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English Department Zurich in Anglophone Literatures


Do Mistakes Matter?

In Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Childen, the narrator, Saleem Sinai, asks at one point: "Does one error invalidate the entire fabric?" (London: Vintage, 2006. 230). Of course it does not, or at least not necessarily. And this should also be borne in mind when considering the (many) mistakes one finds in the text that are included in the Zurich in Anglophone Literatures project. Yet why exactly is it that such mistakes may not really matter?

For one thing, given that this project deals with fictional texts, the standards for accuracy that one would expect from a work of non-fiction simply do not apply. In other words, authors are free to use poetic license in a work of fiction, even if it happens to be set in a recognizable real-world place like Zurich. (An author may, for example, be more interested in a poetic effect than in any sort of true-to-life degree of accuracy.)

Second, the intended audience for most of the texts featured on this platform is definitely not an audience that is familiar with Zurich. Accordingly, mistakes and inaccuracies are unlikely even to be noticed, and therefore will have a negligible effect on readers' appreciation of the work in question.

Thirdly, in some cases the mistakes may have to be attributed to the characters, narrators, or speakers, rather than to the author. As such, they would be consciously chosen strategies, on the part of the authors, e.g. to suggest that a protagonist is ignorant of local facts, or to imply that readers ought to distrust the narrator. Indeed, in some cases it may not even be possible to tell if a mistake 'just happened' to the author or if, instead, it was consciously incorporated, as part of a broader aesthetic or narrative strategy.

Nevertheless, it is arguably possible to be too generous. Could it be that some of the mistakes are indicative of a very cavalier attitude toward foreign cultures in general? Should one, for example, regard the frequent mistakes whenever authors attempt to incorporate German as endearing Anglophone flaws, or as evidence of a frightening lack of cultural and linguistic awareness? Could one, in fact, read some of the mistakes in the Zurich corpus as symptoms of a rampant cultural imperialism in (parts of) the English-speaking world?

The aim of this section is not to suggest a definitive answer to these question, but to provide those interested with food for thought. Below, there's a small selection of (supposed) mistakes from the Zurich corpus. Some are glaring, others minor – and quite a few rather entertaining. But is that all they are? Or is there reason to be upset, or to worry?

Note: Further 'sample mistakes' will be added in the course of the fall semester 2021 and the spring semester 2022.


Geographical Mistakes

  • The author of The Tearful Tigress, Carl Dekker, clearly assumed that the Zürichhorn was a mountain – which is not in fact particularly unreasonable (Matterhorn, Schilthorn, Weisshorn, Breithorn, etc.): "snow capping the Zurichhorn" (15) and "the picture-postcard view of the Zurichhorn reflected in the lake" (32).
  • Strangely, several authors give the wrong address for the place where Lenin lived while he was in Zurich, i.e. Spiegelgasse 14. He is, for example, moved to Spiegelgasse 6 in Anthony Sobin's "Zurich: February 5, 1916," and to Spiegelgasse 12 in Edward Sanders's "Dada Comes to Zürich." (In Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky's "Cabaret Voltaire," Lenin is situated, vaguely, in "the window opposite" the Cabaret Voltaire – which is less obviously incorrect, but still requires a rather generous interpretation of the local topography.)
  • In the original hardback edition of Vince Flynn's Consent to Kill, the "presidential suite at the Hotel Baur Au Lac" has a "veranda that overlooked Lake Geneva" (New York: Atria, 2005. 369). The mistake was, however, spotted and corrected in later editions (e.g. Paperback ed. New York: Pocket Star, 2005. 536).
  • see also the category "Double Whammy" below.

Poor German

  • A character in Christopher Bram's coming-out novel Surprising Myself (1987) wakes up and, mistakenly believing himself to be in Zurich, asks: "Was uhr?" (p. 39). This may look like German (and supposedly means something like 'What's the time?'). Sadly, the correct German phrase for that would be 'Wie spät ist es?' or perhaps, less idiomatically, 'Welche Zeit?' (Of course, one can argue that it is only the character's German that is poor, not the author's.)
  • "Bürkli Plaza" sounds good, but conveys a somewhat misleading idea of what Bürkliplatz is like (Don Brown. Treason. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. 6.) However, as far as 'poor German' in Anglophone Zurich texts goes, this is not a very bad mistake at all.

Spelling Mistakes

  • "Erdgenössische Technische Hochschule" – instead of "Eidgenössische" – in John Meaney's Absorption (London: Gollancz, 2010. 33).
  • "Limatquai" instead of "Limmatquai" in William Irwin Thompson, "Limatquai, Zürich" (but see the editorial note added there).
  • "Urinanstrasse" is the somewhat unsavory misspelling for "Uraniastrasse" in Gavin Lyall's Venus with Pistol (1969. Large print ed. Leicester: Ulvercroft, 1975. 50).
  • "Shaffhausen" (rather than Schaffhausen) is one of the towns close to Zurich in M. Sue Alexander's Veil of Lies (Vanleer: Suzander, 2005. 133).
  • "Lindenhoff" is close enough to Lindenhof (William D. Pease. The Monkey's First. New York: Viking, 1996. 99).
  • "Oerlingen" is how Dorothea Deakin spells Oerlikon (in: “A Horoscope.” The Strand Magazine 46 (1911): 162–169).
  • "Neidergasse" is one example for the confusion between 'ie' and 'ei'; "Niedergasse" means "Low Alley," while "Neidergasse" (Julian Jay Savarin. Wolf Run. New York: Harper, 1984. 1) means "Alley of the Envious." Not so different after all, perhaps.
  • Umlaute (ä, ö, ü) are a common source of trouble for Anglophone writers. In Patricia Hagan's Love and Triumph, for example, the Schlüsselgasse becomes the "Schulleslgasse." However, one of the most creative cases can be found in Eric Mottram's poem "Spring 1953: Years of Pilgrimage," which moves the Umlaut in the German spelling of Zürich to the Z:

Double Whammies

  • A double whammy that combines geographical with socio-historical inaccuracy comes from A. G. Henty's adventure novel Won by the Sword: A Story of the Thirty Years' War (1899): "[I]f we do not find Geneva to our taste, there is no reason why we should tarry there, as Zürich lies on the other end of the lake, and Zürich is Catholic, or at any rate largely so, and Calvinist doctrines have never flourished there" (120). Or course, Zurich and Geneva are not in fact situated at opposite ends of the same lake – and neither was Zurich "largely" Catholic in the seventeenth century, when Henty's novel is set; Zurich had, after all, been one of the centers of the Reformation, under Huldrych Zwingli.

Mistake or Not?

  • The cemetery at Fluntern is referred to as "Flunthorn" in Harry Clifton's poem "A Spider Dance on the Bahnhofstrasse" (1995). This could be a mistake – but as the poem is, among other things, a sort of homage to James Joyce it could also be intended to imitate the type of enigmatic wordplay Joyce employed, especially in his last major work, Finnegans Wake (1939).
  • In Janice Sims's novel Seduced by Moonlight (2008), readers who know their way around Zurich will be surprised to find a reference to "snow-covered chalets" as part of its cityscape. However, rather than see this as a mistake, a generous reading would suggest that this is simply part of Sims's attempts to create the most romantic mood imaginable, irrespective of the facts.

Weiterführende Informationen

Zurich in Anglophone Literatures

Zurich in Anglophone Literatures

Project Editor

Martin Mühlheim

UZH English Department, Plattenstrasse 47, CH-8032 Zürich, Switzerland