Gunter Grass and the New Translation of The Tin Drum

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been gorging myself on Gunter Grass novels in preparation for the panel I’m moderating tomorrow with Krishna Winston (Crabwalk), Breon Mitchell (The Tin Drum), and Michael Henry Heim (My Century, Peeling the Onion)—arguably three of the best German-English translators working today. And Grass, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, is arguably Germany’s most important post-War German writer.

(This event is part of the 2009 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium, the subject of which is “Interpretive Perspective and Translation.” The symposium is only open to translators, scholars, and the like, although German lit/translation enthusiasts are encouraged to contact Lisa Lux lux at chicago dot goethe dot org for more information.)

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Tin Drum, the novel—which, to continue the trend started above, is arguably Grass’s greatest achievement—the novel is being published in new translations around the world. Not that the initial translations were always bad, but the book is a bit racy (and difficult), and a number of the original translations omitted lines, paragraphs, etc., or just didn’t quite capture the nuances of Grass’s unique style.

Breon Mitchell puts it best in his afterword to the new translation:

The most common question I was faced while working on this new Tin Drum was, “What was wrong with the old one?” This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of literary translation. It is precisely the mark of a great work of art that it demands to be retranslated. What impels us toward new versions is not the weakness of existing translations, but the strength and richness of certain works of literature. The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once.

We translate great works because they deserve it—because the power and depth of the text can never be fully revealed by a single translation, however inspired. A translation is a reading, and every reading is necessarily personal, perhaps even idiosyncratic. Each new version offers, not a better reading, but a different one, one that foregrounds new aspects of the text, that sees it through new eyes, that makes it new.

More on Breon’s new translation in a minute. But following on last week’s extremely long series of posts on BEA, and my “confrontation” with Pantheon editor Erroll McDonald, I found this anecdote in Grass’s intro to the new translation a pretty inspiring picture of what publishing used to be like:

In the summer of 1959, I completed my first novel, The Tin Drum, in Paris. I had just corrected proofs and created an image for the dust jacket when a letter arrived from the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff in New York. Wolff, who had left Germany in the thirties, asked me to meet him at a hotel in Zurich. He strode up to me in the hotel lobby, a tall gentleman, with his wife and colleague Helen Wolff beside him.

“I’m thinking of publishing your book in America,” he said. “Do you think the American reader will understand it?” “I don’t think so,” I replied. “The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces—” “Say no more, “ he broke in. “All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I’ll bring it out in America.”

I’ve only just started reading Breon’s new translation (I first read My Century, a brilliant novel of voices with one short chapter for each year of the twentieth century, with some chapters being political, some historical, and some just plain fun, and Crabwalk, which is also quite compelling, although a bit more novelistic in conventional ways), but from the opening statement (which is the same in both translations)—“Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution”—it’s a rather brilliant book.

And the translation is pretty dazzling, and does jazz up Ralph Manheim’s—at least in the instances Mitchell quotes in his afterward, such as this:

I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill. (Manheim)

And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill. (Mitchell)

Mitchell’s is more in keeping with Grass’s original text in terms of rhythm and “semantic effect.”

This isn’t to say that Manheim’s translation is bad—both Grass and Mitchell go out of their way to say what a great job Manheim did. But he was a young translator under some tight time constraints, and Grass’s novel isn’t easy for anyone.

And he didn’t have the benefit of one of Grass’s translator gatherings. For the past thirty years, every time Grass releases a new book, he arranges a meeting of his translators, spending three or four days going over the new text page by page, talking about major problems, explaining certain lines, answering questions, etc. I’m excited to hear from all three translators about this experience, especially Mitchell, since he recently spent a week with Grass in Gdansk going over The Tin Drum and even visiting places in the novel . . .

I’ll report back later this week about this panel and the symposium as a whole.

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