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01/03/2005

Four Words are Better than Two

On the new website signandsight.com. By John Lambert

Some webreaders may inadvertently take the name of our new website signandsight.com for one word. "signandsight" may indeed look like one of those long, difficult to pronounce words so commonly associated with the German language, like "Panzerkampfwagen" for the English "tank", "Lebkuchenherz" for "cookie" or "Dampfbügeleisen" for "iron". But although these readers should be commended for associating our sitename with German, they should know that "signandsight" is English, not even Dinglish ("Dinglish", as it is widely spoken in Berlin and elsewhere, is formed by mixing German words into your English, English words into your German, and der Reste just how es kommt).

The majority of our webreaders will not take signandsight for one German word, but for two English ones (leaving aside the copula “and”). And yet, a closer look will reveal that while of course there are only two words in English, there are also two in Deutsch. In fact, there are four words in our name and our new website will strive to do four things. We will summarise the German feuilleton press in a colourful mixture of daily synopses, translate interesting articles on a wide variety of subjects, publish regular book reviews, and write our own articles about culture in Berlin, where we live, work and go out.

Let us go through the four words in our name one at a time, unpacking what we need from them.

We will provide a "sign" or better "signpost" – auf Deutsch "Straßenverkehrsschild" – pointing interested webvisitors towards cultural highlights in the German speaking world and beyond. I've been at it for two months now and already my head swims. (In fact, my head is swimming now. And not because the rest of me is swimming. Although I did swim this morning.) Of the many highlights that come to mind, we report on painting, sculpture, music, opera, theatre, dance, books, film, fashion, society, events, history, the media. We're toying with the idea of a subject heading "Special German Interest", which would cover Neo Nazis, the Red Army Fraction and the Second World War.

We are a "sight" for sore eyes, for those who have been googling endlessly in search of the latest information on German culture with links to sites in English and German. We offer an in-"sight" into the workings of the German mind and what's more, the absolutely outstanding German feuilleton press. And we translate the viewpoint, or the "sight" of that press.

A word about the word "feuilleton". The French "feuilleton" means "small leaf". In the 19th century it referred to the way Balzac and others published their books initially a chapter at a time in the newspapers. Now it refers to the lively reporting, commentary, discussion and debate that take place in the arts and features pages.

So "feuilleton" is in fact the English translation of the German "Feuilleton". This, in turn, is the German translation of the original French "feuilleton". Note that practically all that changes here are the quotation marks. I say 'practically' because in fact one other thing has changed: the capital. No, not the capitalism, as my Linux Open Office automatic correction function wants me to say – but the capital letters. A buddy of mine once said the silliest thing about the German language is the capitalisation of the nouns. I never had this problem. As a translator, the least of my worries was making the capital letters small again. Believe me, there are more important things to think about as a translator. Like what to do with words like "Öffentlichkeit", for example: "public sphere", "public space", "open discussion forum", "public discourse"? No sticklers, we feel free to use all of the above, and more. And the German sentences! I've adopted my own guidelines for these: start from the end and work back to the beginning, and chop each sentence in three, whether it needs it or not.

The third word, or rather the third and fourth words, that are implicitly stated in our name (and I'm particularly proud of this) can be seen if you take "sign and sight" and pronounce them in Deutsch. By pronouncing the first "s" in "sign" as a long "z", like in "snooze" you get the German word "to be" – "sein". And if you do the same with "sight" but this time give the "s" a hard "ts" as in "tsetse fly", you get the German word "Zeit" – meaning "time". If you string these two words together, you get the title of one of the most famous books of 20th century German philosophy, namely Martin Heidegger’s "Sein und Zeit" – "Being and Time". So as you can imagine, we’re proud of our webname.

But I’ll be frank. In choosing our name signandsight, we also played with other names like "sink and feel", "in-kraut" and "Herman's accent" and hesitated between three English words for the German "Zeit": "sight", "cite" and "site". Why, you ask, go for such a mediocre pun? Why don't we just say what we mean? My answer is: first, our pun is not mediocre, and second, we do say what we mean. We decide what we want to say, then we make it mean what we want it to mean. If this strikes you as abstruse, give it a try. You may well find you've been doing it all along.

Already I can hear some readers asking, "Fine, but what, if anything, does that have to do with the site?" My answer is "absolutely everything". Even without turning to Heidegger for the moment, the two words, being and time, express how we approach our subject. We are a sign pointing to events, we provide in-"sight" into the views expressed in the German-language feuilletons. But there's more.

