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John Gledhill (Erfurt)
Thomas Mann's "Tonio Kröger" in English translation:
a comparison of the Lowe-Porter and the Luke version.
Although in the past the art of literary translation may have been
a neglected field, in the 1980's and even more now in the 1990's,
translation "studies" or "translation theory" have been enjoying a
new confidence, a period of expansion and importance. Gentzler
(1993) gives a very optimistic picture:
The growth of Translation Studies as a separate discipline is a success story of the 1980's. The subject has developed in many parts of the world and is clearly destined to continue developing well into the twenty first century.
There are many flourishing schools and theories, from the Göttingen
school headed by Armin Paul Frank, which has a centre devoted
to translation studies, the Leipzig school, with outstanding contributions
from Neubert (1986) among others, to the American - Dutch - English
connection which is regarded as being based in Warwick under
the influence of Susan Bassnett and also the Israeli and Czech linguists
are important into this field. Theories also abound: translation as
manipulation (Bassnett 1991); translation as polysystem (Toury 1978);
translation as Gestalt (Snell-Hornby 1986); translation as social action (Benjamin 1963); as deconstruction (Derrida 1982); and the pragmatic approach of Newmark (1988).
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Translation theory has become a bewildering, although exciting
world of conflicting theories. It is beyond the scope of this
article, however, to attempt to summarise the current main
theories. Nevertheless, books continue to be translated, including
great literary works. Indeed, in many countries translations are
more widely read than original works. This fact was a particular
impetus for the Israeli school of theorists, where in the
commercial and industrial world, "the survival of the nation
became dependent on translation" (Gentzler 1993).
In this context, there are relatively few studies criticising actual literary translations into the English language. This is particularly marked in the case of Thomas Mann. Jochen Hellmann (1992) has written a detailed analysis of the French version of "Zauberberg", but in English there is very little material. E. Koch-Emmery (1953) wrote a short
article on Mrs. Lowe-Porter's translation of Thomas Mann in which
the main emphasis was on the complexity of Thomas Mann's style and
how it was missed in the English version. Having shown the
inadequacies of the translation, he comes to the rather weak
I would find it very hard to improve on Mrs. Lowe-Porter's translations, yet I am convinced that a careful analysis of the major discrepancies between her version and the German text will help, not only to show up Thomas Mann's inimitable artistry, but also to pave the way for a more faithful, a more congenial art
of translation, which, in the long run, will profit world literature as a whole.
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A similar conclusion is reached at the end of Siegfried Mandel's study
of the Lowe-Porter translations, where "monumental" seems to be the
only adjective on which critics of her work are agreed (Mandel 1982).
The scale of her work is not in dispute, as she became the standard
English translator for all Thomas Mann's main works, a task to which
she devoted most of her literary life. The Siegfried Mandel article
does admit there are deficiencies in the quality of the translation,
but as with Koch-Emmery, he reaches a similarly weak conclusion.
"Despite such flaws, Lowe-Porter's translations of Mann's works
throughout the decades remain monumental." (1982: 39). Mandel then
suggests that her work may need revising but not re-writing. E.
Koch-Emmery rightly reminds us that "the number of those who
read Thomas Mann in translation must be as large as those who read
the original." (1953: 275). Again adjectives abound
in this article concerning the scope of her enterprise such as
"formidable", "indefatigable" and "prodigious".
This very basic level of criticism (to the effect that if the
authors of the articles felt that they could not do any better,
they would refrain from criticism) remained unchallenged until
David Luke's translation first appeared in 1970 after the
copyright on the Lowe-Porter's work had run out. In the preface of
his own translation "Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas
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Mann" he, revising his earlier comments, launches into a scathing
attack: "Like all her translations of Mann, as is increasingly
recognised, it is of very poor quality" (Luke 1988: xiv). His
final summary is quite devastating and deserves to be quoted in
To offer now a new English edition of this and six other stories therefore needs little justification. I feel bound, however, to put on record a few examples that will illustrate the linguistic inadequacy of the hitherto accepted sole mediator of Mann's collected works to the English - reading public. I confine myself here almost entirely to palpable factual mistakes, that is to say, unwitting errors of comprehension, it would be tedious and invidious to discuss Mrs. Lowe-Porter's more imponderable defects of style or taste on which there may be some room for differences of judgement, but the extent of these may be inferred a fortiori from the frequency of the cruder kind of error.
