Thomas Mann in English

By Greenberg, Martin | New Criterion, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Thomas Mann in English


Greenberg, Martin, New Criterion


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 Moncriff'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 Pleiade
   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that marvelous writer, he lacked feeling, affinity for the novel's matter-of-fact, abrupt style; his translation was superseded long ago by plainer versions such as M. R. B. Shaw's. Edwin Muir's translations (with Willa Muir) of Kafka, bread-and-butter work as well as a labor of love,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 Spindelmuhle" (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.

From the first Mann was never really content with Mrs. Lowe-Porter; he put up with her. …

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