Being a foreign language freak, I love it when writers incorporate words and phrases from other tongues in their narrative. I find it can lend a piece much more authenticity than simple dialogue and setting, when done the right way. One author I’ve always admired for the deft use of foreign language in his books is Christopher Isherwood. Recently I recently reread a classic of his, The Berlin Stories, and I made sure to pay attention to his use of German words and phrases throughout the book.


First published in the 1930s, The Berlin Stories consists of two related novels, The Last of Mr. Norris (published first as Mr. Norris Changes Trains in England) and Goodbye to Berlin, both recognized today as classics of modern fiction. In these stories, as Hitler begins his ascent to power, Isherwood captures the essence of Weimar Republic-Berlin with descriptions of its charming avenues and cafes, as well as its seedy nightlife populated with cabaret singers, mobsters and millionaires. The picture he paints is one that is eccentric and debauched, not only for the laissez-faire mores, but also for its exotic setting. To enhance this exoticism, Isherwood does something that many authors shy away from, which is to employ words and phrases in a foreign language. While some might avoid foreign-language terms for fear of alienating the reader, Isherwood shows that it is possible to add richness and interest, not to mention authenticity, to the narrative of The Berlin Stories through the use of German-language terms that the reader often can understand or figure out through a variety of techniques.

One of the techniques for effectively incorporating foreign language is the implementation of cognates within his narrative. Cognates, those words that have the same linguistic parentage and have a similar meaning from one language to the next, are one of the easiest ways for Isherwood to incorporate an added bit of foreign flavor to The Berlin Stories. For example, in Good-bye to Berlin on page 13 when a nightclub page boy cries out “Zigarren! Zigaretten!” as he passes with his tray of goods, it’s not at all difficult to figure out that Zigarren is the German word for cigars and Zigaretten is the word for cigarettes. By the same token, several pages later when Sally Bowles picks up the telephone and asks in her halting German “Ist dass Du, mein Liebling?” when her lover calls, the meaning of the question can be surmised from the number of cognates used. Ist is clearly the word for is; dass means that; and Du is a cognate for the English word you. It’s therefore not hard to figure out that she is asking: Is that you? In addition, the German word mein sounds like its English counterpart my, so even if the reader doesn’t know that Liebling means darling, it’s not too much of a stretch to guess that most would figure out the question in its entirety is: Is that you, my darling? or something very similar. Throughout his narrative, Isherwood’s clever use of cognates reminds the reader that the setting is in Germany; in so doing, he adds a linguistic richness that could only have been achieved with the implementation of foreign words.

When the reader comes across cognates in Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, context naturally plays a significant role in understanding the connotation of the respective German word in English, for it is only within the general framework of the similarities between German and English that the meaning can be understood. Nevertheless, Isherwood is able to take context to another level and use it to make even non-cognate words in German understandable to the reader in English as well. An excellent example of this can be found in The Last of Mr. Norris, when Christopher has to accompany Arthur on a somewhat mysterious errand in the streetcar. On page 57 Arthur has been acting very nervous and it is not until he hands Christopher the document in his hand that he understands the reason for his friend’s concern: “I looked at it. It was a Vorladung from the Political Police. Herr Arthur Norris was requested to present himself at the Alexanderplatz that morning before one o’clock.” In this instance, the German noun Vorladung bears no apparent likeness to its translation, however, from the context the reader can easily decipher the meaning to be summons in English. Something similar occurs in Good-bye to Berlin on page 35 when Isherwood describes a festive scene at the main character’s boarding house. “On New Year’s Eve Sally came to live at Frl. Schreider’s,” he writes, adding just a couple of lines later that “[w]e all had our Silvester Abend dinner at home.” In this context, it is rather easy to get the gist that Silver Abend is probably German for New Year’s Eve.

When Isherwood relies on context to get the meaning of a German word across to an English-speaking reader who is most likely unfamiliar with this particular foreign language, he relies, to a certain extent, on explanation to make sure the meaning is understood. In effect, he allows certain terms or phrases in German to explain themselves through the context of the situation. Sometimes, however, the author takes a more active role in making sure the German word or phrase is understood and includes an outright clarification within the narrative. In Good-bye to Berlin this is illustrated on page 41 when Isherwood writes: ““Mein liebes armes Kind,” the letter began. Klaus called Sally his poor dear child, because as he explained, he was afraid that what he had to tell her would make her terribly unhappy.”” Isherwood tells the reader here that “Klaus called Sally his poor dear child” so it is simple to comprehend that Mein liebes armes Kind is German for My dear poor child. In The Last of Mr. Norris the same technique is demonstrated on page 54 when Christopher says “Good God, do you mean the bailiff?” and Arthur responds: “I prefer the word Gerichtsvollzieher. It sounds so much nicer.”

In both instances, Isherwood successfully explains the meaning of the German words and phrases, lending a more authentic tone to the dialogue in the process. However, at times he takes different approaches to the inclusion of foreign words in his narrative. For example, in Good-bye to Berlin when he writes that “Frl. Mayr is a music-hall Jodlerin – one of the best” on page 8, he probably realizes that not everyone will get the music-hall context or figure out that Jodlerin is a cognate of the English word yodeler. So a couple of pages later he clarifies by writing that “…it seems that Frau Glanterneck and Frl. Mayr once had words on the stairs about Frl. Mayr’s yodeling.” With this final explanation, the author has provided three different ways – cognate, context, and clarification – to allow the reader to fully experience and comprehend the foreign words incorporated in the story.

At other times, however, it seems that Isherwood doesn’t require total comprehension on the part of the reader when implementing German words and phrases in his narrative. Although readers most often get the sense through explanatory tools such as context and cognates, there are instances when readers are left mostly to their own devices and have to either infer some sort of meaning from the overall tone of the dialogue or forego understanding of the words in question – in exchange for the sheer authenticity of the situation. This can be seen several times throughout the book, for example on page 111 in The Last of Mr. Norris, when the author uses German to add life to this scene with Christopher at a political rally:

“Mensch! Willi! Jetzt geht’s los! Just let them talk about forbidding the Party now! If they do we’ll fight. The old Nazis are done for, that’s for certain. In six months, Hitler won’t have any storm-troops left.”

Half a dozen friends were with him. They all shook my hand with the warmth of long-lost brothers. Meanwhile, Otto had flung himself upon Arthur like a young bear. “What, Arthur, you old sow, you here too? Isn’t it fine? Isn’t it grand? Why, I’m so pleased I could knock you into the middle of next week!”

Although many readers will recognize Willi as a name in the opening line, most will probably not know that Mensch! means man and that Jetzt geht’s los! could be translated as Now it’s really going down! or something similar, for the end product: Man! Willi! Now it’s really going down! Nonetheless, it’s not essential that the reader understand the German here to get the full effect of the passage. The use of exclamation points alone conveys a certain level of enthusiasm that is only underscored by the ebullient action and utterances such as Isn’t it fine? Isn’t it grand? and Why, I’m so pleased…! Not understanding the German here in no way detracts from the overall story, nor does it make this particular passage less effective. To the contrary, the simple incorporation of a few words in German has greatly increased the efficiency of the author’s narrative.

Throughout The Berlin Stories Christopher Isherwood makes frequent use of foreign words and phrases to make his narration more effective. Not only does he remind the reader that the setting is a German-speaking country, his use of German provides a bit of linguistic eye candy, a certain je ne sais quoi that adds interest and authenticity to the dialogue. So what about all you writers out there – what can you do to make your narrative more authentic?