Tuesday, June 1, 2010

stencil #020 & paste up #008 - thomas mann

 (Thomas Mann stencil...at one end of High St, Northcote)

(and Thomas Mann paste up, at the other end of High St, Northcote)

My chess partner suggested I try my hand at literary translation, but I’m not so sure I could deal with the flak should I (most likely) prove to be really bad at it.

When reading fiction in translation in the past, I didn’t use to consider the fidelity of the translation. I just took it for granted that it was “good”.

It wasn’t until I accidentally read two different translations of the same text that I began to pay more attention to the quality of the translation. Thomas Mann’s short story "Der Bajazzo" was originally translated as "The Dilettante" by Helen T Lowe-Porter. It was this version I read (and enjoyed) first. Some years later, I stumbled on David Luke’s translation of the same story, which he calls "The Joker", and  which I assumed was a Thomas Mann story I’d never read. After reading the first paragraph I immediately recognised it as "The Dilettante". It seemed a better translation (precise, modern, fluent) yet strangely less engaging.

I wondered what other readers thought of the two different translations and discovered that Luke is generally considered to be Thomas Mann’s finest translator, praised for his “semantically reliable” translations that do justice to the complexities of Mann’s prose, whereas Lowe-Porter’s translations of Mann’s works (to which she had the exclusive rights for over twenty years) are much maligned for her textual errors, omissions and condensations. Here’s a sample of the hatchet job on Lowe-Porter’s translations: 

“inadequate”; “damaging”; “deeply flawed”; “major, even catastrophic errors”; “basic errors or ‘schoolboy howlers’ revealing a deep misunderstanding of German grammar and vocabulary”; “unforgivable” ; “regarded as a scandal in the translation world”

Who would have thought the world of literary translation is open to such scandal!

Can a bad or mediocre translation convey a writer’s essence? Adam Thirlwell's optimistic views about literary translation provide some relief. He suggests that style is inherently translatable, even if its translation is not perfect. Wyatt Mason agrees: 

If translations were so routinely terrible and so generally unreadable, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Flaubert and Stendhal and Kafka and Proust and Mann—whose translators have been mocked and derided by generations of critics—would have had no hope of finding readers beyond their respective shores. Given that these writers have readers around the world, the ire and indignation felt by those who take at translators comes not over the errancy of translation but its adequacy: however error-ridden and technically troubling a translation might be—the syntax clumsy, the vocabulary misleading, the dialogue wooden—translations have nonetheless managed, somehow, to convey their sources sufficiently for their originals survive, not to say thrive, far from home. 

Even though I wasn’t traumatised by Lowe-Porter’s translation of "Der Bajazzo", I was (and still am) shocked to discover that she “often failed to notice ironical undertones and left out phrases when she failed to understand either their function or their meaning”. In his biography of Thomas Mann, Ronald Hayman finds it unforgivable that Lowe-Porter omits the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph of Mann's novella Death in Venice. He argues that this omission deprives the reader of a final glimpse into the main character’s (Aschenbach) consciousness: 

It was impossible for most English readers to understand the end of Death in Venice until a new translation by David Luke appeared . . . With the missing sentence restored . . . [it] rounds the story off by adding a layer of inevitability to [Aschenbach’s] death . . .

Marianne Zerner justifiably argues that a bad translation possibly “seriously threatens the aesthetic appreciation of the story”. Her point about the title, "Der Bajazzo", is convincing: 

. . . the German title ["Der Bajazzo"] becomes sufficiently intelligible once the [story has been read]. [The reader is able to form . . .] a picture of that typical hero of German impressionist literature for whom Lowe-Porter's "Dilettante" is . . . only a one-sided designation. An objection may [also] be raised against the addition of "mountebank" as an adequate equivalent for "Bajazzo", since the English lacks the tragic undertone of the German . . .

In his essay, Thomas Mann in English, Martin Greenberg acknowledges the errors and omissions of Lowe-Porter’s translations but does not dismiss them completely. He argues that “Mann’s work needs more correct translation” but finds himself turning away, “irritated and bored” by John E Woods’ and Luke’s “word accurate” translations, back to Lowe-Porter, whose translations he suggests have more feeling and style. 

I want to revisit Thomas Mann but I’m reluctant to do so via Lowe-Porter’s translations, which are widely condemned. If there are multiple translations of a text, I think it’s worth investigating which translation is considered reliable. 

For more crimes committed against literature, read this review of the translation of Gombrowicz’s novel Transatlanyk at The Complete Review (dymo/stencil  and/or paste up of Gombrowicz to follow at a future date). 

And read the transcript of a discussion on contemporary debate in literary translation from The ABC Book Show.
(Note to my chess partner: you could force my move to literary translation by providing me with a copy of this book. It’s officially on my book wish list . . . checkmate.)

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