- Thomas Mann in English by David Horton
London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Pp. 264. $110.
When we think of Thomas Mann in English, the two prominent translators of his novels come readily to mind: Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter and John E. Woods. Concerning Mann’s shorter works of fiction and his nonfictional texts, many readers may also be aware of several other celebrated writers and translators who contributed to the body of texts by Thomas Mann in English, such as Kenneth Burke with his Death in Venice translation; Richard and Clara Winston with their English renderings of selected essays, letters, and diaries; or Peter Constantine with his translation of Six Early Stories.
David Horton’s book Thomas Mann in English is the first study, however, that considers the various English translations of Thomas Mann’s texts in a systematic and comprehensive fashion. This seems noteworthy, particularly when considered alongside another equally remarkable fact: even early on in Mann’s career and long before he went into American exile, the distribution of his works had occurred mainly through (English) translation, and his world-literary fame was consequently also established largely through the vehicle of translation.
Thomas Mann’s works tend to be discussed first and foremost in terms of their highly distinctive literary style, which is marked by syntactical complexity, masterful deployment of irony, and lexical variation, all attributes that pose considerable translation challenges. To analyze how some of these features fare in versions of Mann’s texts in English, Horton uses a translation studies approach that examines examples of translated texts within the context of their respective cultural-historical moments and as reflections of prevailing translational norms. He studies the translations as highly effective accomplishments first, not as catalogs of shortcomings, as some of the older translation scholarship has tended to do. Acknowledging the inevitable textual transformations that occur in any process of cross-linguistic transfer, Horton identifies the intrinsic linguistic qualities and compensation strategies found in the English versions carried out by Lowe-Porter, Mann’s original and “authorized” English translator, and the other translators. [End Page 137]
In the introduction Horton lays the methodological and theoretical groundwork as well as providing an overview over the history of the versions of Thomas Mann’s texts in English translation that were published over the past ninety years. Chapter 1 chronicles the major opinions and debates that emerged around Lowe-Porter’s translations, finding that these statements have often been rather impressionistic, evaluative, and inattentive to the translational expectations and constraints present in the larger literary system. Horton also explores the question of what aesthetic, commercial, and reputational motivations drive successive re-translations of one and the same text.
In chapters 2 and 3 Horton vividly recounts the story of fifty years of interactions between Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, Thomas Mann, and his American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, a constellation of human agents that established Thomas Mann as an author of worldwide renown with a signature English-language voice. Interestingly, Lowe-Porter’s idiom was neither recognizably British nor distinctly American, but attempted and managed to appeal to a broad readership on both sides of the Atlantic. As Horton notes, it was through Knopf’s efforts that Mann was perceived as an American writer long before actually moving to the United States. Furthermore, in 1947, Mann was considered the second-best living writer (after George Bernard Shaw), according to a large international poll of literature professionals conducted that year, suggesting that Mann’s disseminated work had succeeded in bridging the gap between the high- and middle-brow markets.
Horton identifies in Mann’s extensive contact with the translator(s) the tensions between his exacting standards of textual accuracy on the one hand and his rather pragmatic and laissez-faire attitude toward translation on the other. Simultaneously espousing notions of translatability and ultimate untranslatability, Mann’s attitude to the translations was characterized by ambivalence, oscillating between gratitude and frustration. Mann complained that his works gave a distorted impression in English but also realized that this loss was an inevitable consequence of interlingual and intercultural transfer and that, for reasons of fame...