True to the Text : BUDDENBROOKS: The Decline of a Family, <i> By Thomas Mann</i> / <i> Translated by John E. Woods (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 647 pp.)</i>

<i> Harman is a translator and critic and is currently working on a new translation of Kafka's "The Castle."</i>

Thomas Mann used to complain that Americans respected his works instead of enjoying them. That alas is still true. His reputation as one of the most cerebral authors in modern literature obscures his gifts as a brilliant and frequently humorous storyteller. Those gifts are nowhere more in evidence than in his first novel, “Buddenbrooks.”

“Buddenbrooks,” which has been translated into over 30 languages, has long been Mann’s most popular book. It’s not hard to see why. Although neither as complex nor as innovative as “Magic Mountain” or “Dr. Faustus,” this chronicle of four generations of a well-to-do family in an ancient city in Northern Germany is Mann’s most moving and humorous novel. The early Buddenbrooks are pragmatic, outward-looking tradesmen and merchants, but their offspring grow increasingly introspective, lured away from the certainties of upper-middle class life by the kindred mysteries of art, music and death.

Although Mann was only 22 when he sat down to write the book, he already possessed a marvelous ability to create new syntheses out of familiar materials. In telling the story of his own family in fictional guise, he drew inspiration from family lore, humorous books in low German dialect, Scandinavian chronicles about the declining fortunes of merchant dynasties, a French novel about the demise of two families by the Goncourt brothers, and so on. Yet the result is a unique German contribution to the great tradition of the realistic novel.


When “Buddenbrooks” first appeared in Germany in 1901 many readers thought that its author must be a disillusioned old man, and Mann himself was afraid that his emphasis on decline and death might alienate his potential readership. He need not have worried: The popular success of the novel helped win him the Nobel Prize in 1929.

The aloof and ironic stance that Mann adopts toward his characters did not endear him to those burghers in his native Lubeck who believed that they or their relatives had been maligned in the book. There is nothing inhuman about Mann’s artistic detachment. His coolness, especially toward those fictional characters who display a morbid fascination with death, represents what Rilke described in an early review of the novel as “an act of reverence toward life.”

The counterpoint to the mounting obsession with death emerges clearly in a clinical chapter about the death of young Hanno Buddenbrook. This doomed 15-year-old is an alter ego of the author, who was plagued by recurring depressions and suicidal thoughts during the period when he was writing the book. When Hanno, who has lost his will to live, turns his back on the “voice of life,” the narrator insists that one can resist the lure of death by responding affirmatively to a “sense of shame, of renewed energy, of courage, joy, and love.” Here the narrator is no doubt speaking for Mann himself.

The humor in the novel is most evident in Mann’s portrayal of the minor characters. There is a rich cast of Dickensian figures such as the pious old lady whose voice sounds like the wind trapped in a chimney or the loyal worker with the constantly runny nose, who inevitably turns up at family gatherings.

This wonderfully fresh and elegant new version of Mann’s saga by prize-winning translator John E. Woods is the first in nearly 70 years. Woods captures Mann’s humor so well that readers are sure to find themselves laughing aloud, as I did. This new translation is bound to become the definitive English version.

The only other existing translation is by Mann’s principal English-language translator Helen T. Lowe-Porter, a brilliant and somewhat eccentric woman who hailed from a small town in Pennsylvania. She was so painstaking that she spent 10 years, working eight hours a day, translating Mann’s voluminous novel, “Joseph and His Brothers.” Unfortunately, Lowe was not a particularly fine stylist, and her preference for Latinate vocabulary makes Mann sound more ponderous in English than he does in German. This is more of a problem in “Buddenbrooks” than in her translations of the later works, where Mann’s prose becomes more elaborate and ornate.


The differences between these two versions of Mann’s novel reflect a basic shift in our conception of literary translation. Lowe--and other translators of the same era such as Edwin and Will Muir, who translated Kafka, or Constance Garnett, who translated or, some would say, bowdlerized Dostoevski--felt free to edit and transpose their authors. Nowadays few translators would want to take such liberties.

A short sample may help illustrate the distinct difference in tone between the two translations. Reading Lowe’s cluttered sentences one is reminded of those Victorian drawing-rooms with knickknacks in every nook and cranny:

“Dainty little 8-year-old Antonie in her light shot-silk frock, turned her head away from her grandfather and stared aimlessly about the room with her blue-gray eyes, trying hard to remember.”

Woods’s prose, on the other hand, is not only more limpid than Lowe’s but also closer in diction and style to Mann’s:

“And little Antonie, a petite 8-year-old in a dress of softly shimmering silk, was thinking hard, her pretty blond head turned slightly toward her grandfather, but her gray-blue eyes directed into the room without seeing anything.”

To be faithful, translators have to be inventive, for there are few perfect equivalencies, even between two languages as closely related as are English and German. Woods frequently comes up with ingenious solutions to knotty problems that Lowe evades. One such instance occurs when young Thomas Buddenbrook mishears a line in a hymn about the Lord who “disdains not one most lowly” and takes it to mean “this Dane’s not one most lowly.” This is an imaginative recasting of a play on words that wouldn’t make any sense in a more literal translation. Here as elsewhere, instead of translating the passage, Lowe simply omits it altogether.


Woods’ glowing new “Buddenbrooks” is essential reading for anybody who wishes to enter Mann’s fictional universe.