Manning up: New translations of Thomas Mann

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday July 18, 2023
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Author Thomas Mann
Author Thomas Mann

Today's Thomas Mann is a victim of his own high reputation: in a word, lofty, in another, forbidding.

There's never been a dip in esteem for Mann, the German author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. But generations of stuffy English translations have done little to make Mann as read as admired across the Atlantic. So, Damian Searls's just-published translations, "New Selected Stories" (Liveright), fleet but sure-footed, come as a relief, a long-overdue exhalation.

The joke once went that when Mann's novels were first published, in German, they appeared in two volumes— the second containing the verb. Compared to his contemporaries James Joyce and Marcel Proust, Mann was not an experimenter. A "master writer" and nothing short of the conscience of a(ll?) people, Mann wrote in a dense style not atypical for his time, just better than most. There is no evidence, in the texts, anyway, that Mann sought to be an easy read.

Translator Damion Searls  

Lodestar of gay literature
Was Mann gay? It depends on your definition of "gay," and yes. Homoerotic themes and elements appear throughout his writing, if never more explicitly than "Death in Venice" of 1911.

But "Death" has been a central text in gay literature to the point where a throw-away line in one translation —what belongs to you, the barber's promise to protagonist Gustav Aschenbach, who has a sudden desire to look younger— has resurfaced as the title of one of today's most influential gay novels.

The centerpiece of the new collection, "Death" tells the story of Aschenbach's toxic obsession with the Polish boy Tadzio, whom he encounters on a getaway in a swank hotel on the Lido in Venice. Generations of gay readers have stalked the novella with the same urgent lust, all too often then rebuffed by translations studiously meaning to capture both consent and style.

Speaking personally for a moment, Searls's is somewhere around the tenth translation of "Death" in my personal library. If the subject matter were any less incendiary, the artistic stakes any lower, I might well have quit. When I think back on those earlier translations, each of which seemed an improvement on the previous ones, the collective impression I have is of off-putting, seemingly unreadable blocks of type, pages without margins, scant room between lines, and not nearly enough word spaces, equally important and off-putting.

Without abridgement, Searls's avoids the knotty weight of important passages, beginning with the stage-setting opening and including a humid holding pattern in the explanation of the source of the plague gripping Venice. I was so startled by the swift pace of Searls's translation that it all seemed over too soon, not that there was any slackening of impact.

An impossible, forbidding destination
It's as if Searls has found where the words and punctuation belong to address the present-day reader. There's no dumbing down, yet somehow Searls's "Death" reads, if not conversationally, more like personal storytelling, to the work's advantage. And the humor and irony that are such essential components of Mann's style, if mostly overlooked, surface readily if without fanfare.

Felicities of language abound without somehow calling attention to themselves, and away from the narrative. Besotted with Tadzio, Aschenbach "was overreacting and enjoying it, and much too arrogant to fear an emotion."

Following Tadzio's family through Venice, "he found what he was looking for bent over a prayer stool during service" at St. Mark's. "Up in front, the richly ornamented priest walked back and forth and fussed and sang; incense billowed, ... and the musty sweet sacrificial smell seemed to have another scent quietly mixed in: that of the diseased city. But through the vapor and the glittering, Aschenbach saw the beautiful boy up there turn his head, look for him, and see him."

The makeup artist who returns to Aschenbach "what belongs to him" brushes off his work as "a trivial little boost to what was already there." "Now the gentleman can fall in love without a care in the world," he assures Aschenbach. "The bewitched customer left in a state of dreamlike bliss, though timorous and confused."

Despite his idolizing —and idealizing— of Tadzio, "Aschenbach was pained to feel, as he had so often before, that language can only praise physical beauty, not reproduce it." As for Venice itself, "now that the city had made him sick twice, he had no choice but to see it henceforth as an impossible, forbidding destination; he was no match for it, and it was pointless ever to visit there again." Those who have been roughed up by Venice's "other side" will understand.

Other Mann works have proved resistant to pleasure reading. Mann intended "Death in Venice" to be a companion piece to another novella, "Confessions of a Con Artist, by Felix Krull," left unfinished. It's proved to be among the more baffling of Mann's writings, and many a reader has quit, feeling conned. Searls saves it for last and makes compelling reading of it.

He adds to the importance of his translation by tackling other lesser-known Mann works, including two longish selections from the "Buddenbrooks" novels and "Louisey," a story even most ardent Mann readers might have missed.

Translation matters
A seasoned and versatile translator, Searls has his own solutions to the problems of bearing another artist's message while adding to it something new. And there are considerations in 2023 that might not have vexed earlier translators. In "Louisey," Searls fixes previous translations of the entertainments of the Germans by changing "hideous Negroes" and "Negro dances" to "hideous Africans" and "African dances." These are not small matters, the "corrections" having no impact on the integrity of the original but with a salutary effect on the present-day reader.

"After his private diaries were published in the 1970s, ... it became clear how deeply his emotional life was homosexual," Searls writes. "There is no evidence of him ever having had sexual contact with men or boys, but he passionately and tumultuously felt love for young men and boys throughout his life." It's a fine distinction eminently worth making.

Translation as an artistic activity with its own validity is an enterprise that has steadily gained recognition and currency. There are readers for whom translation per se may not matter, but, again speaking for myself, no amount of intention or desire on my part allowed me to read "War and Peace" before the Anthony Briggs translation or Alessandro Manzoni's "The Betrothed" —long in my crosshairs— until Michael E. Moore's.

Marcel Proust  

As synchronicity would have it, The New York Review Books has just published a new translation of Proust's "Swann's Way" by James Grieve. If there's a novel that has famously taxed readers, enough to shorten reading, it's "In Search of Lost Time." Lydia Davis' masterful translation for the newish Penguin edition has brought a new generation of readers into the fold. On quick inspection, Grieve's "Swann" will mark another step forward in translation as rich as the originals, but speaking to readers now.

Thomas Mann, 'New Selected Stories,' translated from the German by Damion Searls, Liveright, 252 pp. $30.

Marcel Proust, 'Swann's Way,' translated from the French by James Grieve, New York Review Books, 450 pp. $18.95.

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