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A hero found in translation

Death in Venice Thomas Mann Translated from the German by Michael Henry Heim Ecco: 142 pp., $19.95

June 06, 2004|Michael Cunningham | Michael Cunningham is the author of several novels, including "The Hours" and "A Home at the End of the World." His essay will appear as the introduction to Michael Henry Heim's translation of "Death in Venice," to be published later this month by Ecco.

Michael Henry Heim's new translation of "Death in Venice" subtly but clearly extends and alters previous translations. What we have here is the same book, and a new book. Before I talk about the particulars of Heim's translation, though, I should briefly mention something else I've learned by working with translators. Good translators (and here they differ from the writers of the original text) agonize over a fundamental question. To what extent should they render, to the best of their ability, the words as written, and to what extent should they reinterpret them to suit the particulars of the language and culture into which they are being conveyed? Every language has its own cadences; a sentence that snaps and sparkles in one language is likely to go flat if conveyed slavishly word by word, into another. How much license, then, should a translator take in rewriting the sentences so that their music, the pure sound of them, comes through? And how, if at all, should the translator accommodate the fact that certain images and phrases, and even some basic vocabulary, resonate differently from culture to culture? Russian contains no term for "privacy," at least not in the Anglo-American sense of privacy as a desirable and even necessary refuge. To the Chinese, the fact that a man is wearing a Bill Blass suit means nothing at all, while to an American (well, to some Americans) it implies a good deal about the man's outmoded, rather clueless sense of style.

Reading Heim's translation, I was struck by a fine but pervasive difference between it and the "Death in Venice" I remembered. It goes without saying that the basic events are the same. In both versions, Gustav von Aschenbach, a celebrated German author who finds himself, as Dante put it, "[i]n the middle of the journey of [his] life ... in a dark wood, where the right road had been lost sight of" (from Seamus Heaney's 1993 translation), goes on a holiday in hope of reviving his fading enthusiasm for life. He travels to Venice, where he becomes first enamored of and then obsessed with a 14-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio, who is, in fleshly form, the very ideal of youthful human beauty, with all youth and beauty can imply to the no-longer-young about yearning, mortality and the extravagant carelessness of a god who gives us life and then, by slow degrees, takes it back again. Aschenbach is increasingly consumed by his passion, until he dies on the beach at the Lido, done up in a grotesque parody of youth, rouged and lipsticked, watching Tadzio from afar.

And yet, the tone of Aschenbach's decline felt different in Heim's version. I remembered Aschenbach as a figure of pure pathos. I'd always thought that Mann was telling us, in part (a great writer is always telling us many things at once, some of them contradictory), that if we aren't careful, we, too, could end up dying alone on a beach, our love unrequited, wearing too much jewelry, our hair unnaturally black. In that regard, Aschenbach has long been a perversely mythic figure to me. As I approach the age at which Aschenbach expired, I've fallen into the habit of asking, every now and then, when I'm uncertain about a sartorial gesture, whether the scarf or ruffle in question makes me look a bit "Death in Venice"-ish.

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