Time runs, the century winds to its close, and the great narrative works of the European imagination it gave birth to—the great works of Proust, Mann, Kafka—which one grew up with, and grew up on, in the familiar language of their first translations have now been appearing in new English dress. In Proust’s case the dress is only partly new. Scott Moncrieff’s celebrated translation of Remembrance of Things Past was revised, not redone, by Terence Kilmartin, who approached his task with uncommon wisdom and accomplished it with fine literary judgment.

The need to revise the existing translation in the light of the Pléiade edition . . .  also provided an opportunity of correcting mistakes and misinterpretations in Scott Moncrieff’s version. Translation, almost by definition, is imperfect . . . I have refrained from officious tinkering for its own sake, but a translator’s loyalty is to the original author, and in trying to be faithful to Proust’s meaning and tone of voice I have been obliged, here and there, to make extensive alterations.

Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust was a labor of love. When he translated Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, for all that he admired that marvelous writer, he lacked feeling, affinity for the novel’s matter-of-fact, abrupt style; his translation was superseded long ago by plainer versions such as M. R. B. Shaw’s. Edwin Muir’s translations (with Willa Muir) of Kafka, bread-and-butter work as well as a labor of love, were long admired for their easy English, which suited Kafka’s elegant German. But in time there was the inevitable criticism of inaccuracies, and with the correction of the German texts on the basis of the original manuscripts, retranslation was surely called for. In Britain the Kafka scholar Malcolm Pasley retranslated many of the stories, J. A. Underwood The Castle; in the U.S. Mark Harman The Castle and Breon Mitchell The Trial.

Pasley’s translations are as much a revision of the Muirs’ fine work as a new translation, which regrettably is not acknowledged in the two Penguin volumes. I rejoiced to read in Eric Ormsby’s superior essay “Franz Kafka and the Trip to Spindelmühle” (The New Criterion, November 1998) his castigation of Harman’s “shameless introduction,” which dares to patronize the Muirs (who run rings around him as writers) and which is full of vulgar self-praise. Harman is abetted in this by his publisher Schocken, which ought to have shown a decent respect for the invaluable work the Muirs did for Kafka and for Schocken books over many years.  PEN, now little more than a publicity outfit, pitched in too with one of its “cultural events,” lending its voice to the appreciation of the worse and the depreciation of the better.

About Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations of Thomas Mann the story is rather different. Her efforts with Mann’s earlier works were much praised when they were first published in the Twenties and Thirties. As Mann’s novels got to be more difficult (and more difficult for the translator) she began to catch it from reviewers. But Mann’s books sold and Knopf held fast to her to the end. After World War II, criticism of the translations got mixed up with criticism of Mann himself, or so he thought: not only the translations, but the works too were found to be heavy, elaborate, even pompous, and Mann’s reputation (except for Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice) declined. However, just as Daunty, Gouty, and Shopkeeper, as Joyce with schoolboy humor nicknamed them to lighten their trinitarian solemnity (not out of mockery but respect, as perhaps it needs to be said today), still occupy the thrones of traditional European literature, though English speakers hardly read the second, so Mann is still numbered with Proust, Joyce, and, latest crowned, Kafka as the kings of twentieth-century European fiction.

She felt “his books would not have made money in English translation if they had not—out of my profound respect for the English tongue—been ‘easily readable.’”

From the first Mann was never really content with Mrs. Lowe-Porter; he put up with her. It is of course true that no translator would ever have satisfied Mann, ever satisfies any serious writer dismayed to see the less finely drawn face his work wears in the roughcast of an alien language, though there are degrees of roughness. Mann, like so many when it comes to their own work, believed a translation should be “as literal as the foreign language will allow.” Lowe-Porter, however, believed in “the spirit first and the letter so far as might be.” So she put it in her translator’s note to Buddenbrooks. She felt “his books would not have made money in English translation if they had not—out of my profound respect for the English tongue—been ‘easily readable.’ I will not claim more for them than that, because it is enough.” And so they were—readable, and read with pleasure by a general public for decades. In a dialogue on The Magic Mountain in Erich Heller’s Thomas Mann: The Ironic German, Q remarks that he “remembers a passage” which “even in translation” struck him by “its lyrical beauty”—it was Hans Castorp’s recollection of an evening boat ride on a lake in Holstein, the moon rising in the magical, night-shrouded, misty east, broad day still holding in the sober, glassy light of the west.

