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The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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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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Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski March 9, 2014
    A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from […]
  • The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin March 9, 2014
    The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating te […]
  • The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber March 9, 2014
    The Mehlis Report follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon's capital, where his memories of the city's past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation's civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when pe […]
  • The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton March 9, 2014
    Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Midd […]
  • The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell March 9, 2014
    After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books n […]
  • Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North March 9, 2014
    There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. […]
  • A Life Among Invented Characters: A Tribute to Mavis Gallant March 9, 2014
    Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks fro […]
  • The Guy Davenport Reader March 9, 2014
    Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people […]
  • [SIC] by Davis Schneiderman March 9, 2014
    In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (201 […]
  • The Ben Marcus Interview March 9, 2014
    I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don […]

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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More from Conversational Reading:

  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...
  5. In Translation The Guardian asks 10 experts to recommend 10 writers not writing in English that we should be reading. Of the 10, 2 ring a bell:...

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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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