Adrian West reviews David Horton's Thomas Mann in English

(Bloomsbury Academic, 2013)

Bloomsbury's New Directions in German Studies is one of the few imprints I have come across lately that I would gladly read in its entirety. The cardinal vice of the academic writing I am acquainted with, particularly coming from the United States, is the use of a scanty reading of long-stale –ists from continental Europe—the sort of writing that might throw in Jameson or Judith Butler, as a kind of decoder ring wherewith to wrest, say, the secret power relations from a body of texts that seem, on their own, to hold little interest for the person who is writing. A great deal of trickery and bad faith goes into such people's approach to their theoretical grimoires: terms that once had specific and context-sensitive meanings are refashioned as heuristics by which what are often simple value judgments may be stated in the most verbose, pretentious, and opaque way possible, or they become mere shibboleths, intended not to introduce meaning to the writing, but rather to signify the author's pertinence to a certain allegedly political class; foreign books are skimmed in translation for key words that are then either sought out in the original or else intuited with the aid of the French or German for Reading class the author took in graduate school (hence the curious phenomenon of German Heideggerian terms in English-language essays that do not in fact occur in Heidegger's works); and often the works being examined appear less to have been read and really considered than fondled like organs by the haruspices of old to illuminate the arcane messages within them.

Reading the blurb for the books, a reader might be forgiven for thinking Bloomsbury's series offers more of the same. It too refers to a shopworn litany of academic preoccupations that can hardly be called "new" (e.g. queer and postcolonial studies, national identity, cross-cultural dialogue). The books themselves, however, give a distinct impression of seriousness, of real interest in, and respect for, their subjects, and they show little sign of having been written in the hope of impressing a tenure committee. They will interest not only professional Germanists, but even well-informed amateurs (isn't it time to rescue that word from its negative connotations?). From neglected topics that have long cried out for a better treatment (Roma Voices in the German-Speaking World) to enticing treatments of a classic (The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems) to "theory" in its most contemporary guise (The Tragedy of Fatherhood: King Laius and the Politics of Paternity in the West) to a new translation of a classic work by one of the giants of modern German philology (Hans Blumenberg's The Laughter of the Thracian Women), the offerings present a range of themes that are attractive for scholars and non-scholars alike.

To those who work in literature—whether professionally or in the metastasizing class of people slaving away for free, with a greater or lesser degree of rigor, in pursuit of that nebulous "exposure" which promises one day to eventuate in money, or at least in more and better exposure – translation has become a topic du jour. There are campaigns on social media to #namethetranslator, ink is spilled in the disparagement of critics and reviewers who delve no further into the translator's work than a tip of the hat ("skillful," "clever") or a tweak of the nose ("wooden"), there are conferences, organizations, mentorships, "translation slams," and even members of Goodreads feel compelled (and qualified!) to comment on translations of Paolo Coelho and Stieg Larsson. I am not sure that all this is a good thing. In an oversaturated labor market, employers are ever on the lookout for quick ways to separate the wheat from the chaff, and workers in any given field often have a direct financial interest in culling their ranks; professionalization, in the form of certifications, internships, memberships and the like, works effectively for both. But while academic training in translation is no more a guarantor of excellence than an MFA in painting is of artistic genius, it is a certainty that any barriers placed to entry into the field, at least in the Anglo-American context, where education is not thought to be a right, will perpetuate and sharpen the already existing class (and, concomitantly, racial) inequalities that already plague the professions to an intolerable degree.

Beyond the social consequences of the elevation of the translator's status, the thematization of translation in public literary discourse hinges largely on an illusory notion of the translator as sovereign mediator of the foreign author's words. Translators themselves have said surprisingly little on this score, undoubtedly for reasons of self-preservation: few emails from publishers arrive without a confidentiality disclaimer at their foot, and even were this not so, it would be naïve to imagine that public mudslinging between an editor and translator would not prejudice the latter's opportunity for work in the future.

The ideal figure of the translator stands in for a spectrum of different translation contexts that may produce wildly different outcomes. At one end lies the unharried translator unbeset by financial woes, working on a project of his or her choice under the supervision of an enlightened and sensitive editor with firsthand knowledge of the original text; at the other, there are those who slave away for a pittance under tight deadlines on texts they will sign away their rights to, having no say in the editorial process whatsoever. There are editors who rewrite translations wholesale, others who work through numerous drafts with the translator, fine-tuning each point, and still others whose rush to get books into print precludes any but the most superficial interventions. There are translators whose prestige or financial independence places them above the editor in contractual or editorial disagreements, and others so desperate to see their names in print that they subsidize their own publications. Depending on factors that vary from case to case, a translator may be an author, a flunky, a collaborator, or a frontman. The difficulty of distinguishing between these roles from the outside in any given case, condemns translation criticism, at least in shorter reviews, to superficiality, regardless of the esteem in which the translator's craft is held.

