Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Sternschnupperkurs, by Jill Mansell (originally published as Good at Games)

sternI used to be tolerably good at German, about ten years ago.

Needless to say, I am not any more.  However, I need to return to that blessed state of being tolerably good at German, and the last German reading I did in any depth (for my eighteenth century German exam, back in 2001) was not of much practical use.  Not that heroic stanzas about cheesemaking are not improving to the soul; they are, and so are little poems about how God refracts light through raindrops, and burning explorations of sexual and political powerplay at Court, and deep thoughts about the theory of drama, and all the other things an eighteenth-century German paper contains.  It’s all very fascinating but doesn’t exactly make for normal conversation.

So I decided the best thing to do would probably to read some more contemporary author in German and see if that helped.  I wandered into the bookshop and spotted a translation of an older novel by a favourite author: Jill Mansell, who has helped me through much worse.  But I didn’t anticipate quite how weird it would be reading a familiar author in what is by now quite an unfamilar language.  My reconstructed reading diary below:


Suzy verliebte sich in dem Moment in Harry Fitzallan, als sie ihm die Spermaprobe ihres Mannes zeigte.

I have a very weird feeling.  Words I couldn’t consciously summon from my mind are slotting into place as I read the text.  I remember that verlieben is to fall in love; I vaguely get where that “dem” comes from (bloody morphing endings); ihm is “to him”; zeigen is to show; and I think I can guess Spermaprobe.

Some words I don’t recognise at all, which can make life difficult.  I feel like Bertie Wooster when he tries to recite poetry.  (I slew him, tum-tum tum!) I plough on and manage to follow the plot, which suddenly seems horribly convoluted instead of delightfully screwballish.  One of the characters is called Fee, which persistently registers in my brain as the German word for fairy.

I figure out the difference between winken (to wave) and zwinken (to wink).  Never realised quite how much winking and waving Mansell’s characters do.


Things are a lot clearer.  I can now follow the plot with a minimum of backtracking, but the heroine seems like an outright brat and her love interest is a psychopath.  Can only think that I must be missing some nuance, or perhaps the translation doesn’t really convey Mansell’s lovely comforting narrative voice.

Another issue is faces.  I tend to visualise when I read, but now my poor brain is stuck trying to assign some halfway coherent appearance to the characters based on my incomplete understanding of the description.  I cannot shift the idea that the heroine’s rock star ex husband is Private Eye‘s Gary Bloke.


The heroine’s other love interest is also a psychopath, and I have no idea what he looks like.


I am now completely and utterly absorbed, because the combination of twisty turny plot and my erratic understanding of German makes this seem less like a romantic comedy novel and more like some kind of surreal experiment in text.

I realise, as an aside, how much I hate the old chicklit trope of “girl meets boy, boy has partner, girl and boy end up sleeping together but it’s OK really because partner is clearly a bitch”.  (In fact, two of the next three novels I read – one of which I believe is Mansell’s latest – feature this prominently).


I finally finish the book and feel somewhat bereft, but triumphant.  My first extended read in German for a number of years, and it wasn’t even about cheesemaking!

THE FINAL VERDICT:  I definitely regained a lot of lost vocabulary and picked up a few more contemporary expressions too.  But I didn’t quite anticipate the weirdness factor.  I’d recommend the experience of reading a familiar author in a new language, however; you’ll have a whole new (distorted) perspective to enjoy!

Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, ISBN: 978-3-596-18176-6

8 comments on “Sternschnupperkurs, by Jill Mansell (originally published as Good at Games)

  1. jill mansell
    October 28, 2009

    Many thanks for this, Kirsty – a fascinating report! People often ask what my foreign translations are like and of course I have no idea. Interestingly, I know my books translate extremely well into Dutch and I sell very well indeed in the Netherlands. I wonder if my style of writing translates less well into some languages than others? Or is it down to the translators themselves?
    I’m glad you like my work, anyway!

  2. kirstyjane
    October 28, 2009

    Hi Jill, how great to hear from you! Well, as you can tell it was quite different for me but I wonder how much of that can simply be chalked up to my appalling German. The text did have a different feel though, vague as that sounds.

  3. Anne Brooke
    October 28, 2009

    Fantastic review, Kirsty! I’m tempted to try Mansell in German myself now, though to my shame I’ve never actually read any in English … Sounds like a surreal experience indeed. Perhaps we should do more reviews of books in foreign languages – takes us out of the comfort zone for sure! The real question is: can I resurrect my long-lost Latin …??



  4. Jackie
    October 28, 2009

    Another unusual style of review from you, K! And very amusing, too. Especially the bit about winking & waving. lol I would imagine doing this would not only present a personal challenge, but also reveal aspects of the book one might not find otherwise. Thanks for taking us along on your experiment, a highly entertaining one.

  5. Syracuse Cat
    October 28, 2009

    Hi! As it happens, I went through a similar experience myself: I woke up one fine morning and wondered where my ten years of German had disapeared to. I knew I had to read something short, easy, preferably something that I had read before, and enjoyed. No German book struck my fancy, so I simply went and read Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen because I’ve read it at least four times in French (my native language) and twice in English, and I thought I knew its every word. As it turned out, I did – almost. But it was exactly as you describe, Kirsty. Weird… in a nice way. I think my favourite misreading was a scene when I thought someone received a gift – well, they did, but Gift means poison in German!
    It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and I really felt good afterwards: I recommand it to anyone who would want to catch up with a forgotten foreign language.

    Syracuse Cat,

  6. Moira
    October 30, 2009

    I’m doing a very similar thing with my French … and it really is an almost surreal experience. I’m actually reading one about a man who sailed around the world in a dug-out canoe, which is supplying me with one of the unlikeliest vocabularies you can imagine.

    I mean, I’ll be fine if I ever fancy a go in the Tall Ships Race …

  7. Hilary
    October 30, 2009

    Loved the review, Kirsty – gave me great amusement, and not a little guilt that it is decades since I gave my French, Spanish (or Catalan, even) a run out. A Little Black Dress in Catalan – now, that would be an easy and slightly barking way to get back into it – if such a thing exists!

  8. rosyb
    October 30, 2009

    Winken and Zwinken. hehe.

    I haven’t got any languages. Some people would argue I can’t speak or write this one correctly either. (Mainly my mother, but never mind.)

    Enjoyed that.

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