Two generations have passed since then and Mann has been taken into the care of the academy. The appearance of a new translation of Buddenbrooks by John E. Woods, followed since by his retranslations of The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus,1 led not long after to a harsh attack on Mann’s translators, and especially on the deceased Lowe-Porter, by two British professors of German in the Times Literary Supplement of October 13, 1995. Michael Beddow wrote in a review of Woods’s translation that the “chief obstacle to proper appreciation of Thomas Mann in Anglo-Saxony [is] the poor quality of nearly all the published translations,” criticizing Lowe-Porter for her “inaccuracies, omissions and general stylistic helplessness.” The main attack followed on the next page, an entire article by Timothy Buck beginning with an almost personal expression of contempt for Mrs. Lowe-Porter, whom he called “a small-town Pennsylvanian with large literary ambitions”—the latter phrase referring to her view of translation as “creative authorship,” to the very free hand, for Buck license, with which she rendered Mann’s texts. His article offered a sampling of her delinquencies, classified as: getting German words and phrases wrong; textual omissions; violations of the syntax of the original; and inexact renderings that “call in question the very use of the word ‘translation.’”

Now Lowe-Porter’s translations are indeed full of lexical errors, some of them surprising because so elementary: kurzweilig (entertaining, diverting) translated as “brief”; ihre Tränen waren versiegt (her tears had dried), “her tears were conquered.” These seem to be the errors of someone whose experience of German has been with books more than life and who misunderstands familiar idiomatic language. Translations always contain errors, in Lowe-Porter’s case too many. Against this, one should remember how much, in the thousands of pages she translated, she got right.

Mann is the opposite of laconic. . . . This is an important element in his power, weight. But transferred faithfully (dutifully) into English, there is a danger of the language losing pace, crowding up and becoming a lot of words.

Her textual omissions and condensations too are so frequent as to be a regular practice. She often deals summarily with a complex passage which might very well have been worked out fully in English. There is one horrendous example of a dropped sentence, a short and simple one, at the very climax of Death in Venice. (Surely it was inadvertent. But why was it never corrected?) However, there is something to be said for as well as against the way she shortens the text. Mann is the opposite of laconic, he pours the words out, like Goethe, in a great flow, observes and describes in great detail, says the same thing one way and then another. This is an important element in his power, weight. But transferred faithfully (dutifully) into English, there is a danger of the language losing pace, crowding up and becoming a lot of words. As for her violation of Mann’s syntax: this charge seems mostly pedantry to me. German can pack qualifying phrases and clauses between the subject and the verb in a way that English may be made to follow but doesn’t like. The danger of following Mann’s word order too closely is tangled, inept sentences translationese.

Buck’s last charge concerns Lowe-Porter’s imprecision, by which he means her free way with the text. His example concerns the point in Death in Venice when Aschenbach encounters Tadzio on the way to the beach and the thought suggests itself: why not simply go up to the youth and speak to him in the ordinary, unfraught way, in the friendly, familiar way people use at resorts, and so commence a pleasant, less agitated seaside acquaintance? But his heart hammers in his breast when he hurries to overtake him, his breath comes short and his courage deserts him. Buck offers the following translation of the narrator’s comment on Aschenbach’s failure as being precise and true in the way Lowe-Porter’s isn’t:

This step he had failed to take could very possibly have led to . . .  a salutary disenchantment (heilsamer Ernüchterung). But now it seemed to be the case that the aging man did not wish to be disenchanted, that the intoxication was too precious to him.