Concrete examples ensue to justify palpable factual mistakes, and
detailed analysis will be made at a later stage to highlight this
point. The need for some rational assessment of the Lowe-Porter
translation and perhaps, also, of the Luke versions is quite clear
in the light of the contradictory judgements concerning her work.
This paper will be confined to Tonio Kröger mainly on account of
its relative lack of stylistic complexity in comparison with "Der Tod in Venedig",
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for example, where the problem of translating
poetic prose arises. Two typical passages will be criticised and
compared, but the question is what the
assumptions really are, the hidden values or agenda of the translation
critic. There is a danger of theory and practice in translation
studies drifting far apart as is the case in many disciplines, as
the practitioners become reluctant to apply criticism because of
possible attack from the welter of conflicting theories. A
provisional solution is tentatively offered with the idea of
"coherence". As with a philosophical argument, it is useful to
check first if it is coherent, before its truth has to be
established. In a similar way, a translation must first be
assessed if the translation conforms both to the explicit and
implicit aims of the translator. In Newmark's terminology
(1988), a "semantic" translation must be assessed as to
how far the translator manages to render the "feel" or the
"texture" of the original language whereas a communicative
translation should first be assessed if the translation conveys
all the essential information and then be judged according to
expectations of the target "readers" in the target language. In
the case of the Luke and Lowe-Porter translations, these criteria
are less relevant, because both their ostensible and implicit aims
conform more to the traditional encoder/decoder model of I. A.
Richards, as analysed by Gentzler, and to the sense versus word
debate dating back to Cicero's famous neat formulation "non verbum
de verbo sed sensum exprimere de sensu" in his work. In some of her prefaces, Lowe-Porter expounds her translation "theory" in terms of "spirit" and "letter". In her preface to "Buddenbrooks" (1924) she states:
Yet it was necessary to set oneself the bold task of transferring the spirit first and the letter so as might be; and above all, to make certain that the work of art, coming as it does to the ear, in German, like music out of the past, should, in English, at least not come like a translation - which is, "God bless us, a thing of naught." (Buddenbrooks 1924).
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From the point of view of coherence, it will be seen that Lowe-
Porter does not fulfil these aims, but that, in fact, she is
sometimes too "literal" and at others too "free". Luke's
introduction, on the other hand, where he at least shows some
awareness of twentieth century translation theory in his use of
the term "equivalence", very popular with the Leipzig school of
translation theory, makes no reference to critics of equivalence
theory as in Snell-Hornby's (1986) rejection of the term in which
she shows that the German concept "Äquivalenz" is by no means
identical to the English word "equivalence" and illustrates many
confusions in this theory. Similarly, van den Broeck (1978) shows
in his article "The Concept of equivalence" that mathematical or
logical equivalence is used in a different way from equivalence in
translation theory and that the use of this term has led to many confusions.
Despite this, Luke displays a similar traditional view to that expressed by Lowe-Porter and even in the 1988 version, displays a similar cavalier disregard of contemporary translation theory:
In my own versions, as well as trying to be more accurate, I have tried to reflect, so far as is possible in English, the complexity of Mann's prose generally and especially the enhanced ceremonious prose which he uses for reasons already discussed in "Death in Venice [...]". Because of the inherent differences between the languages, a translator's equivalent English should not try to follow the structure of Mann's sentences too closely, or they will cease to be equivalent; but they should be as complex as is consistent with what sounds natural for a single sentence by English standards. (Luke 1988: xl ff.)
