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.


The custom that imprisons.

Robert Lowell: Five Hour Political Rally

A design of insects on the rug’s red acre,
one to each ten feet like the rich in graves;
the belly is like a big watermelon seed,
each head an empty pretzel, less head than mouth,
the wings are emblems, black as the ironwork
for a Goya balcony, lure and bar to love –
the darkeyed and protected Spanish girls
exhibited by the custom that imprisons.
Insects and statesmen grapple on the carpet;
all excel, as if each were the candidate;
all original or at least in person;
twenty first ballerinas are in the act.
Like insects they almost live on breath alone:
If you swallow me, I’ll swallow you.

This is from the odd and astonishing sequence of sonnets that make up Lowell’s History.

Something other than perfection

In 2003, FSG published the Collected Poems of Robert Lowell, and while there were great assessments of the book (Willard Spiegelman’s in The Kenyon Review, or Helen Vendler’s in The New Republic), there were also some less smart takes. One of the most harebrained ones was James Fenton’s in the NYRB (“The Return of Robert Lowell”). DeSales Harrison, one of the book’s editors, gave the right answer and an excellent assessment of Lowell’s work in his brief letter to the editor. This bit especially is extremely well put:

Fenton assumes that Lowell undertakes his revisions in the interest of a perfection that anyone would recognize. What Fenton does not consider is the way in which revision might strive toward something other than perfection in this narrow sense. The “comprehensive review and correction” that he proposes must perforce ignore or deny how much of Lowell’s power inheres in the refusal of correction, and in its insistence upon leaving exposed the work’s pentimenti. The surface of the text is in its essence erratic, torn, distorted, or—to use a word Fenton might intend differently—incorrigible. In its scrapings, smudges, patchings, and scars the poetry enacts the struggle between impulse and repentance, gesture and erasure—between, in short, the forces of making and unmaking.

Opening Round, 2nd Match. Womack is ridiculous

Drunk or off his meds, Andrew Womack lets Kathryn Stockett’s The Help move ahead against John Wray’s Lowboy, one of the best books published last year (here is my review). The judgment is as ridiculous as his reasoning for it:

I’m reducing this matchup to style versus substance, and where Lowboy has much more of the former, The Help brings a bigger story to sink your teeth into. My sense, though, is that neither book has what it takes to go the distance in this competition. The Help has the ambition, but lacks Lowboy’s edginess.

Opening Round, 1st Match. McCann destroys Mun

Rosecrans Baldwin brought down her gavel and let McCann move on in the opening match of the Tournament of Books.

I greatly enjoyed Miles From Nowhere from start to finish, but after a dozen pages with Let the Great World Spin, I knew which book would win. McCann’s written a monster: It wants to consume the Earth whole while naming every molecule on the way down. It’s a blast.

let none live here but those who will die here

Ko Un: New Year’s Day

This is the loneliest spot in the country on New Year’s Day.
I’ve spent the whole long winter here,
devoid of everything.
It’s been a week already since the boats stopped running.
Chuja Island goes on getting smaller
until sad eyes cannot see it.

Don’t overturn the glass from which you drank.
Once you’re past thirty,
you can make friends with an empty glass.

Tell me, wind: what can I hope for on New Year’s Day on this remote island?
After some tedious, very tedious reading
by the light of a small oil lamp,
I mutter a single drunken line
but vowels alone cannot make it audible
as far as that widower’s tomb out there.

So, wind: let none live here but those who will die here.
Endurance is the greatest journey of all.
Even if the boats are completely overwhelmed by the gale,
I’m going to set out, though I’ve got no overcoat.

Tell me again, wind: what more can I hope for on New Year’s Day?
From the guts of a boarding house, coughs flee
one after another, that’s all I can hear…
One day, they’ll return, transformed into the local dialect.
Ah, New Year’s greetings, buried alive by Cheju Island’s wild whirlwinds.

From Songs of Tomorrow, Green Integer’s collection of Ko Un’s dazzling poetry, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-Moo Kim and Gary Gach. Green Integer, whose motto is “Pataphysics and Pedantry”, is an amazing publisher, who keeps providing a stage and a voice to poetry in translation. Without them, I would have had no chance of finding this extraordinary poet. Read Ko Un. He’s worth every bit of your attention.