What strikes me first of all is that “salutary disenchantment” is an ill phrase, a vile phrase; it is also a misleading one. Aschenbach has been captivated by Tadzio’s beauty and grace, but his appreciation and delight aren’t the trouble; they are the acknowledged response to beauty, the senses’ way, their only way, Aschenbach muses Socratically a little later, to the spirit. The trouble is that aesthetic delight is urging him, step by step, into a passion for the beautiful boy, the way of beauty leading not to the spirit but to moral anarchy and death. The result the step he failed to take might have had at this stage in his infatuation was his coming to his senses, his recovering from the drunken state the next sentence speaks about, recovering control over unhealthy impulses his conscience can’t approve, which later in the story make a rouged clown of the dignified, respectable writer. The word Ernüchterung (from nüchtern, sober) here doesn’t suggest his being under a kind of spell, a Keatsian enchantment—that would be too nice by far for a story about sordid desires and moral abjectness. Rather it suggests what Aschenbach’s Protestant conscience is saying at this point, that his feverish emotions might have found a corrective in a more or less ordinary relationship with Tadzio, which would have imposed a calming restraint on his wild and disorderly longings. (But the story’s final note is not one of abasement and humiliation but of true pathos, when, in Lowe-Poter’s translation, “the pale and lovely Summoner” beckons him on “into an immensity of richest expectation.”)

Lowe-Porter’s English isn’t wooden like Buck’s;

This step he delayed to take might have led to . . .  a sane recovery from his folly. But the truth may have been that the aging man did not want to be cured, that his illusion was too dear to him.

And “recovery from his folly” might just pass for Ernüchterung—but not with “sane” before it; it is not Aschenbach’s sanity that is in question. And to apply the word “illusion” (for Rausch, drunkenness) to a middle-aged man’s sexual passion for a boy—the translator is averting her eyes from the pedophilia that is a central element of the story. The narrator’s language is formal, dignified, discreet, in contrast with the indiscreet story it is telling. But Lowe-Porter’s “illusion” isn’t discreet, it bowdlerizes, falsifies. Each translator, in his or her different way, makes things too nice. True, Lowe-Porter fails with the passage but so does her critic. Expertise extends only so far; beyond it lie the debatable complexities of literary translation, to which Buck seems blind.

Buck’s article provoked a reply, from Lawrence Venuti, an American translator (from the Italian) and the author of a book on translation, that appeared in the letters section of the Times Literary Supplement of November 24, 1995. His somewhat muddled letter defended Lowe-Porter and Woods on the grounds of the conditions under which translators work: time, place, and audience. Thus, her evasive rendering just quoted was called a “reinterpretation . . .  according to [the] domestic values [of] an American audience in the 1930s”—this apparently meaning that pedophilia however delicately suggested was a taboo subject in the U.S. of those years, requiring “reinterpretation.” Lowe-Porter and Woods, having a general public in mind, “took a belletristic approach,” which is easygoing about precision, whereas “contemporary academic canons” require “extreme precision.” Little was said about literary quality, also apparently a relative matter, subject to changing judgments. What the letter seemed at bottom to complain about, with justice, was the superior attitude of “academic specialists” on their professorial high horse finding fault with the hard work of translators toiling down below in the salt mines of an undervalued branch of literature.

Venuti was answered not by Buck but by David Luke (December 8, 1995), also a professor of German and a translator of many works—an academic, that is, with nevertheless a lot of experience in the salt mines. His self-described “rude” reply, brushing aside Venuti’s defense of Lowe-Porter and Woods, accused him of “willfully miss[ing] the main point” of Buck’s piece, which was that neither translator knew “enough German to cope with Thomas Mann.” He cited more errors by Lowe-Porter, and, for Woods, instanced a passage near the end of Buddenbrooks (in which Hanno is dying of typhoid fever) that gets things turned the wrong way round by speaking of life as a place of “cooling shade and peace” (no Mannian sentiment, that) when it is death to which these words apply. Yes, concluded Luke, call us academic specialists; would we rather be bunglers? Our specialized knowledge is needed for pointing out the mistakes which make the “circulation of debased versions of the great German writers of this century a continuing scandal.”

Venuti’s reply to Luke (December 22, 1995) accused him of expecting, as “foreign-language academics” do, that a translation should be “inscribed (sic) with the specialist’s interpretation of the foreign text.” He conceded Woods had mistranslated the passage cited by Luke, but then claimed that the mistake “worked in English” (more “reinterpretation”). Luke retorted, even more rudely, by giving Venuti a lesson in German grammar and advising him “to stick to his last,” Italian, an “easier language.”

