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Issue 216

The Stories We Tell

A century ago, the novelists Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann depicted a world recovering from war and pandemic. What can we learn from translating their works today?

BY Susan Bernofsky in Books , Thematic Essays | 02 DEC 20

I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories I tell when I translate because I’m in the early stages of a massive new retranslation project: Thomas Mann’s monumental Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain, 1924). There are two earlier published translations of this novel, each admirable in its own way. The first, by Helen Lowe-Porter, was done in consultation with Mann and, when published in 1927, helped secure his international reputation. (It more recently served as an inspiration for Kate Briggs’s 2018 novella This Little Art.) Then, in 1995, John E. Woods published a marvellous retranslation that was celebrated, above all, for capturing Mann’s irony and humour. The novel doesn’t ‘need’ a new translation, as it might have if it had been poorly translated in the past. So, when W.W. Norton approached me about a new version of The Magic Mountain, my first thought was: do I have new stories to tell about this novel? My previous retranslations of classic works shaped my approach to this question. 

Portrait Thomas Mann. Courtesy and photograph: Ullstein Verlag

In the case of my 2006 translation of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922) – a quest narrative in which a young man spends years searching for the right sort of life – my story had to do with the relationship between the state of grace the protagonist seeks and the lyricism of the prose describing his search. Hesse was a highly gifted prose stylist whose German sentences are almost aggressively melodic: heavy on the assonance, occasionally even cloying in their lushness. In Siddhartha, I felt Hesse was using a sense of harmonic balance in his sentences as a correlative to his novel’s vision of the world – a project especially poignant given that he began writing it in 1919, in the immediate aftermath of World War I. The unprecedented violence of that war’s 20th-century technology – chemical weapons, aerial bombers, tanks – killed millions of combatants and left many survivors physically maimed and/or psychologically scarred. The word ‘shellshocked’ was coined in 1915 to describe their experience.

At a moment when Europe was still reeling from war – and the influenza pandemic that followed it – Hesse presented a radical alternative to grievous injury and death, giving his young protagonist all the time in the world to search for his true calling. The novel’s prose – melodically flowing sentences held together by assonance to achieve a harmonious equilibrium and dignified pacing – represents a state of nirvana, a universe in balance.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Tinzenhorn – Zügenschlucht bei Monstein (Tinzenhorn – Zügen Gorge near Monstein), 1919–20, oil on canvas, 1.2 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: Kirchner Museum Davos 

In Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), which I translated in 2014, I had a very different story to tell. I see the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, as a hysterical drama queen. The story is a comedy – if admittedly a very, very dark one – and the joke is always on him. Kafka’s humour here is deadpan and situational, rooted in the disconnect between Samsa’s frantic attempts at conformity and his grotesque physical state. The very model of a company man, he is so horrified at being late for work that he disregards the far more serious problem that his body has been monstrously transformed; this characterization spoofs the very notion of dutifulness. His humiliation is funnier yet (and also sadder) because we can see that, in some spiritual sense, he has brought this curse upon himself through his fanatical obedience, extreme to the point of absurdity. I worked to make this melodrama as clear and obvious as I could everywhere in the translation.

I’m still deciding on the story I want to tell about The Magic Mountain. One of the initial ideas I’m working with is that the book is one huge inflated fairy tale, as suggested by a remark in the prologue: ‘Besides, it’s not out of the question that this story of ours, in its innermost nature, will bear some resemblance to a fairy tale.’ There are a number of points, even early in the novel, where my translation choices reflect this reading. 

Hans W. Geißendörfer, Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain, 1982, film still. Courtesy: Hans W. Geißendörfer

The word einfach appears both in the first line of the prologue and the first line of chapter one. In each instance, it’s used as part of the unit ein einfacher junger Mensch (literally: a simple young person) to describe the protagonist Hans Castorp. In my first draft, I wrote ‘simple young person’, and then started trying to find a better word for ‘simple’, since surely the protagonist of Mann’s great novel isn’t a simpleton. I ticked through a number of possible synonyms – ‘regular’, ‘ordinary’; my partner even suggested the 21st-century equivalent, ‘basic’ – before settling on ‘unremarkable’, an appealing word that fits well with the arched-eyebrow, we’re-both-in-on-the-joke irony that Mann cultivates.

