Stupid Question ™
March 11, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: At the climax of the film “Saving Private Ryan,” a Nazi soldier kills an American GI with a bayonet while muttering a speech in German. What’s he saying?
A: Boy, good thing I devoted five years of high school to studying Spanish!
Fortunately, I found a tireless translator in Jürgen Laun, a native of Kiel, Germany, and an instructor and doctoral candidate in Ohio State University’s Germanic Languages and Literatures Department.
The scene in question is memorably disturbing. The Jewish-American soldier Private Mellish, played by Adam Goldberg, meets his fate in brutal hand-to-hand combat with a Nazi infantryman.
After rolling around on an apartment floor biting and clawing at each other, the two wrestle over a bayonet. The Nazi solider gains control and says two phrases in German. As he brings the bayonet down onto Mellish’s chest, he utters another two lines in German to Mellish. Then he slowly slides the bayonet into Mellish while quieting him with “Shhhh.”
DreamWorks SKG, the studio that made “Saving Private Ryan,” was unable to provide the script for this scene. In any case, evidence suggests the dialogue was entirely improvised.
So Jürgen had to provide not only a translation, but a transcription of the original German as well. He found the task complicated by colloquial speech slurred by the actor’s effort at enacting a life-and-death struggle.
In fact, Jürgen found the very first line slurred beyond positive identification. “So du (unintelligible)” was the most he could make out, which translates to, “So you (unintelligible).” Jürgen guesses that the German was cursing the American with an adjective/noun combination, but can’t be sure.
The next line was clear: “Laβ e suns beenden”—“Let’s finish it.” Jürgen says this could also translate as “Let’s end it,” but he finds “finish” a more nuanced reading.
The next line, delivered as the Nazi begins to plunge in the bayonet, is, “Es ist einfacher für dich, viel einfacher.” In English: “It is simpler for you, much simpler.”
The final line is, “Ist wenigstens gleich vorbei.” Jürgen says that in colloquial English this would be, “At least it will be over soon.”
But the German phrase doesn’t actually contain the future tense. Jürgen finds “At least it is over soon” to be a more accurate translation, with its more awkward sound preserving the German flavor.
So to recap, the German soldier says, “So you (unintelligible). Let’s finish it. It is simpler for you, much simpler. At least it is over soon.”
This is all rather disappointing. I was hoping for something closer to, “Hey, the director’s working me beyond union hours! And the catering sucks!”
Or at least, “Hi, Mom!”