Lowe-Porter’s “more imponderable defects of style or taste . . .  may be inferred a fortiori from the frequency of the cruder kind of error.” May they, though?

Both Beddow and Buck held up their colleague Luke’s translation of Death in Venice and Other Stories (1988) as a model--“a model translation,” wrote Buck, “faithful to the original, yet fluent.” Now the burden of the charge against Lowe-Porter is her inaccuracies; these gave readers a false, a “debased” Mann. The literary quality of her work presumably needed no discussion, literary inferiority following from linguistic. Luke in his introduction to his translation says this explicitly: her “more imponderable defects of style or taste . . .  may be inferred a fortiori from the frequency of the cruder kind of error.” May they, though? Judgments of style may be more arguable, but may they be inferred in this way? This understanding of translation is absurdly schoolmasterish. Think of North’s Plutarch, Florio’s Montaigne. Think how Cervantes in English declined in vivacity as he gained in accuracy, from Motteux and Smollett to Cohen and Putnam, till we got a vigorous translation again, a translation that is a pleasure to read, from Burton Raffel (Norton, 1995). The literary quality of a translation is a primary thing, not to be inferred from something else. And quality is more than a matter of fluency; there is more than enough bad fluent writing, especially in England.

Let me compare Lowe-Porter’s writing with Luke’s writing in the case of their translations of Death in Venice. I take as an example the striking passage that follows Aschenbach’s aborted effort to leave Venice, whose spreading cholera the authorities are criminally concealing. He returns to glimpse from the window of his room, with a soul divided between rapture and painful self-recognition, the true cause of his coming back, Tadzio, on the beach. Letting his arms hang slack, he who had renounced all sympathy with the abyss, who had passed through knowledge which sophisticates understanding and dissolves the will, to arrive in his maturity at a new-old simplicity of decisiveness and moral stringency—he it is who abandons himself to pagan love, Venetian lies, and deadly plague. With this triumph of the Dionysian, the weather changes to classical and the style changes to classical, a parody of the classical (which is not after all far removed from Mann’s own style, inclined to the Olympian—but that too is parody). Lowe-Porter writes:

Now daily the naked god with cheeks aflame drove his four fire-breathing steeds through heaven’s spaces; and with him streamed the strong east wind that fluttered his yellow locks. A sheen, like white satin, lay over all the idly rolling sea’s expanse. The sand was burning hot. Awnings of rust-colored canvas were spanned before the bathing-huts, under the ether’s quivering silver-blue; one spent the morning within the small, sharp square of shadow they purveyed. But evening too was rarely lovely: balsamic with the breath of flowers and shrubs from the near-by park, while overhead the constellations circled in their spheres, and the murmuring of the night-girted sea swelled softly up and whispered to the soul. Such nights as these contained the joyful promise of a sunlit morrow, brim-full of sweetly ordered idleness, studded thick with countless precious possibilities.

This has the cadence, the lyrical lift, the forward movement of the original, without stumbles or hesitations, from the beginning of the paragraph to its end. Or almost to its end: it lurches in the last two clauses where the German is dense and abstract (von leichtgeordneter Musse und geschmückt mit zahllosen, dicht beieinanderliegenden Möglich-keiten lieblichen Zufalls). The diction has the proper elevation (in one case, “purveyed,” perhaps not the right kind). The language has distinction; it is not merely translated, it is written. Here is Luke’s version:

Now day after day, the god with the burning cheeks soared naked, driving his four fire-breathing steeds through the spaces of heaven, and now, too, his yellow-gold locks fluttered wide in the out-storming east wind. Silk-white radiance gleamed on the slow-swelling deep’s vast waters. The sand glowed. Under the silvery quivering blue of the ether, rust-colored awnings were spread out in front of the beach cabins, and one spent the morning hours on the sharply defined patch of shade they provided. But exquisite, too, was the evening, when the plants in the park gave off a balmy fragrance, and the stars on high moved through their dance, and the softly audible murmur of the night-surrounded sea worked its magic on the soul. Such an evening carried with it the promise of a new sunlit day of leisure easily ordered, and adorned with countless close-knit possibilities of charming chance encounter.