But in what sense, exactly, is young Castorp unremarkable? The first thing we learn about him is that he’s rich, or at least wealth-adjacent: he carries a flashy crocodile travelling bag given to him by a consul with a fancy-sounding name, who is both his uncle and foster father. Clearly, his family story is anything but simple. Of course, the word might well be meant ironically. But, I consulted period dictionaries to learn how einfach and ‘simple’ were construed in the early 20th century, and lo: the first dictionary definition subheading for both words was ‘guileless’ or ‘artless’. And this makes sense. Isn’t The Magic Mountain the story of an unsuspecting young person who boarded a train to pay ‘a three-week visit’ and got more than he bargained for? I really do think this is the story Mann is telling. So, maybe the translation of einfach really is ‘simple’ after all. Don’t many fairy tales start with a ‘simple young person’ setting out on a journey? And if the secondary meaning – ‘not so clever’ – creeps in as well, maybe that’s not inappropriate, given the narrator’s general tone of mildly amused detachment.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Davos mit Kirche. Davos im Sommer (Davos with Church. Davos in Summer), 1925, oil on canvas, 1.2 × 1.7 m.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Davos mit Kirche. Davos im Sommer (Davos with Church. Davos in Summer), 1925, oil on canvas, 1.2 × 1.7 m. Courtesy: Kirchner Museum Davos 

I recalled Emily Wilson’s brilliant analysis of Odysseus, from her 2017 translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, in which she describes him as ‘a complicated man’, noting the etymological derivation of this English word from the Latin plicare (to fold). Odysseus is both many-layered (like a cloth folded over on itself) and one who has journeyed hither and yon (many turnings in his past). He is ‘with pleats’, the com and pli of ‘complicated’. The ple of ‘simple’ comes from plicare as well (sim signifies ‘self-same’, i.e. ‘one’). The simple thing is that which has only a single turning or fold; this also makes it a not-bad metaphorical equivalent for the German einfach, which literally means ‘one compartment’. Another story I want to tell about Mann’s novel has to do with tourism. We are frequently reminded that the book’s protagonist comes from Hamburg, in northern Germany, and experiences the novel’s Swiss setting as exotic. He waxes rhapsodic at his first glimpse of the Alps and finds it delightfully quaint that a server in Davos is referred to not as a Kellnerin (waitress) but as a Saaltocher (literally ‘hall daughter’ – once a common Swiss word for waitress). Given my decades-long association with Switzerland through my work on Robert Walser, I feel a particular affection for the novel’s setting and want to make a point of describing this landscape touristically, as Castorp and Mann – both hailing from the Baltic coast – would have experienced it at the time. For one thing, I’ll probably be referring to most things in this multilingual setting (Switzerland has four official languages) by their German-language names (e.g. Graubünden rather than Grisons). One of my reference books is a turn-of-the-20th-century Baedecker travel guide.

I’m also looking to shape my translation in terms of a really precise accounting of the book’s cultural artefacts. Ironically, this is easier for me than for either of the novel’s previous translators because of the internet and 21st-century library access. Lowe-Porter had access to Mann himself, but I can’t imagine he was interested in explaining every detail of every reference to her; and Woods’s translation pre-dates the internet’s heyday. Yet, The Magic Mountain is exceptionally full of things that need looking up.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Wintermondlandschaft (Winter Moon Landscape), 1919, oil on canvas, 120,7 × 120,7 cm. Courtesy: Detroit Institute of Arts 

For example, Castorp’s cousin – whom he’s visiting at a sanatorium in Davos – ridicules an unworldly fellow patient who speaks in an endless series of malapropisms. One particularly awkward linguistic mistake she makes is turning Stilett (stiletto) into Steriletto. At the time of Mann’s writing, stiletto meant only ‘thin dagger’ – it was not yet connected to footwear – and would have seemed an exotic term. Unfortunately, the patient confuses it with a word improper for use in polite company: Sterilett (from the French stérilet), a precursor of the IUD, which American birth control activist Margaret Sanger promoted in her 1921 pamphlet, The Use of the Pessary. For my translation, I considered defaulting to the same period malapropism (steriletto) as Lowe-Porter, but I wanted this moment to be legible to modern readers as what it is: a truly cringeworthy gaffe. Woods translates the word as stirletto, capturing the mispronunciation but not its unseemliness. For now, I’ve given up on the stiletto and am experimenting with variants on ‘switchblade’. My favourite so far is ‘snatchblade’, which I think shows the cruelty of the men’s Schadenfreude-driven humour that seems to me important in establishing the atmosphere of Mann’s book.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 216 with the headline ‘The Stories We Tell’.

Main image: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Sertigtal im Herbst (Sertig Valley in Autumn) (detail), 1925–26, oil on canvas, 1.3 × 2 m. Courtesy: Kirchner Museum Davos 

Susan Bernofsky is an author, translator and director of literary translation in the MFA Writing Program, Columbia University, New York, USA. She is a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, Germany. Her biography of Robert Walser is forthcoming in May from Yale University Press.