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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Buddenbrooks: Which Translation?

Katy at Love German Books asks which translation of Buddenbrooks we're reading. I don't know which Sacha and John are reading, so maybe they'll chime in and enlighten us as to which and why.

For my own part, I'm reading John Woods', and I can tell you exactly why. I read the Porter translation of Doctor Faustus and found it decent, until a few months later when I happened to get a hold of a copy of Woods'. The Woods was clearly superior work, so I saw no reason to even bother with the Porter for Buddenbrooks.

According to Theodore Ziolkowski's review in The New York Times, I made the right choice:

"Buddenbrooks" was the first product of the 30-year collaboration between Thomas Mann and the American translator Helen T. Lowe-Porter (1876-1963), through whose renditions most of his works became known to the English-reading public. Although its competence was acknowledged, it is not the strongest example of her craft. As she pointed out in her "Translator's Note," Lowe-Porter had special difficulties with the dialects, to which the novel owes much of its humor and the sharpness of its characterizations. "This difficulty is insuperable," she concluded. "Dialect cannot be transferred." Accordingly, she leveled Mann's colorful variety of speech into a uniformly even style, in certain cases simply omitting passages. As a result, much of the novel's humor was lost.

These inadequacies alone would probably justify a new translation. John E. Woods, whose intrepidity in the face of linguistic difficulties is attested by his prize-winning renditions of such writers as Arno Schmidt ("Evening Edged in Gold") and Patrick Suskind ("Perfume"), is not dismayed by Mann's play with dialects. He has restored passages omitted by Lowe-Porter and found ingenious renderings for tricky puns: for example, a Latin teacher's rule of thumb for rules of gender: "What's good for the goose is good for the gender." He has also retrieved occasional passages that Lowe-Porter omitted for reasons of delicacy: some lines on flatulence, for instance, that aptly characterize Tony Buddenbrook's boorish son-in-law.

Elsewhere Mr. Woods's vocabulary is closer to the earthiness of Mann's language, as when Hanno Buddenbrook, after gorging himself on Christmas sweets, states that he's about to "throw up" — which Lowe-Porter ambiguously renders as, "I think I'll just have to give it all up." Mr. Woods not only remains closer in vocabulary to Mann; he renders Mann's style more faithfully than his predecessor, who did not hesitate to recast and shorten Mann's sentences.

It is a truism that every generation needs its own translations. Lowe-Porter provided a valuable service by making Mann's novel initially accessible to the English and American publics. In Mr. Woods's sparkling new translation, the reader approaching "Buddenbrooks" in English now encounters a work that is closer in style, vocabulary, idiom and tone to the original and can thus appreciate more fully the monumental achievement of the artist as a young Mann.

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  1. The Danger with Translation Wyatt Mason: My professor, upon returning the paper, patiently explained that Helen Tracy Lowe Porter, Mann’s erstwhile voice in English, had a habit of serial...
  2. This Month, We’ll Be Reading Buddenbrooks Last spring I was completely blown away by Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus. On the spot I vowed to read more Mann, and then didn't...
  3. Buddenbrooks: A Post-War and Peace Novel While we're reading Buddenbrooks, I think it will be useful to consider the book as a sort of work written in the tradition of War...
  4. Hahn’s Translation Blog There continues to be good material up at Daniel Hahn’s blog, where he chronicles his translation of Estação das Chuvas ("The Rainy Season") by José...
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1 comment to Buddenbrooks: Which Translation?

  • Thanks for clearing that up. John Woods really is an excellent and highly spirited translator. But it’s also the case that translation as a whole has moved on since Lowe-Porter’s time, and certain things that were perfectly acceptable back then are anathema now (like the omissions and smoothing out mentioned in the review).
    So I’m with you all the way…

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