The Art of Ordinary Language

By Susan Bennett (Film Writer & Translator, UK)


After explaining the reasons why she accepted the invitation of Nicholas Jacobs to translate Kleiner Mann - was nun?, the translator Susan Bennett points out the topical social aspects of the novel, that provide a fascinating insight into life in Nazi Germany. Bennett goes on to examine the literary style of the novel and she discusses the translation strategies she used to render the colloquial language of Fallada’s prose and to reproduce its simple, everyday character. Bennett also discusses the problems posed by the many culture-specific items in the novel and explains her decision to not use footnotes.

Keywords: kleiner mann – was nun, hans fallada, literary translation, reception, translation strategies

©inTRAlinea & Susan Bennett (2013).
"The Art of Ordinary Language"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Ritradurre "Kleiner Mann – was nun?" di Hans Fallada
Edited by: Natascia Barrale & Chris Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

A personal note first, which I include because I think it may also apply to many people who translate literary works as part of a wider sphere of activity as a writer or academic. For me, as a writer of filmed documentaries on European cultural themes, translation is both a literary activity and a means of understanding authors and their epochs. So one of the reasons why I was motivated to accept the invitation of my old friend Nicholas Jacobs, then Director of Libris Books, to translate Kleiner Mann – was nun? was to gain a greater understanding of the preoccupations of ordinary people in 1930s Germany.

And the book does indeed present a panorama of the time. Communists, Fascists and Trade Unions all make their appearance, so do exploitative employers and unhelpful benefit agencies, and the ever-increasing threats of rising prices and unemployment, all as experienced by very ordinary people. It was around this latter point that, for me, the critical centre of translating the book revolved. It is no accident that Kleiner Mann - was nun?  was enormously popular, translated soon after publication into a variety of languages, filmed, discussed, enjoyed by people in many walks of life. All the elements of the bestseller are there: narrative drive, romance, humour, contemporary relevance. It was also couched in colloquial, topical language. Philip Brady, who wrote the Afterword for the Libris edition, quotes an advertisement for the  film adaptation that reads ‘Learn about Life from Little Man and his Wife’, which just about sums up these issues.

I was in fact rather unimpressed by its literary style when I first looked at it. It seemed rather banal, but I soon realised that was the point, and that the work is a master-exercise in the manipulation of ‘ordinary’ language. I shall examine this under three headings; the words spoken by the characters, their inner speech, and the language of the author. As a sub-theme I shall look at the problems posed by rendering the life-world of the characters: social agencies, newspapers, political movements (and their acronyms!) all the institutions whose nomenclature would have been instantly recognisable to Fallada’s German readers, but not to people in other countries.

To take speech first: the colourful slang which Fallada puts into the mouths of his Berlin characters presents an entertaining double challenge for the translator. Firstly, it has to be translated in the slang of the 30s,  secondly it is specific to a place. The latter characteristic provides the opportunity to deploy Cockney (i.e. popular London) equivalents. For example in a very funny altercation between a policeman and a taxi-driver in the first chapter of the ‘Berlin’ section (left out by the book’s first English translator) the policeman urges the other to move away from the station entrance as follows ‘Mensch fahr vor, oller Dussel, oder ich rassele dir in deinen Bugatti’ (131)[1] [Move along you old duffer or I’ll rattle you in your Bugatti] which I translate as ‘Move along dumb-head, or I’ll bang your Bugatti’ (103) – alliteration being a common feature of Cockney speech.

The accent too can be rendered by a Cockney equivalent. For example, when the heroine Lammchen goes searching for accommodation for herself, her husband Pinneberg (the eponymous Little Man) and their coming child, a working-class landlady turns her away in the following terms:

Nee, Sie erwarten doch was? Wissen Sie, nee, wenn wir Kindergebrüll hören wollen, dann machen wir uns unsere Kinder alleene. Das hört sich immer noch besser an (210).
[No, you are waiting for something, aren’t you. You know if we want to hear children bellowing, we’ll have them ourselves. That would be even better to listen to].

Which I, with a little imagination but I hope truth to meaning, translate as

Expecting, aren’t yer? Na, if we wanted kids bawling round the ‘ouse, we’d ‘ave our own. Then we could ‘ave a choir of ‘em. (163)

Before I proceed to a fuller examination of Fallada’s manipulation of ‘ordinary’ language – which slang, like literary language, is not – this might be the moment to look at that another factor which brought the book close to its readers: its topicality. Since this study involves literary criticism only insofar as it affects my translation, I will not look here at the factors that gave it international appeal, though I touch on these later when comparing my text to that of this book’s original English translator. I  will look at its specifically German context, and the problems of making names that would be immediately understood by its 1930s German public meaningful to English-speaking readers now. A typical example is the interchange near the beginning of the book between the male members of Lammchen’s family, the Morschels, father and son, with each other and with Pinneberg, who as a future member of the family, is being interrogated about his political position.