Luke does not indicate how the dilemma between the "reflecting of
the complexity" of Mann's prose and "sounding natural" will be
solved, but it is within these terms initial criticism must take place to fulfil the "coherence" criterion.
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Despite Gentzler's (1993: 4) disapproval of substantialism in translation criticism (ie. roughly that there is a "correct", "objective" translation) in which criteria such as equivalent/ inequivalent, right/ wrong/ good/ bad and correct/incorrect are to be avoided, they must be used in this context at the initial stage to be consistent with the "coherence" theory. Some translations even at this level, are simply wrong, incorrect or bad as is illustrated in Luke's introduction. (For example, in Tonio Kröger alone, Lowe-Porter translates "quadratisches Liniennetz" as "a square linen mesh" (p. 149), "ungewürzt" as "without roots" (p. 152), and "heiligend" as "healing" (p. 156) rather than "sanctifying"). These are simply mistranslations. Luke quotes many more examples of gross mistranslation in the other stories. Within this context, the traditional adjective "felicitous" or "infelicitous" is suitable for assessing the "naturalness" of the style of the two translations, without there being any commitment to substantialist theories in the broader context.
In an article of this scope, only two sample passages can be analysed, together with a few examples from the whole text. The
opening passages are interesting to analyse because the translator
immediately reveals his implicit theory. Tonio Kröger opens with
the following two sentences:
Die Wintersonne stand nur als armer Schein, milchig und matt hinter Wolkenschichten über der engen Stadt. Naß und
zugig war's in den giebeligen Gassen, und manchmal fiel eine Art von weichem Hagel, nicht Eis, nicht Schnee.
Lowe-Porter's translation runs as follows:
The winter sun, poor ghost of itself (1), hung (2) milky and wan (3) behind layers of clouds above the huddled roofs of the town (4). In the gabled streets (5) it was wet and windy and there came in gusts a sort of hail (6), not ice, not snow (7).
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It will be seen that the Lowe-Porter version is incoherent in the
technical sense, that sometimes neither the spirit nor the sense
is rendered. It will be convenient to demonstrate this in note
(1) "poor ghost of itself": This is the translator's own
interpolation which does not seem to be justified as it is not
used consistently even with regard to the image. The "ghostly"
aspect of the sun should be in contrast with the normal sun, but
not with the winter sun itself so that it becomes, as it were, "a
ghost of a ghost".
(2) "hung": This is possible as "hang" in this context, has
connotations with being "bedraggled", but semantically, it is
unsuitable for Mann's literary style with the notion of the sun
"hanging in the sky".
(3) "wan": In contrast with note 2, "wan" is too poetic, creating a
romantic overtone out of place with the author's clear intention
troughout the work of portraying the serious, grim North in
contrast to the colourful South. A neutral adjective such as
"dull" or "lustreless" would be more appropriate in this context.
(4) "above the huddled roofs of the town": As in note 3, "huddled
roofs" fails to capture the negative connotations of "über der
engen Stadt", associated also with the "Engstirnigkeit" of the
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"bourgeois" values of the north; on the contrary, the collocation
"huddled roofs" has cosy associations reminiscent of a fairy
(5) "In the gabled streets": After the relatively free translations
in note 4, this is a perversely literal translation producing an
odd collocation in English. Houses, but not streets, can be
(6) "there came in gusts a sort of hail": This is a curiously un-
English concoction failing to conform to the naturalnes of the
original. The word order would even suggest that second language
interference has obtruded.
(7) "not ice, not snow": This time, there is an unnecessary slavish
literalism in contrast with the Luke version.
The winter sun was no more than a feeble gleam (1), milky and wan (2) behind layers of clouds above the narrow streets (3) of the town. Down among (4) the gabled houses (5), it was damp and drafty (6), with occasional showers of a kind of soft hail (7) that was neither ice nor snow.
(1)"a feeble gleam": This is much preferable to the Lowe-Porter
translation as it not only captures the slightly negative connotation of "armer Schein", but also has the bonus of a pleasing assonance.
