Translated by Helen Lowe-Porter (1928)
Translated by Michael Henry Heim (2004) Winner of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize (2005)

The legendary Anthea Bell has said that classic works needed to be re-translated to bring them up-to-date. That is certainly true of Helen Lowe-Porter’s 1928 translation. Scholars have long bemoaned its inadequacies: the omissions, the errors and even the moral judgment of the translator. There has even been a thesis written about it! I didn’t notice any of that when I reread it two years ago, without recourse to the German original. I did notice the archaic vocabulary, particulary the repeated use of the word “gay” in the former sense of the word, although the irony is that the current sense would not go amiss – or would it? It appears there’s as much controversy about the homeoerotic nature of the content as there is about Lowe-Porter’s translation. But that is a subject for another post – today it’s all about translation.Mann’s novella, originally published in 1912, must be one of the most translated in the whole of German literature. Eric MacMillan has taken a number of these and done a fine job of comparing the various strategies of the translators. Heim’s translation (no longer the most recent as there is now a centennial edition), is not included amongst them. So in the spirit of a translation duel, let’s pit Helen Porter-Lowe against Michael Henry Heim. Sadly neither translator is here to speak for themselves. Helen Porter-Lowe died in 1963 and the world of translation is still mourning Michael Henry Heim, who passed away only last month.However, as a reader, I can still compare and contrast. In so doing, I’ll use the same key sentence as MacMillan.

Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad’s perfect beauty. His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture—pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity. Yet with all this chaste perfection of form it was of such unique personal charm that the observer thought he had never seen, either in nature or art, anything so utterly happy and consummate.

Aschenbach noted with astonishment that the boy was of a consummate beauty; his face – pale and charmingly reticent, ringed by honey-colored hair, with a straight nose, lovely mouth, and an expression of gravity sweet and divine – recalled Greek statuary of the noblest period, yet its purest formal perfection notwithstanding it conveyed a unique personal charm such that whoever might gaze upon it would believe he had never beheld anything so accomplished, be it in nature or art.

Thomas Mann
Mit Erstaunen bemerkte Aschenbach, daß der Knabe vollkommen schön war. Sein Antlitz,—bleich und anmutig verschlossen, von honigfarbenem Haar umringelt, mit der gerade abfallenden Nase, dem lieblichen Munde, dem Ausdruck von holdem und göttlichem Ernst, erinnerte an griechische Bildwerke aus edelster Zeit, und bei reinster Vollendung der Form war es von so einmalig-persönlichem Reiz, daß der Schauende weder in Natur noch bildender Kunst etwas ähnlich Geglücktes angetroffen zu haben glaubte.

Points to observe

1) As an English reader (without looking at the German) I prefer Lowe-Porter’s translation. It flows much better due to the break down of Mann’s two sentences into three.
Lowe-Porter 1 Heim 0

2) While Heim’s translation sounds stilted in English, it preserves the formality and intellectuality of Mann’s syntax. That is the point. Aschenbach is an intellectual and proud of it. Death in Venice is the story of his decay, consumed internally by illicit desire, externally by cholera. But, that’s not the person we meet in chapter 3. Heim’s translation preserves the nature and tone of that man.
Lowe-Porter 1 Heim 1

3) Zooming in on the vocabulary.  Would Aschenbach be so casual as to think of someone as a lad (Lowe-Porter)? I think not.
Lowe-Porter 1 Heim 2

4) I’m undecided about that “lieblichen Mund” and declaring it a draw. Is a mouth more winning (Lowe-Porter) than lovely (Heim)? Did people talk about lovely mouths in 1928? Do we now? Mann did and Heim sticks to it. But we just don’t say that in English. It’s lovely lips, isn’t it? Luscious even though that would be sexualising the text way too much.

5) “Ernst” has a lot more gravitas than serenity (Lowe-Porter). Heim’s call is the correct one.

So final score from just one sentence. Lowe-Porter 1 Heim 3.

Strangely enough that’s confirmation of my gut feeling star-ratings. I felt a bit meh when I finished Lowe-Porter’s version a couple of year ago and guilty for awarding only 3-stars to a German masterpiece. Much happier with Heim’s work and, therefore, 4-stars –  same as I’d give the original.