In St. Jago, der Hauptstadt des Königreichs Chili, stand gerade in dem Augenblicke der großen Erderschütterung vom Jahre 1647, bei welcher viele tausend Menschen ihren Untergang fanden, ein junger, auf ein Verbrechen angeklagter Spanier, namens Jeronimo Rugera, an einem Pfeiler des Gefängnisses, in welches man ihn eingesperrt hatte, und wollte sich erhenken.
Clear as mud? Allow me to provide a first-draft translation, the kind of thing you hack out before normalizing the word order and all:
In St. Jago, the capital of the Kingdom of Chili, stood just at the moment of the great earthquake of 1647, in which many thousands of people their downfall found, a young, of a crime accused Spaniard, on a pillar of the prison, in which one him locked-up had, and wanted to hang himself.
Yeah, any serious translator would do major surgery on that version to make it more like actual English, but I want to convey the experience of hacking through Kleist’s prose with machete and dictionary. See, I still have the mental scars from being plunged directly from high school level German into a university literature course where the first assignment opened with that sentence and continued with more in the same vein. For most of that semester I groused to anybody who would listen that Kleist’s sentences were so long, I’d forgotten how they started by the time I’d looked up all the unfamiliar words they contained.
I think maybe I should put that nightmarish opening sentence on a sticky note attached to the laptop screen, as an Awful Warning. You see, I’ve just finished re-reading the 90% of Tangled Magic that I’d finished before falling off a cliff and into the Slough of Despond, and it was a bit of a surprise. The book reads better than I’d thought when I was depressed, but it wasn’t nearly as clean a draft as I’d thought. Unlike Blake and the rest of you who chimed in on the post immediately preceding this, I am kind of a boring, one-book-at-a-time writer.So it was a new experience for me to read through a first draft that I hadn’t looked at in many weeks. Since I normally edit each day’s work for readability and consistency each evening, I hadn’t expected to find much that needed fixing on this run-through.
One of my besetting sins as a writer is a tendency towards excessively long sentences; they may be technically syntactically correct, but they do stretch on and on in the style of Heinrich von Kleist until the entire sentence could serve as a stress test of short term memory for the unfortunate reader (if, indeed, the reader had not walled the book halfway through one of those stream-of-consciousness sentences).
Yep. Like that one.
If the manuscript were paper, it would have been littered with sticky notes marking all the places where I needed to convert one sentence into two. Or three. Or maybe four. I really had thought I’d cleaned up all of those during earlier edits! Now I’m wondering if I should make a habit of putting each completed first draft aside for two months before the final edit. Just wondering. I probably won’t, because that could so easily turn into an infinite loop: leave manuscript to rest for two months, re-read and mark things to fix, fix them, leave edited manuscript to rest for two months…
Still. I’d have to run out of extended sentences at some point. Wouldn’t I?
Maybe I should try disabling the semicolon key.