiration. But I am sure that some of us aspire, occasionally, to create perfectly punctuated pieces of prose.