Its movement is sluggish because the beat, though correct enough when scanned, is disturbed by clumsy phrasing. “His yellow-gold locks fluttered wide in the out-storming east wind” is verbose, and the unidiomatic “out-storming” brings one up short. “Silvery quivering blue of the ether” is literal and clumsy; it jars. (Lowe-Porter’s “ether’s quivering silver-blue” runs much easier.) “Softly audible murmur” is gluey, redundant language. “Exquisite too was the evening” is banal (“exquisite” being a word ruined for most purposes. Lowe-Porter’s “evening too was rarely lovely” manages with suaveness German that employs a conventional lyrical vocabulary by design.)

All this is poor enough; with Luke’s last sentence there is complete collapse. “Leisure easily ordered” isn’t English, it’s a literal translation of the general phrase, leicht geordneter Musse. Lowe-Porter’s “sweetly ordered idleness” is English, but at the expense of the meaning. Neither translator brings out the more definite sense, implicit in the German, which English wants (some such phrase as “idleness with its easy, impromptu arrangements”). The last clause of all is a clumsy pile-up of words. “Adorned with countless close-knit possibilities” makes one grimace; literalism, as so often, here verges on the grotesque.

Buck sneered at Lowe-Porter’s literary ambition. Any translator worth his salt is moved by such ambition, struggles creatively to make literature out of literature. For all her delinquencies, vagaries, and waywardness, she was a writer, as Luke is not. In a continuation of the exchange of letters described above, two of Lowe-Porter’s daughters wrote the TLS (January 19, 1996) conveying the text of a letter their mother wrote to Alfred A. Knopf, Mann’s American publisher, in 1943. It talks at some length about the difficulties of translating Mann, whom she so much admired (the work and the man), and sets forth her fuller conception of the translator’s task.

I cannot think a creative artist would be glad to see his true marriage of thought and word turned into something which, however word-accurate, had ceased to be literature at all. . .  . And herein lies the Scylla of translators. The Charybdis would be the failure to give a faithful rendering of the sense. It is very hard to avoid them both.

Charybdis gave her trouble, as this perhaps implicitly acknowledges.

The three academicians show no real awareness that translating literature, all the more so great literature, requires something more than word accuracy. They mark Lowe-Porter’s and Woods’s work as they would a student’s bluebook, with an eye only for mistakes; but also with the indignation of official authorities who regard all amateurs of their subject as bungling interlopers.

The last word in the prolonged exchange, as the first, was Buck’s (February 16, 1996); he quotes from a letter sent to him by Konrad Kellen, who was Mann’s secretary for some years. Kellen wrote that he once asked Mann what he thought of Lowe-Porter’s translations and he replied: “‘Oh, you know, Mrs. L. P. is such a nice woman and a good friend of mine!’ and then, raising his finger and his eyebrows: ‘She doesn’t know German! (Deutsch kann sie nicht!) But not everybody can be expected to!’” This is witty, as Mann often was. But it shows a fundamental misapprehension. She didn’t know German—but he didn’t know English. He couldn’t judge English writing. What a translator needs to know first of all is his own language, have his own command of its literary powers. With a less than perfect knowledge of the language they are translating from, but borne up by admiration and the love of literature, such translators have done brilliant work. Another British professor of German, T. J. Reed, a fine scholar of Goethe and Mann, has this to say in the introductory matter he provided to Woods’s translation of Buddenbrooks. “The greatest part of Mann’s fiction was translated into English by Mrs. Helen Lowe-Porter. . .  . Despite many errors of detail, the translation remains an heroic piece of work.”

“Nope,” Woods has the elder Buddenbrook, a man of the eighteenth century, say, as a translation of the North German dialectical na, ja!

