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Translations of Mann’s “Death in Venice”

Translations of Mann’s “Death in Venice”

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March 19, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Comparing translations often leads to interesting results. Last year, I read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in the Great Books of the Western World, which uses H. T. Lowe-Porter’s translation (published in 1928). This year, I read Stanley Applebaum’s translation from the Dover Thrift edition (published in 1995). I do not think that differences in either translation directly affected discussion topics or the flow of the discussion. However, having read both versions, I had strong reactions to some of the language, which may be interesting to investigate.

Translation is often a hidden presence in our lives. We know that it exists, but we never really see it working. Kind of akin to the way we learn to use grammar, once past the fifth grade (or so), we forget that there is a very formal structure at the seat of our language. So many overarching frameworks affect us on multiple levels, but until you see them side-by-side, you would never know that they are there. The following evaluation of these translations may only demonstrate my personal reaction to the various styles. However, it is interesting to note just how different some passages can be. Do they contain the same sentiments, the same ideas, the same questions? And what would this even mean, since each of us reacts differently to language and emotion? For example, the Lowe-Porter translation exaggerates the largeness of the lines and Mann’s expansive ideas. Lowe-Porter was Mann’s first translator into English. Mann was not always pleased with Lowe-Porter’s work, partly, perhaps, because she was female. But over the years, they developed a strong relationship and she became the first to translate all of his works.

Stanley Applebaum, on the other hand, served as the head of Dover Thrift editions and translated many different languages into English. His translation is concise and precise. There are many translations from which to choose now, and I have found that the more one chooses, the more one sees in this already densely packed novella. I know that something will be lost in translation, but perhaps I can glimpse elements of what has been lost by piecing together the variety of translations. André Lefevere, a translation theorist, once said that the first translation is not necessarily the best, but that multiple translations will improve upon the first, and open up new readership. Rather than getting to a better translation (whatever that might mean), I wonder if the benefit of the many is to gain a more holistic view of a particular work, language or culture. The few quotes below may help to demonstrate a sort of richness found in difference. Each set of two quotes are from the same section of text, but reflect the translators’ choices.

Applebaum (page 3): “But whether the wayfaring aspect of the stranger’s appearance had stirred his imagination, or whether some other physical or mental influence was at work, he was most surprisingly conscious of an odd expansion within himself, a kind of roving unrest, a youthfully ardent desire for faraway places, a feeling so intense, so new or at least unaccustomed and forgotten for so long, that he stopped short as if rooted to the spot, his hands clasped behind him and his eyes fixed on the ground, in order to examine the nature and purpose of this sensation.”

Lowe-Porter (page (472): “Yet whether the pilgrim air the stranger wore kindled his fantasy or whether some other physical or psychical influence came in play, he could not tell; but he felt the most surprising consciousness of a widening of inward barriers, a kind of vaulting unrest, a youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes – a feeling so lively and so new, or at least so long ago outgrown and forgot, that he stood there rooted to the spot, his eyes on the ground and his hands clasped behind him, exploring these sentiments of his, their bearing and scope.”

Applebaum (page 11): “Yes, even on a personal basis art is an enhancement of life. It makes you more deeply happy, it wears you out faster.”

Lowe-Porter (page 477): “Yes, personally speaking too, art heightens life. She gives deeper joy, she consumes more swiftly.
Applebaum (page 27): “He came back; he ran through the waves, beating the resistant water into foam with his legs, his head thrown back; and to see how that living figure, lovely, acrid as new wine in its foretaste of masculinity, with dripping curls and beautiful as a delicate god, coming from the depths of sky and sea, arose and escaped from the water element – the sight inspired mythic ideas, it was like a poetic message telling of primordial times, the origin of form and the birth of the gods. … And his heart was filled and stirred by a paternal kindness, by the emotional attraction that a man who through self-sacrifice creates the beautiful in his mind feels toward one who possesses the beauty itself.”

Lowe-Porter (page 488-9): “He turned and ran back against the water, churning the waves to a foam, his head flung high. The sight of this living figure, virginally pure and austere, with dripping locks, beautiful as a tender young god, emerging from the depths of sea and sky, outrunning the element – it conjured up mythologies, it was like a primeval legend, handed down from the beginning of time, of the birth of form, of the origin of the gods. … And his heart was stirred, it felt a father’s kindness: such an emotion as the possessor of beauty can inspire in one who has offered himself up in spirit to create beauty.”
Applebaum (page 56): “The afflicted man awoke from this dream enervated, shaken; powerless now, he belonged to the demon.”

Lowe-Porter (page 508): “The unhappy man woke from this dream shattered, unhinged, powerless in the demon’s grip.”
Applebaum (page 60): “Therefore we decidedly reject it, and henceforth our only concern will be for beauty – that is, for the simplicity, greatness, a different kind of severity, the ‘new naivete,’ and form.

Lowe-Porter (page 511): “And by beauty we mean simplicity, largeness, and renewed severity of discipline; we mean a return to detachment and to form.”


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