(2) "wan": (see note 3 of the Lowe-Porter version) The author may
well have been "distracted" by the Lowe-Porter translation which
reveals something of Luke's methods. Levy argues forcefully that
translators should avoid using previous versions (Levy 1969: 79 -
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(3) "the narrow streets": (cf. Lowe-Porter note 4). The addition of streets is stylistically acceptable, but there is a loss of connotation
from "Engstirnigkeit" (note 4) and also of meaning, as the streets
may be narrow, but the city itself could be open and broad.
"Enge Stadt" is a translation difficulty, but adjectives such as
"cramped" or the collocation "small city" might be more appropriate
within these criteria.
(4) "Down among": This addition does not seem to be necessary, but
is innocuous as it makes a suitable contrast with the winter sun
half-hidden by clouds.
(5) "the gabled houses": (cf. Lowe-Porter note 4) This is a better
(6) "damp and drafty": This would seem to be a more appropriate
collocation for the interior of a home rather than the town itself.
The natural, alliterating phrase of "wet and windy" in the Lowe-Porter
version would seem to be more appropriate this time.
(7) "showers of a kind of soft hail": "Showers of hail" may be more
appropriate than "gusts of hail" as with the Lowe-Porter version,
but the repetition of the preposition "of" is stylistically inelegant. Again, within the assumptions of both translations a more neutral, close translation would fit their criteria:
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"Sometimes, there was a kind of soft hail which fell onto the town, but which was neither ice nor snow." The essential rhythm of
the German sentence is also preserved in the suggested version,
though as an elongated version, which often must be the case if
Luke's criterion of "sounding natural" is to be observed.
A similar lack of coherence in the Lowe-Porter translation can be
found almost anywhere in the work, but one more passage should
suffice for brief commentary. Even the Luke version often fails
the coherence test in his assertion that "a translator's" equivalent
in English should not try to follow the structure of Mann's sentences
too closely. A well - known passage from Tonio Kröger (p. 166)
can illustrate the above points:
Der Springbrunnen, der alte Walnußbaum, seine Geige und in der Ferne das Meer, die Ostsee, deren sommerliche Träume er in den Ferien belauschen durfte, diese Dinge waren es, die er liebte, mit denen er sich gleichsam umstellte und zwischen denen sich sein inneres Leben abspielte, Dinge, deren Namen mit guter Wirkung in Versen zu verwenden sind und auch wirklich in den Versen, die Tonio Kröger zuweilen verfertigte, immer wieder erklangen.
Lowe-Porter's version is as follows:
The fountain, the old walnut tree, his fiddle(1), and away in the distance, the North Sea (2), within sound of whose summer murmurings (3) he spent his holidays - these were the things he loved, within these he enfolded (4) his spirit, among these things his inner life took its course. And they were all things whose names were effective in verse and occurred pretty frequently (5) in the lines Tonio Kröger sometimes wrote.
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(1) "his fiddle": This choice is surely not in harmony with the
serious poetic mood in the text. I suspect too literal a
translation here (again incoherent with Lowe-Porter's "following
the spirit" theory) as Mann did not use the alternative "Violine",
but there seems to be a lack of awarences of some of the
connotational differences between "Geige" and "fiddle".
(2) "the North Sea": This can only be a mistranslation rather than
an alternative interpretation. As Luke has already shown, Lowe-
Porter's work is riddled with frequent mistranslations.
(3) "within sound of whose summer murmurings": Again, Lowe-Porter
does not fulfil her criterion of "not coming out like a translation".
"Within sound of" unlike "within sight of" is not a normal English
collocation but when combined with the clumsy double genitive
"of those summer murmurings" the effect is catastrophic.
(4) "enfolded": This is again an example of gross mistranslation:
"entfalten" could be rendered by "unfolded" but "enfolded" has the
exact opposite meaning.
