I'm rereading Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and my edition has a rather interesting introduction by Michael Cunningham. He's talking about the difficulties of any translation, of how writing and translating a text are very similar activities (writers "translate" the brute material of a novel into words), and about how a translation can alter the original atmosphere of a book. In this case, the current translation of Mann by Michael Heim gives Aschenbach a tragic and heroic edge that he lacked in the old Lowe-Porter translation. Now, the question is: which of these translations is more faithful to the author's intentions?
|Thomas Mann lifts an eyebrow at your translation|
And here is where it gets tricky. In order to answer that question, Cunningham tries to characterize Thomas Mann independently of these translations. He claims Mann was one of the last writers of his kind, that even though he was the contemporary of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, he was quintessentially a 19th century writer, not ready to give up the authority of his writer's voice. And also not using language the way "proper" 20th century writers would:
Language itself, in fiction, would become a more fluid and vital part of the whole [after Mann]. We would, for the most part, dispense with the notion of the author as architect, carving sentences out of granite and setting them one atop another in support of a great theme. We revere the novels of Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, and others, but we do not remember and cherish individual lines, not the way we do lines from Joyce or Woolf. We aren't meant to.
My first reaction to those sentences in bold was "But no, that can't be." Theoretically it should hold, because there is a more conscious focus on language in 20th century literature. But does this really translate to us cherishing or revering individual lines from these writers in a way we didn't lines from 19th century authors? I'm not convinced, because on one hand I'm not sure how representative someone like Joyce is in this context. I think his love of language games sets him apart not only from previous generations, but also from his own generation and almost everyone else in the history of English literature. Joyce is very quotable. Others aren't, even when they do play with language. And on the other front, I don't know about Hardy, but Eliot, and Dickens in particular did produce memorable individual lines. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...", no?
So what do you make of this?
And by the way, if you're curious about the problem of translation, Cunningham concludes that Heim gives us a more humane perspective on Aschenbach than Mann probably intended, and that this perspective turns Aschenbach into a modern hero in the line of Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway, which is rather cool in itself.