July 03, 2006

Operation Enduring Freelance: the CIA gets it right

No, not that CIA, this one. This year's winner of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, announced on June 25, is Kathrin Passig, specialist in "Taktik, Technik und Theorie" for the "Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur", which is a Berlin-based "Freiberuflernetzwerk" ("freelance network") "an der Schnittstelle von Journalismus, Wirtschaft, Wissenschaft und Kunst" ("at the interface of journalism, commerce, science and art").

Wolfgang Behr has emailed to point out that Passig's prize-winning story, Sie befinden sich hier ("You are located here") includes this passage:

Eskimos haben, wie einfallslose Mitmenschen an dieser Stelle gern in die Konversation einwerfen, unzählige Wörter für Schnee. Vermutlich soll damit auf die abgestumpfte Naturwahrnehmung des Stadtbewohners hingewiesen werden. Ich habe keine Geduld mit den Nachbetern dieser banalen Behauptung. Die Eskimosprachen sind polysynthetisch, was bedeutet, dass selbst selten gebrauchte Wendungen wie ”Schnee, der auf ein rotes T-Shirt fällt“ in einem einzigen Wort zusammengefasst werden. Es ist so ermüdend, das immer wieder erklären zu müssen.

Vor meinen Augen entsteht gerade eine neue Art Schnee, nämlich Schneedurch-den-sich-ein-magerer-Hase-arbeitet. (...)

Eskimos have -- as unimaginative fellow humans are usually fond of interjecting into conversation at this point -- innumerable words for snow. This is probably to allude to the blunted perception of nature among city dwellers. I have no patience with the mindless repeaters of this hackneyed assertion. The Eskimo languages are polysynthetic, meaning that even rare phrases like "Snow falling on a red T-shirt" are combined into a single word. It is so tedious to have to explain this over and over again.

A new kind of snow emerges in front of my eyes, namely snow-through-which-a-skinny-hare-wades. (...)

Wolfgang observes that "this certainly confirms Passig's rank as the central agent of the Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur. And it is precisely the sort of thing Aikhenvald and Pullum would have written, if they hadn't been professional linguists (cf.' Sasha Aikhenvald on Inuit snow words: a clarification', 1/30/2004)".

I'm not sure why their profession ought to get in the way here, but certainly this is a new chapter in what Laura Martin called "the genesis and decay of an anthropological example". Kathrin Passig's own professional life has been quite diverse. Her ZIA page lists her special skills as "Internet, Web-Entwicklung, Perl, PHP, Filmuntertitelung, technisches und literarisches Übersetzen E-D, technisches Übersetzen NL-D" ("Internet, web design, Perl, PHP, film subtitling, technical and literary translation from English to German, technical translation from Dutch to German)".

I'd like to point out that the English-language media are falling down on the job here. Never mind Kathrin Passig's admirably well informed views on the Eskimo lexicon, she's just won what is perhaps the most important literary award in the German-speaking world. On June 25, more than one week ago. And I can't find her name indexed at the New York Times, the Washington Post, or indeed on any of the English-language media outlets indexed by Google News. Even Slashdot is silent (when was the last time that a Perl and PHP hacker won a major literary prize?), and Metafilter is down, so I can't check there.

Perhaps English-language media don't generally cover literary awards in other languages, I don't know. But Passig's story has all kinds of news hooks -- I mean, it's the ZIA! PHP and Perl! PowerPoint Karaoke! A prize winner accepting her award in a t-shirt with a picture of a retro computer terminal on it! And what with the World Cup and all, there must be plenty of American and British reporters in Germany, where Passig is from, and not all that far from Austria, where the prize was awarded. Some of them probably know German, and the rest have some recent experience puzzling out bits of it.

Anyhow, unless you read the German-language press, you (probably) read it here first.

[I've located just one English-language blog post: Nomadics, "Ingeborg Bachmann Prize awarded to Kathrin Passig", 6/27/2006. The signandsight review is here.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 3, 2006 06:38 AM