(5) "pretty frequently": This is suddenly a drop into an unwarranted
colloquialism which may be justified in "a colloquial translation",
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but as Lowe-Porter often uses archaisms such as "This vouchsafed,
he gave ..."(p. 140) or "whither the sound of the music" (p. 144),
the register is inconsistent, particularly with regard to the fact
that it is in the context of a relatively "literary" passage.
An immediate improvement in accuracy, register and diction can be
perceived in the Luke version:
The fountain, the old walnut tree, his violin and the sea in the distance, the Baltic Sea to whose summer reveries (1) he could listen when he visited it (2) in the holidays: there were the things he loved, the things, which, so to speak, he arranged around himself and among which his inner life evolved - things with names that may be employed in poetry to good effect, and hich did indeed frequently recur in the poems that Tonio Kröger from time to time composed.
(1) "to whose summer reveries": This is a literalism which is typical of
the whole passage and which, contrary to Luke's avowed intention
slavishly follows the German structure.
(2) "it": Again the unpoetic "it" fails to register the gentle poetic tone
of the passage.
Luke's translation is certainly more accurate than Lowe-Porter's
but important nuances are missed, as in "belauschen" which has
more the sense of "eavesdropping" or more poetically "listening
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into". On the whole the Luke version is very accurate, but is
clumsy and unpoetic precisely because he does not obey his own
guidelines. To make the point clear, a suggested alternative is
offered, not as a definitive translation, but as an example of a
close translation which would conform to the criteria of both
translators. The suggested version has a more natural English
syntax and rhythm whilst conveying the information and nuances of
the original, but is to be seen, as implied, a suggestion to be
used for further debate. Suggested version:
The fountain, the old walnut tree, his violin and in the distance the sea, the Baltic Sea where, in the holidays, he could listen into the ocean's summer dreams - these were the things he loved, these were the things which he seemed to have grown accustomed to and which formed the background to his inner life - things with names that could be used to good effect in verse and which constantly appeared as themes in the actual verses Tonio Kröger occasionally produced.
The suggested version is much freer and more natural whilst
capturing all the main themes and nuances. It still, however,
sticks too closely to the text for many translators and fails to
take into account many of the more "exciting" approaches in modern
theory. Nevertheless, it would be more coherent with regard to the
Luke and Lowe-Porter approach.
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From this study, the relative weakness of the Lowe-Porter version
is becoming increasingly obvious. It is not intended, however, to
be an attack on a particular translator, more on the whole
literary world with its well-known disregard of the importance of
translation and in this case, of revision and correction. The
Lowe-Porter translations have been in existence for over seventy
years in this unrevised, uncorrected form. A few more examples
from the whole text should suffice to illustrate the point. Lowe-
Then he would be seized with disgust and hatred of the senses; pant after purity and seemly peace, [...] where it breeds and brews and burgeons in the mysterious bliss of creation.
The relative "sanity" of the Luke version will, I hope, make the
point clear (151):
He was seized by revulsion, by a hatred of the senses, by a craving for purity and decency and peace of mind [...] in which everything sprouts and burgeons and germinates in mysterious procreative delight.
Sometimes, the sense virtually disappears in the Lowe-Porter
translation as with page 155:
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Now you see, Lisabeta, I cherish at the bottom of my soul all the scorn and suspicion of the artist gentry - translated into terms of the intellectual - that my upright old forbears there on the Baltic would have felt for any juggler or mountebank that entered their houses.
whereas in Luke, the sense is perfectly clear:
You see, Lisaveta, I harbour in my very soul a rooted suspicion of the artist as a type - I suspect him no less deeply, though in a more intellectual way, than every one of my honourable ancestors up there in that city of narrow streets would have suspected any sort of mountebank or performing adventurer who had strolled into his house.