‘Wie nennt sich Inre Gewerkschaft, mein Junge? Nur raus damit!’
‘Deutsche Angestellten-Gewerkschaft’, sagt Pinneberg und ärgert sich immer mehr.
Der lange Mann krümmt sich völlig zusammen, so stark überkommt est ihn, ‘Die DAG! Mutter, Emma, haltet mich fest, unser Jüngling ist ein Dackel, das nennt er ‘ne Gewerkschaft! Ein gelber Verband, zwischen zwei Stühlen. Oh Gott Kinder, so ein Witz...’ (24)
[‘And what’s your union called my lad? Out with it!
‘The German Employees Union’ said Pinneberg, getting ever more annoyed.
The tall man almost doubled up, he was so overcome.
‘The DAG. Mother,  Emma, hold me up! Our young man’s a dachshund. Call that a union! A yellow union, between two stools. Oh God children, what a joke!’]

‘And what’s your union called, my lad? Out with it!’
‘Clerical, Office and Professional Employees Association of Germany’ said Pinneberg, getting crosser and  crosser.
At this Mr Morschel almost doubled up with laughter.
‘The COPEA! Mother, Emma, hold me up! Our young man’s a bosses’ lap-dog. Call that a union? Doesn’t know which side it’s on. The bosses have got it in their pocket. God, what a joke!’(17)

The witticism linking the acronym for Pinneberg’s union, ‘DAG’, with a little, low-slung breed of dog, the dachshund or “Dackel”, was best rendered, I thought, by picking up its metaphorical associations and calling him a bosses’ lapdog. The name of his union was more problematic.  I could, and perhaps should, have gone with the simplest idea, ‘Professional Employees Association’. However, from the Afterword of the 1962 Aufbau (DDR) edition of Kleiner Mann, I learned that the equivalent German union at the time gathered all the possible types of white-collar worker into its title, so I took that as my model.

This brings me onto the question of how topical points can best be clarified. The publisher and I had an agreement not to use footnotes, not out of an assumption that middle-brow readers, as opposed to intellectuals, might not like them, but because we both felt they would interrupt what is essentially a racy text. The afterword by the late Philip Brady (Professor of German, Birkbeck College London), setting the novel in its historical context renders most explanation unnecessary. However, there were still moments where a footnote would have been the simplest course. For example, to take a most interesting point which came up during the workshop in Palermo, and of which I had previously been unaware. The North German town of Pinneberg is apparently a byword for remoteness from metropolitan sophistication, so to be absolutely logical one would have to called the character something like Postlethwaite (a surname redolent of the British North),  which however would be absurd in the book’s German setting. Proper names are blatantly indicative of place in a way that speech patterns like Cockney are not. Even if I had known about this allusion, I would still have had to leave its connotations unsaid. More audaciously at times I went for an analogy rather than direct translation. For example, Lammchen’s Communist brother reproaches her father’s party, the Social Democrats, with their vainglorious battleship-building by calling them ‘Panzerkreuzhelden’ (27) [battleship heroes], which I rendered in equivalent journalese as going back on their ‘promise to build bonny babies, not battle-cruisers’.

To return to the three modes of expression under which I wanted to examine the text.   Colloquial language, as opposed to slang – though the distinction is not always cut and dried - is the lingua franca of the whole book -covering not only what many of the leading characters say, but also what they think. In many conversational episodes thoughts and speech intercross each other in similar terms. Take the following instance, where a jealous fellow-salesman, Kessler, tries to take Pinneberg down by quoting a small-ad placed by his mother Mia offering introductions to ‘uninhibited ladies’. Kessler leads up to his attack slowly, and Pinneberg, aware that something is afoot, concentrates with some desperation on a piece of fabric he is measuring.

‘Sind ja mächtig biereifrig’ sagt Kessler, etwas verlegen lächelnd. ‘Ich trinke kein Bier’ antwortet Pinneberg.

The conversation then proceeds through various banalities, leading up to an enquiry about where Pinneberg lives.