For us here in the Berlin, "being" involves not just reading about German cultural life but also taking part in it. What a subject! On every street corner a story! Nations, countries, cities, are often compared to women. If I were to compare Berlin to a woman, it would not be Hildegard Knef, Marlene Dietrich or the Berlin she-bear. No, it would be to a woman in a sketch by Berlin artist Heinrich Zille, who lived a century ago. She walks down the street in a striped shirt, long skirts and heels and says to her friend in Berlin lingo: "Time was when ministers and privy councillors couldn’t get enougha me!" We will investigate the being of Berlin in the time to come. But like Zille’s figure, Berlin turns her former glories to present advantage, and like her she is bursting from her seams, which only makes her more appealing.

And like Zille’s figure, Berlin raises more questions than she answers. Why has she disappointed expectations that arose when the wall fell? What role does she play for the Germans? Certainly, she is less boring than Bonn, but what does it mean for her to be the "raunchy capital"? Time will tell. Which brings me to 'Zeit'.

No one will question the very close relation between journalism and the notion of time. Think of the names The Sun, The Chronicle, Time Magazine. The very word "journalism" is based on "jour" – day. The connection is even closer in German: the word for newspaper, Zeitung, is the "ung" of the "Zeit". (Don’t let this terminology bother you: "ung" is just the equivalent of the English gerund "ing". In English we have smoking and drinking, and in German they have "Achtung!" – "the paying of attention!") Think about it: the German word for newspaper is "timing"!

One other thing. When I was a kid, if there was one thing that was in the past, it was the Second World War. At that time, the war was something as far removed as the pre-Columbian Mayan cultures. On the outskirts of Vancouver in the 1960s, I was "boy eternal", and the war was an eternity away. As time passed, and the further I moved eastward, the more the war became a living, present actuality. Germany today is still shaken, torn, and wrenched by World War Two. Today, 60 years later, people are finally announcing the advent of the era when the war will start slipping into the past!

For those of you who haven't read Martin Heidegger’s "Sein und Zeit", I end my discussion with a brief look at what’s important for me in the – not just fanciful – pun in our name.

Very famously, Heidegger asked, what is it to be?: "Do we have an answer today to the question of what we really mean with the word ‘being’? By no means, and so it behoves us to pose anew the question of the sense of Being." For  Heidegger, it is in our nature as human beings to ask this question, but we don't. It's a bit like how we walk down the stairs after seeing someone or sit on a bus somewhere, slap our hands against our foreheads and exclaim: "Jesus! I forgot to ask…" It's similar with the question of being.

Heidigger's word for humans is "Dasein". Central to  Dasein is the fact that it is  "geworfen" – or thrown into the world – die Welt (also one of Germany’s best papers). I like the image, a lot of times that’s exactly how I feel. As thrown beings, we go at the world in terms of what we can make it. So Dasein is always a little in advance of itself. Here it reminds me of a girl I used to know who’d call me up and ask what I was doing a week Thursday. The most important upshot is that the self and the world are inseparable. Now for us webjournalists this is an extremely crucial leitmotif, because the credo we go by is: journalism is philosophy “à l’état pur’”. In investigating the world we go to the roots of what it is to be human.

But there’s a catch: The world is the agent of seduction. It could be that for a lot of readers the seductive nature of the “everyday” is not found for example in the things Fruit Chan makes movies about, like stinky fruit, public toilets, answering the call of nature and eating foetus dumplings. But for very many of us, the world is an enticing diversion. In providing itself in seductive amplitude, it conceals from us of the basic thing we seek: our being. This is what we can call the disclosure of the world concealing even as it opens up.

In fact, the whole work aims to be one thing: an exposure of the hiddenness of disclosure. If any of you are wondering what this might mean, let me ask you this: what discloses things while keeping other things, sometimes the most important things, hidden? Practically anything and everything, right? Practically anyone and everyone, right? One concrete example: journalism. And where is light shed on what remains hidden in, or is covered up by, the daily press? In the feuilletons. Let me put it another way. For Heidegger the meaning of being is in our "discursive activity". To get at what people are not saying in the newspapers, you need the discursive tradition, the "public discourse" provided in and by the feuilletons!

So you see, in fact there is a good bit of "Sein und Zeit" in signandsight.com. Well, danke schön! Bitte schön! Four words are better than two!

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John Lambert is editor-in-chief of signandsight.com.
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