Mann’s work needs a more correct translation, and time itself in any case is inexorable in its demand for fresh versions. These are now being provided for the novels by John E. Woods. Buck and Luke accused him of incompetence in German, but that is nonsense. Of the ten “more striking errors” the former culled from the first 125 pages of Woods’s translation of Buddenbrooks, I count only four as true mistakes. When Woods misreads weiss (white) as weit (wide), that’s a slip, not ignorance. Lowe-Porter makes mistakes, Woods makes slips. With very big novels like Mann’s, and driven by deadlines as professional translators are (and with no editorial backup from publishers), how should there not be slips and even worse? In Woods’s translations of Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, and Doctor Faustus he does what is expected of him: provides a more accurate English text. This means he regularly corrects his predecessor’s mistakes (even if making mistakes of his own); is guilty of fewer lexical gaffes (as it seems to me); doesn’t omit or condense phrases and sentences (is given instead to clumsy explanatory additions); translates particular terms more exactly; and sticks closer to letter and syntax.

Yet I found myself turning away from Woods, irritated and often bored, to Lowe-Porter. The irritation, regularly provoked, was with his gross insensitivity to what rhetoricians call decorum. “Nope,” he has the elder Buddenbrook, a man of the eighteenth century, say, as a translation of the North German dialectical na, ja!. Consul Thomas Buddenbrook tells his sister Tony, “You can’t get away with that with me.” Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, just arrived at the sanitorium, wonders with the “leery self-consciousness of youth” if there is derision in Dr. Krokowski’s affability. At Peeperkorn’s party “the guests were horsing around.”

Mann’s formality of style is not so strict as to forbid colloquialisms, in his own language and his translator’s; nevertheless some delicacy is called for. In Woods’s Doctor Faustus we find the narrator writing that “people flat-out (schlechterdings) did not wish to know why Opus 111 has only two movements”; that Kretzschmar’s stutter has his “jaw and chin pulsing in sync”; he quotes Leverkühn speaking about “an art that is on a first-name basis with humanity” (eine Kunst mit der Menschheit auf du und du [an art in which it and humanity say du to one another]). This shows a tin ear. I suspect Woods of thinking he is updating Mann in English by his vulgarisms from “Victorian” to modern. In contemporary illiteracy all formality of language, formality of any kind, is deemed old-fashioned and “old-fashioned” means “Victorian.”

When translating a sentence by Mann, or anybody, the translator must always be asking himself what is going on in the paragraph, chapter, and book in which it is contained, on guard against the dulling routine of word-for-word transcription. In the chapter “Research” in The Magic Mountain, life’s problem child Hans Castorp, instead of boning up on his engineering books, immerses himself in volumes of anatomy, physiology, and botany in pursuit of an answer to the question: What is life? Falling asleep over his books, he rhapsodically dreams he is being embraced by Claudia Chauchat, who appears to him as “the image of life.” Woods writes:

She bent toward him, bent down to him, over him, he sensed her organic aroma, sensed the lace-like pounding of her heart.

This is a touching-amusing moment as the young engineer’s scientific reflections rise (not change) into longing and love. But what in the world does “lace-like pounding” mean? It means nothing, it’s a slip. Woods read the German crazily: the word in question, Spitzenstoss, signifies something like “peak (rate of) pulsation.” Spitze, however, means “lace” as well as “peak” and the translator, who must have been dreaming himself, took the winding road to nonsense instead of the straight one before him. But how did the nonsense pass muster on rereading? Didn’t Woods reread his manuscript? How did it pass editorial muster? But of course editors and publishers don’t read manuscripts any more. (Lowe-Porter gets it wrong too—“mild pulsation”—but not senselessly wrong.)

Now one of the things going on in The Magic Mountain is Hans Castorp’s instruction in, exploration of, the ambiguous relation between matter and spirit, the scientific and the aesthetic, knowing illness and simple-minded health, the physiological and the affective. In the “Research” chapter, after having studied the sciences of material life, he comes, before falling into his dream, to the following conclusion.

Out of overcompensation for its own instability, yet governed by its own inherent laws of formation, a bloated concoction of water, protein, salt, and fats—what we call flesh—ran riot, unfolded and took shape, achieving form, ideality, beauty, and yet all the while was the quintessence of sensuality and desire . . .  . This was the image of life revealed to the young Hans Castorp.