‘Er will doch was, der Kerl’, denkt Pinneberg. ‘Wenn er nur endlich damit raus wäre! So ein Schwein.’ (204)

Which I translated more or less literally as:

‘You’re keen to earn your beer’, said Kessler, with a rather embarrassed smile. ‘I don’t drink beer’ replied Pinneberg. (158)

‘The fellow’s got something on his mind’, thought Pinneberg, ‘I just wish he’d come out with it. What a swine!’(159)

It is significant that one doesn’t question the quotation marks around what is, in fact, a piece of interior monologue. This could almost be speech. And a very great deal of the book runs along in such a way, using the language of everyday conversation as deployed by a broad range of social classes, with Pinneberg located in the petit bourgeois verging on working class zone.

Kleiner Mann has survived the passage of time very well. Indeed, I was sometimes taken aback to find that my predecessor Eric Sutton, whose translation was published by Putnam in 1933, found exactly the same expression as I for a particular phrase. When writing my own translation I only consulted Sutton’s when in difficulty about, for instance, 1930s slang, but I have often looked at it since. My overall impression is that I  generally opted for a slightly more colourful choice than Sutton, in order to avoid making Fallada’s language sound flat, which most of the time it is not. For instance the demoralising effect on the sales staff at Mendel’s department store of having to meet a sales quota, is described as follows:

Unter der Devise, “Rette sich, wer kann” setzte ein allgemeiner Ansturm auf die Käufer ein. (238)
[Under the maxim, ‘everyone save himself who can’ there was a general onslaught on the customers.]

My translation:

On the principle of ‘The devil take the hindmost’ the employees laid siege to the customers. (184)

Sutton’s translation:

Under the motto, ‘sauve qui peut,’ there was a general onslaught on the customers. (248)

Sutton is, I think, somewhat warier than I. In more ways than one. Reflecting the tone of the times (and its cavalier attitude to omission and censorship) he bowdlerises the text where he feels it would shock, for instance expunging a reference to sanitary towels in a statement by Lammchen’s mother about how she knew her daughter was pregnant. Sometimes when I compare his translation of tricky points I either wish I had followed his lead, or, alternatively decided my way was more imaginative.  For instance, he translates the young family’s pet-name for their son ‘Murkel’ as ‘Baby’. I tried to find a meaning for Murkel – a dialect word perhaps – but could not. So I translated it as ‘Shrimp’ which I think is less anodyne than ‘Baby’. On the other hand, there is ‘Bunny’ the name Sutton gave to Lammchen, (in German, ‘little Lamb’) a translation which I shied away from, out of a misplaced fear of sounding twee, but which I now think is better than my ‘Lammchen’, which I used on the principle that it contains the word ‘lamb’.

Sutton’s more surprising omissions, like the row in the taxi-rank previously quoted may derive from the sense that the book’s biggest appeal to the public was the relationship of Pinneberg and Lammchen. The end, which describes them being carried out of sordid reality on a wave of love, while it must have disappointed some, will have satisfied many. This is the tone, one imagines, taken by Hollywood director Borzage. So it would not have seemed inadmissible at the time to cut elements not pertaining to the central romance.

The author’s voice is the most subtle of the challenges that Kleiner Mann - was nun? presents to the translator. Fallada, himself a troubled, insecure man, was living in deeply confusing and disturbing times, and the multiplicity of points of view presented in the novel reflect the confusion of a humane mind almost overwhelmed by those conditions. In the spirit of ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’, the sober realism pervading both visual art and literature at the time, Fallada presents a kaleidoscope of character-types reminiscent of the observations of the sociologist/philosopher Kracauer (1998) in his book: The Salaried Masses [Die Angestellten]. To take but one instance, the many Jewish characters in the story are widely different, and all variously neatly-observed. In Pinneberg’s first job at Bergman’s outfitters, the only adverse thing that might be said about the owner is that he is henpecked. An altogether less sympathetic picture of Jewish business (read ‘capitalist business’) is  given by the slave-driving regime at his third job, at Mandel’s department store. Set against these somewhat caricatured Jewish figures is the wholly admirable  Jewish social worker who comes to the Pinnebergs’ aid when the Shrimp is ill. 

To take another example of  a Fallada ‘kaleidoscopic’ view of social groups, there are the people of the Left. The aggressive face of left-wing politics is presented by Pinneberg’s father in law and his son. The defiant solidarity of the Communists comes over in the behaviour of the group living in the impromptu suburb of garden-houses squatted by the homeless – among them the Pinnebergs – who go about in a tight-knit cluster and steal firewood. And the book’s most sympathetic character, Lammchen, says she will vote Communist.