Even so, both translators can be weak when rendering simple
conversations into idiomatic English. When Tonio enters Lisaweta's
studio and says "Störe ich?" - "Am I disturbing you?" or even "I hope I am not disturbing you." Luke translates this as "Do I
disturb you?" (a completely different meaning) and Lowe-Porter's
version is obviously absurd: "Shall I disturb you?" Both
translators also miss the point of the key phrase: "Ich bin
erledigt," said by Tonio after Lisaweta had defined Tonio's
problem. The most obvious interpretation is that Tonio is thanking
Lisaweta for her accurate advice so that the meaning is something
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to the effect of "I have been sorted out". There is an extra
connotation of "finishing a matter" in the sense used earlier of
finishing the theme of life by defining it so that Tonio himself
feels he is now defined, but also finished. Luke's version "I am
eliminated" not only contradicts the spirit of the dialogue ("I
can go home in peace"), but produces a ludicrous effect, as if the
protagonist were to be exterminated by some alien force. The Lowe-Porter version descends into the non-sensical formulation "I am
expressed". As this could be regarded as the turning point of the
novella (one of the rare places in the novella where Mann uses
italics), the gross mistranslation of both authors is not an
indifferent matter. It must, however, be admitted that the rather
curious phrase "Ich bin erledigt" does present a translation
difficulty, because the immediate normal reaction to the phrase
could he expressed in English as "I am finished" or even "I am
done for", but in the context, it is quite clear that "erledigt",
also refers to the problem solved. "Ich kann getrost nach Hause
gehn." Some of the Lowe-Porter translations produce an almost
comical effect on account of archaisms or failed register (133):
"gypsies living in a green wagon" (as opposed to "caravan");
"Hans Hansen was a capital scholar and a jolly chap to boot"; p.
138: "But as Hans looked into Tonio's eyes, he bethought
himself"; "That bit about the king in his cabinet must be nuts."
(for "das mit dem König im Kabinett muß famos sein."); p. 141:
"What an unmentionable monkey"; p. 146: "He went the way that go
he must"; p. 157: "Every artist is as bohemian as the deuce
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inside."; p. 151: "No. I am too full of utterance."; p. 152: "I get
dazed with the triflingness and sacredness of the memories
and feelings it evokes." Page 152: "I quail before its sheer
naturalness"; p. 156: "The artist must be unhuman, extra-human" as
opposed to Luke's relatively sensible, though stylised translation
(p. 156): "One has to be something inhuman, something standing
outside humanity."; p. 155: "like those unsexed papal singers"
for "castrati"; "But despite - I say despite - this excellent gift
his withers are by no means unwrung"; "In us artists it looks
fundamentally different from what he wots of."
Many other examples of ungrammatical English, mistranslations
and absurdly inappropriate style could be added to the list
(particulary the conversation with the Hamburg business man: "Ab I
right, sir, or ab I wrog?" etc. p. 174), but the lack of quality
in the Lowe-Porter translation is not quite obvious. What is
disturbing, however, is that, except for Luke, the only two
articles concerning the Lowe-Porter translation have given a
positive appraisal of her work, though undoubtedly with some
reservation. Even more disturbing is the fact that the Lowe-Porter
versions have been until 1971 the only English versions available
for the public; and the general lack of enthusiasm for Thomas
Mann's works in the Anglo-Saxon world must have something to do
with the poor and sometimes appalling quality of the translations.
Translation criticism is still an art rather than a science. It is
often very difficult to make comparisons between two very good
translations as there are so many possible approaches. This
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should, however, not deter the theorist from making comparison and
judgements as long as the criteria are open and clear. In the case
of the two translations discussed, the task is relatively easier,
because both authors express similar views on translation theory,
but only one of the authors is relatively consistent within the
stated aims. This assessment is based on the "coherence" principle
already mentioned, but there are many other possible approaches to
translating Tonio Kröger from a fresh, modern "communicative"
translation to a well structured "semantic" version imitating the
very logical and clear sentence structure as analysed by Emmery
(1953). It is important that the debate continues, not in the
abstract, but with detailed comparisons so that theory emerges
from the practice of applying criticism. This essay is intended to
be a contribution to this debate. Translation theorists must show
that they too have teeth.
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