German Word of the Week: Lebenskünstler

I’ve gotten a few emails recently about the distressing lack of "German Words of the Week."  Yes, it’s true, I have been neglecting this section of German Joys.  I admit it.  But the neglect ends now.

Oscar Wilde once purportedly said "I put my talent into my work, but my genius into my life."  A suitable introduction to this week’s entry, Lebenskünstler.  Literally translated, it means "life-artist."  Non-literally translated, it means, of course, much more. 

A recent documentary broadcast on German television showed recent immigrants to the United States living in the Roosevelt area of Queens. We met an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador who lived in a small part of house and worked in a beauty salon (overseen by another recent immigrant, from Vietnam).  We met a "coyote," who coordinated the smuggling of illegal immigrants to the U.S. 

We then met a Colombian (if memory serves) who had 8 children.  Since he broke his foot when he fell from a building at a construction site, he can no longer work in construction. Instead, he makes his living writing letters for other immigrants who cannot read or write.  They are almost invariably flowery love-letters to wives, girlfriends, or mothers.  (Fans of South American movies will be reminded of the main character in the Brazilian movie Central Station). He wheels himself around the neighborhood to various places where the undocumented gather.  He is always ready with a tale, ever-cheerful despite his precarious financial situation. 

He is a Lebenskünstler.  Someone who pieces together his living from various activities that, collectively, bring in just enough money to live.  No office, no suit, no boss, no rules. German has a word for such people, and English doesn’t.  There’s even a higher form of Lebenskünstler, and that is the Überlebenskünstler, or "survival artist."   Here we encounter a word that shows that English is, indeed, a Germanic language.   The word Überleben, literally translated, means "overlive," or survive.  It was used this way in John Donne’s Seventh Meditation: "my disease cannot survive me, I may overlive it."  Here it is used in German to refer to Africans who are not merely life-artists, but survival-artists.

So, GWOW fans, here is your fix.  I will return to the theme several times this week, to make sure the German Word of the Week remains a Word of the Week, and not a Word of the Month, or worse yet, Year…

4 thoughts on “German Word of the Week: Lebenskünstler

  1. Hooray !

    Finally a GWOW.

    I don´t know when I first came across your site but I am a regular visitor and try to figure out what foreign people think about my country.

    The gwow section is by far the funniest thing I ever read in blogs.

    so … carry on !


  2. Just a comment on “to survive” as a translation of “überleben”. Regarding a few twists in its tradition both even mean literally the same. “To survive” comes from french “survivre” which is composed of “sur” (over) and “vivre” (to live) adding up to “überleben”. Obviously languages are very interchangeable….


  3. Finally a GWOW! Thank you, I enjoy them a lot!

    Greetings from the land of the (Über)Lebenskünstler! I am just putting some thought to it and wondering whether I am not “eine echte Lebenskünstlerin”.


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