Almost on the sideline, is the Nazi Lauterbach, who adds an unpleasant note to the atmosphere at Pinneberg’s second job, at Kleinholz’s corn-chandlers. Here, presented exclusively in human non-partisan terms, are all the combustible materials that will lead to the Nazi disaster. The profoundly unpolitical Fallada proposes no solution to such issues, but he does have an attitude: that ordinary people are in general not up to the challenges which a cruel world presents to them. The literary style to which this attitude gives rise is at once downbeat and humorous, an interesting task for the translator.

The characterising stylistic expression of  this is the gently ironic ‘put down’ that so often occurs in the author’s choice of vocabulary. To take just one example, the situation at Lammchen’s family home is described as the ‘Morschelei’. Now this is a combination of their surname Morschel, and the suffix ‘ei’ which often conveys the sense of a disordered entity, as in ‘Schlägerei’ meaning a disorganised fight. My translation ‘Morschelland’ does not quite get that implication. Or then again, there is the frequent designation of people’s unhealthy looking complexions as ‘gelb’, which I translated as ‘sallow’. It’s a matter of how abrasive you want to be.

Two final examples: one gentle, one less so. The first comes from the chapter in which the Shrimp is born. Pinneberg has just left his wife at the hospital.

Es ist nicht ganz leicht, mit dem Gedanken: Vielleicht werde ich sie nie Wiedersehen, in einer leer gewordenen Wohnung zu stehen. Für Pinneberg jedenfalls war es nicht leicht. (252)
[It is not quite easy, with the thought ‘Perhaps I shall never see her again’ to be standing in a flat that has become empty.]

It isn’t easy to stand around thinking ‘perhaps I shall never see her again’ in an empty flat. It wasn’t easy for Pinneberg, anyhow. (195)

In the gentlest possible way, the author is standing back from the character, as though he were a little silly to be so melodramatic.

The second example comes – as a reflection by the worldly Jachmann – at the moment when the Pinnebergs are moving out of his mother’s home, helped by their future landlord.

Dann sieht er ihnen nach, wie sie in der grauen nebligen Strasse verschwinden: eine Karre mit ein bisschen Krams, eine etwas schäbig gekleidete, schwangere Frau, ein talmi-eleganter Garnichts und ein versoffenese dickes Tier in blauer Bluse. (222)
[Then he watched them disappearing into the grey foggy street: a cart with a few junk-shop items of furniture, a rather shabbily-dressed pregnant woman, a young nobody in pseudo-smart clothes, and a fat drunken animal in a blue work-shirt]

Then he watched them disappearing into the grey foggy street: a cart with their few things, a rather shabbily-dressed pregnant woman, a young nobody in pseudo-smart clothes, and a fat drunken animal in a blue work-shirt.(172)

It is not a kind assessment, and indeed I have softened the original very slightly in the interest of producing a literate translation: ‘Garnichts’ taken literally means ‘nothing at all’. Did Fallada really mean his hero was utterly worthless? No, the assessment is Jachmann’s. But an after-taste of denigration remains.

Taken together, these instances bear witness to the subtlety with which Fallada manipulates the everyday language that is the book’s dominant style.

Did I enjoy translating it? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it is a richly informative work, peopled with crowds of well-drawn characters in an utterly convincing setting, and a moving portrait of a relationship. No, paradoxically for the very stylistic reason quoted above. This book was written in great haste, and it shows. There is a lot of repetition, and sometimes the diction does indeed sound flat. Once I got into the swing of translating it, I worked fast too, perhaps occasionally too fast. But in general, I think I grasped the book’s unique tone of humane irony.


Editions of the original text

Fallada, Hans (1962) Kleiner Mann was nun? Edited by Günter Caspar.  Berlin: Aufbau Verlag.

Fallada, Hans (1994) Kleiner Mann was nun? Reinbeck: Rowohlt.


Fallada, Hans (1933) Little Man, What Now? Translated by Eric Sutton. New York: Putnam.

Fallada, Hans (1996) Little Man, What Now? Translated by Susan Bennett. London: Libris.


Kracauer, Siegfried (1998) The Salaried Masses [original title: Die Angestellten]. London & New York: Verso.


[1] The page numbers refer to the 1994 edition published by Rowolt.


©inTRAlinea & Susan Bennett (2013).
"The Art of Ordinary Language"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Ritradurre "Kleiner Mann – was nun?" di Hans Fallada
Edited by: Natascia Barrale & Chris Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

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