David Horton's Thomas Mann in English is a sophisticated and well-researched attempt to pierce the film of ignorance and commonplaces surrounding the field of literary translation, in the context of a specific author whose works became classics thanks largely to the popularity of their translations into English. The most admirable aspect of Horton's work is forensic: with recourse to the correspondence of Thomas Mann, his translator Helen Lowe-Porter, and his publisher Alfred Knopf, he shows the specific factors that went into such decisions as cutting or modifying large blocks of text, changing titles, presenting potentially controversial aspects of the author's work, or discouraging interference from competing translators.

A truism in translation studies is that the first wave of translations of an author's work tends to conform to the expectations of the target country's population, the better to establish the author's reputation. If he or she becomes a classic, then a crop of new translations will come to satisfy the desires of readers now hungry for faithful versions that do not overshadow the original's idiosyncrasies. Often publishers stress the need for more accurate versions while failing to note the financial incentives attached to repackaging an old book with a new cover, new press releases, and new reviews (this is doubly true in the case of public domain backlist titles where the payment of foreign rights is not at issue). Certainly there was great fanfare when John E. Woods's retranslations of Mann appeared: The New Republic noted that "Mann has finally found his ideal English translator," and many other reviewers echoed this sentiment.

There is no doubt as to the scope of Woods's achievement or his abilities: his intrepid versions of Arno Schmidt's works are almost unique in terms of originality and resourcefulness. Still, it is heartening to see his awareness of the pragmatic factors in the timing of his versions of Mann. By the time Woods was commissioned for the project, the rights to many of Mann's classic works were near to expiring. As Woods wrote in his 2002 essay "A Matter of Voice," "There is also money to be had by ensuring that a title on your backlist gets a solid new translation to replace a questionable old one. If the new one establishes itself in the marketplace, you can effectively scare off competitors once the copyright runs out in another decade or so."

Horton is surprisingly kind to the much-maligned Helen Lowe-Porter, who has become, along with Constance Garnett and, to a lesser degree, Scott Moncrieff, a favorite punching bag of advocates of retranslation. There is no question as to the astonishing quantity of errors these translators made; but it is also rank hubris to act as if the difficulty of the present-day translator's task can be compared to its counterpart a century ago. There is hardly a regionalism too rare or a slang term too new to be elucidated by a half-hour of industrious googling; today's translator can keep numerous dictionaries, the original text, and alternative translations open on the computer while working. Further, for the old guard of translators, the workload stretched the limits of human capacity: in addition to Proust, Moncrieff translated the major works of Stendhal, much of Pirandello, Abelard and Heloise, and a dozen other books before dying at forty years of age. Constance Garnett's translations run north of 20,000 pages. The history of twentieth century letters in English would be inconceivable without their work, or that of the Muirs or the Winstons, or countless others whose work is now being superseded.

Horton clearly appreciates Woods's more accurate translations and is not blind to the failings of Lowe-Porter's German or her irritating penchant for archaisms that border on the incomprehensible; but with the aid of a number of quantitative, computer-based techniques, he shows numerous criticisms of Lowe-Porter to be unfounded. Her syntax and lexicon prove to be as rich and complex as those of translators she is compared to, and Horton gives credit to her creative solutions to such intractable problems as foreign language in Mann's novels or the dilemmas associated with forms of address.

Rooting around for inaccuracies may be one of the easiest and most repugnant pastimes of writers on translation, and translators are right to come out against it. Even if perfect accuracy should be among the translator's goals, the highlighting of a lexical or grammatical error says nothing about the success of the book as a whole, and is often little more than an occasion for a mean-spirited critic to trumpet his or her own putative erudition. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the critic's interpretations are any less flawed than those of the translator. Horton devotes several paragraphs to a vitriol-laden piece by Timothy Buck in the Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann that lambastes Lowe-Porter as well as John Woods. Buck has compiled a juicy list of errors (brieflich, by mail, translated as "quickly," or verbunden, connected, as "separated"), the main effect of which is to make the German-speaking reader feel impressed with himself; but it must be stated, past all the romance and intellectual trappings that surround it, that much of the translator's work is long, boring, and frustrating, and a certain quantity of inaccuracies must go with the territory, particularly when a novel runs to several hundred thousand words. I could not but sympathize with Woods on reading one of his mistakes that Buck points out: he has translated leichtsinning, which means thoughtless, as "licentious." Just recently, reviewing a draft of a translation that was due to be sent to a publisher, I found I had translated Postament, pedestal, as "post office" (Postamt); the passage was a dream sequence, and the word could as easily have been one as the other. Thankfully, I was able to correct this well before the galley stage, but had it made it into the printed book, the fault would have lain, not with my language skills, but with the fog that inevitably settles over one's mind on passing countless hours in front of a computer screen for days on end. To capitalize on this kind of thing is mere captiousness.

Taken together, Horton's book provides an excellent introduction for the uninitiated to the field of practical translation studies; jargon is kept to a necessary minimum, and the book gives equal time to approaches based in stylistics and the sociology of literature. For translators, Horton points out many potential minefields, and illustrates a number of approaches translators have taken to sidestepping them; and students of Thomas Mann will enjoy the discussion of Mann's years in America, and his partnership with his American publisher in a very deliberate and ultimately successful quest to become one of the signal voices of his time.