Translating Thomas Mann

Cautionary tale, case study, or tragicomedy of errors? Even years after his death, the saga of the English translations of Mann has failed to find a satisfactory ending, and presumably for some considerable time to come, if not indefinitely, two Thomas Manns will continue to coexist in our midst: the German original, read chiefly by academics and some students of German, and the Lowe-Porter ‘adaptations into English’, which offer the unsuspecting general public access to another, a pseudo- Mann that Thomas, warned of the shortcomings of his would-be translator, had feared might result from her being appointed. For his ‘pact’ with the prestigious publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf, which would bring him royalties and recognition in the English-speaking world, but no say in the choice of his English echo, he paid a high price indeed.

Thus writes Timothy Buck in his interesting, if disquieting essay “Loyalty and License: Thomas Mann’s fiction in English translation” (The Modern Language Review, Vol. 91, No. 4 (Oct., 1996), pp. 898-92), where he, thoroughly, brilliantly, and frighteningly dissects Helen Lowe-Porter’s “damaging” translation of Mann’s work, which reads horrible. The amount of falsifying, incompetence both in English and German, that Buck unearths here, is staggering. The same argument is developed in Buck’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, which I highly recommend. If you want to read Thomas Mann in English or have done so and are interested how much Mann you can get for your money, these essays are required reading.

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