I was delighted when my second book was sold to a major German publisher, and not just because I'd be paid in euros. My translator was an experienced young man named Diedrich who had previously rendered works by James Brown and Anthony Kiedis. I figured, after a Red Hot Chili Pepper, I'd be a piece of Kuchen. Then I got his first set of questions: 18 single-spaced items. And he was only on page 20. It was the opening salvo in a months-long exchange that showed me how far apart our countries still are, particularly when one of us is trying to be funny.

The book is called A$$hole. As you have already guessed, it is not a prose poem. It's a satirical semimemoir about office life related in what I like to think is a breezy, accessible style. Turns out the breeze can get mixed up over the Atlantic.

Although I'm pretty sure I don't use much slang, Diedrich disagreed. Apparently Germans don't “work on their abs” to “get that edge.” Nor have they ever met a “user” and felt like “ripping him a new one.” “Flyboys” flew over his head. And in one special sentence I managed two stumpers by saying a co-worker needed to “buy a clue” because his work “blows chunks.”

Slang can slice both ways, of course. In my book I exhort the reader: “You've been burned your whole life. Now it's time to set your butt on fire.” Calling this “untranslatable wordplay,” Diedrich suggested a German expression he paraphrased as “you pulled other people's chestnuts out of the fire.” Hmmm.

Then there were the cultural references that tanked. My describing someone as making “the Fear Factor chimp face” drew a blank stare, as did a mention of the David Bowie song “Changes.” And it says something not altogether unflattering about the German judicial system that my translator had never heard of a “jury selection consultant.”

Some of the intercountry cross talk was illuminating. In one scene, I'm chatting with my boss in her office. Diedrich asked me if I wanted to convey “aloofness” or “cozy familiarity.” When I asked him why, he reminded me that the German language uses different pronouns for formal and informal address. The former used to be expected with bosses, he sniffed, but the latter has gained ground recently “due to the American influence.”

Presumably in the same you-crazy-Americans vein was this question: “What exactly are 'factory-installed seat warmers' and why would one fantasize about them?”

Metaphors caused a boatload of confusion. Diedrich asked what it meant, exactly, to look like a “warm bowl of death.” And when I describe someone as a “pony-tailed stick insect,” he asked if that was the same as being a “scrawny hag.” At one point, I whimsically refer to my dog as my “four-legged love child.” This shocked Diedrich, who apparently read it literally. He suggested changing it to “cheeky rascal,” or, more colorfully, “limb of Satan.”

Some of my translator's questions made me realize he was reading my work more closely than I had. More than once he pointed out that, say, I was still on the first floor even though I'd just ridden up an escalator (oops). Or that Sherry had turned into Sharon for a onetime cameo. And my description of an imaginary robot with “a head-mounted laser strobe site” drew an understandable: “What the hell is that?”

I also discovered that humor can get lost in transit. I describe one particularly lazy janitor as having “a wet mop in the midst of a dry spell.” Not Colbert-level, but passable, right? Nein. Conceding that he got “the dry-wet opposition,” Diedrich said: “I don't see the joke.” After a while, neither did I.

The experience made me appreciate that it can take an outsider to see us clearly. Diedrich's perspective gave some of his questions a kind of lucid profundity. My favorite: “What does a senior vice president do, exactly?” I had no idea.

In the end, I was happy to see one word needed no translation or explanation. The title works just as well in German. Some concepts are truly universal.

Author Information
Martin Kihn is the author of House of Lies (Hachette, 2005) and A$$hole: How I Got Rich & Happy by Not Giving a Damn About Anyone, which Broadway Books will publish in April.