So when Claudia Chauchat, as a particular image of this life, embraces him in his dream, he is being embraced by a delectable composition of water, protein, salt, and fats. Her lifted arms had disclosed to him the blue branchings of the veins inside the flesh of the inside of her upper arms, naked arms which have long enchanted him. Placing his hands on their surface, he felt the coolness of the grainy skin stretched tight over the triceps. And then (Lowe-Porter writes) “he felt the moist clinging of her kiss”—and then (Woods writes) “he felt the moist suckle of her kiss.” Both translators, again, have got it wrong. The German is die feuchte Ansaugung ihres Kusses, “the moist aspiration [suction] of her kiss.” The story Mann is telling is of love scientific-lyrical: Claudia’s aroma is “organic”; her heart beats amorously at its “peak pulsation rate”; a swooning kiss is an “aspiration.” Neither translator has lifted his or her head up to consider what is going on in the chapter. Characteristically, Lowe-Porter with utter disregard of the text falls back in her uncertainty on literature (high-toned literature) to describe the kiss; Woods tries to stick to the text but comes up, again crazily, with a nursery word.

Woods is deficient in literary feeling and literary style.

Woods is deficient in literary feeling and literary style. In the brilliant, so amusing “Walpurgis Night” chapter of The Magic Mountain, in which the novel’s “ordinary” hero, emboldened by the occasion’s spirit of abandon, dares at last to speak to Claudia Chauchat, the second person singular, a distinction lost to us in English, plays an important part. He says du to her, thus declaring himself as a lover. This gives an English translator some trouble. When Hans Castorp passes over into speaking French so as to shake off the constraints and inhibitions imposed by his native tongue, the German original, of course, gives the French as French. But Woods commits the clumsy, gross, the inexcusable blunder of translating the French; he loses half (all!) the wit and charm of the episode, to which the French is indispensable, as well as giving himself the trouble a second time of dealing periphrastically with the second person singular or ignoring it entirely. Lowe-Porter keeps the French and so we are able to feel directly the force of the intimate tu.

This is more than a narrow linguistic matter. As equivocal as the novel is, the word of love it speaks is perhaps its least equivocal utterance, and least equivocal in the vision Hans Castorp has when lost in the snowstorm on the mountain heights. When I tried to imagine a subtitle for The Magic Mountain so as to grasp it as a whole, what came to mind was “The Book of Du.” That, of course, is too declarative and too one-sided for the Mannian imagination of the modern world, but it has its justice.

The third novel so far translated by Woods, Doctor Faustus, is not without its dimension of du too, but a negative du, the du that the ice-cold genius, the composer Leverkühn, can never say. A deathly work, it seems untranslatable. Nevertheless, we have two translations of it. It isn’t only the chapters full of dialect, and the chapters in the sixteenth-century German of the Faustbuch and Luther, and the web of allusions to Goethe and Wagner and Nietzsche and I don’t know whom else that make the difficulty. Mann’s art is very much an art of making, a Daedalian art of intricate construction. When successful, it is a brilliant art. Of the three novels, though all daedal works, Buddenbrooks is least a construction, Doctor Faustus most. And, as such, with the smallest amount of spontaneity (life) and the maximum of deliberateness (art), translating it is a daunting job—because the more a literary work is made, the less separable it is from the medium of its making (in this case, Mann’s German). And when a work is almost entirely contrivance, and no blood circulates in its veins, as with Doctor Faustus, translation seems sheer impossibility.

Of course there are flashes of life in the novel, the brightest in my estimation being a set-piece, the monologue of the Jewish impresario Saul Fitelberg, who intrudes on Leverkühn’s agonized reclusion and tries to tempt him into the world of public performances and fashionable society. He comes in talking away, rattles on with great vivacity and wit, is quick to understand the situation, and departs goodhumoredly sounding as he goes. His wit, though spoken lightly, deprecatingly, is pointed. (A touch of anti-Semitism sharpens the portrait.) When Fitelberg appears, Woods’s translation, emerging from a slough of literalism, moves with animation.

There are a number of other set-pieces in the novel, though none so successful. For example, the Devil, the so-important Devil, who is a talker too—his animation is nothing more than words; he is an “ersatz devil,” to quote J. P. Stern. With the passage of time he is starting to look silly. German evil represented by nihilistic intellectual discussions, by Leverkühn’s contracting syphilis willfully from the “hetaera Esmerelda,” by advanced music nihilistically negating Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—with the passage of time, with the accumulated knowledge of the Holocaust, of the Death that was a “Meister aus Deutschland,” Doctor Faustus itself is looking hollow, unreal.

Consider Dr. phil. Serenus Zeitblom the narrator, also of crucial importance to the novel. A humanist of the North, one who finds the daemonic, not to speak of the diabolical, uncongenial, he is also a German nationalist. Although he has quit his teaching post rather than reconcile himself to “the spirit and claims of our historical development”—that is, to the daemonic-diabolical Hitler regime—nevertheless, as his words say, the Third Reich is historically required and he can’t help rejoicing in German victories. In the same way, the humanist is a loyal supporter and chronicler of the possessed Leverkühn, whose daemonic genius makes him uneasy, but the triumphs of whose diabolical music move him to admiration and awe. So he is presented—a hard thing to carry off, one would think. Does Mann succeed?

Here is Zeitblom speaking (that is, writing):

This . . .   morning I read in the paper about the auspicious revival of our submarine war, which within twenty-four hours has claimed as its victims no fewer than twelve ships—including two large passenger liners . . .  with five hundred passengers aboard. We owe this success to a new torpedo with fabulous capabilities, the product of a skilled German technology; and I cannot suppress a certain satisfaction at our ever resourceful spirit of invention, at our nation’s competence, which despite so many reverses refuses to yield and is still totally at the disposal of the regime that led us into this war and has indeed laid the entire continent at our feet, replacing the intellectual dream of a European Germany with the albeit terrifying, rather flawed, and as the world sees it, so it would seem, quite intolerable reality of German Europe. That involuntary feeling of satisfaction always yields then to the thought that such sporadic triumphs—like these recent sinkings or the commando exploit of kidnapping the fallen Italian dictator (and taken just in itself, it was a splendid coup)—can still serve only to awaken false hopes and prolong a war that . . .  can no longer be won. This is also the opinion of Monsignor Hinterpförtner, the head of our theological seminary in Freising . . . —a man who in no way resembles that passionate scholar around whom was centered the student uprising in Munich, which was then quelled in a ghastly bloodbath.

This is cardboard stuff, pure contrivance. The English could stand improvement but the fault lies with the German. Zeitblom the old-fashioned honorable scholar and Teutonic pedant, a man of integrity corrupted to an uncertain degree by a perverted German patriotism—he is utterly unconvincing in spite of all Mann’s efforts, because of all Mann’s efforts. Zeitblom’s moral division between humanist and nationalist is packed mechanically into single sentences. What would be a painful rupture in any man’s soul, no matter how little confronted, is here completely anesthetic. The feeling for music, and for the music that plays an important part in the novel, is real. But describing music in words is a virtuoso thing and only contributes to the dominating impression of construction and contrivance. We must be grateful to Mrs. Lowe-Porter and John E. Woods for the long and hard exertions required of them to wrestle Doctor Faustus over into English. That their translations make for heavy, awkward reading is not their fault—is not first of all their fault, because Doctor Faustus itself, Doctor Faustus in the German, is a heavy, awkward work.

Perhaps there is a kind of rule at work in translation, as suggested by the example of Don Quijote given above. First translations done enthusiastically out of love have vitality, force. But because they are the first to deal with what is a difficult new thing, they often stumble; or finding the foreign work’s strangeness too shocking to the idiomatic expectations of the host language, they sometimes over-English. With the passage of time the foreign work wins acceptance and the professors move in. Scholarship takes over from literary taste and it becomes a chore to read the corrected translations. But finally, it is to be hoped, scholarship and taste unite, as with Burton Raffel’s translation of Don Quijote, and the pleasure that is the beating heart of literature is recovered.

  1.  Buddenbrooks (Alfred A. Knopf 1993, Everyman edition 1994); The Magic Mountain (Alfred A. Knopf 1995); Doctor Faustus (Alfred A. Knopf 1998).

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 7, on page 21
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https://newcriterion.com/issues/1999/3/thomas-mann-in-english

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