Comparing the German-to-English Versions of "Death in Venice"

During the 54th annual conference organized November 6-9, 2013 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in San Antonio, I attended a session entitled Death (and Rebirth) in Venice: Nine English Translations of Thomas Mann's Novella. It was presented by Jeffrey Buntrock, Geoffrey Koby, and Sarah Koby―the latter two are father and daughter―who displayed their deep knowledge of the book and contrasted the different versions available to English-speaking readers.

Thomas Mann (1875-1955) published "Death in Venice" (Der Tod in Venedig) in 1912 and it has been translated into several languages, including nine English versions identified by the panel members, who focused on different aspects of the story.

Mr. Koby talked first, focusing on nominalizations, which is a common linguistic convention in German, in which verbs and adjectives can be used as nouns. He pointed out that there are 145 nominalizations throughout the novella, and gave some examples that in English were rendered as "the waiting one/man" or "the hunchbacked one/man."

He also explained that, once you use a word in German to refer to a character in the story, that word can be repeated later on and readers can easily know to whom it refers. Another alternative that English translators have found to this kind of nominalization is focusing on the process, instead of the character doing an action. In that case, "dreamer" (or "the dreaming one/man") was reworded as the action of dreaming.

"How do you deal with carefully chosen words and render them in English?" Mr. Koby asked the audience. "You have the choice to be an implicitating or an explicitating translator. But, in explicitating, you run the risk of turning Ernest Hemingway into James Joyce."

Sarah Koby soon had the word and focused on the colors and clothing described in the book, which represent characters that foreshadow something that the main character may have experienced. "Some of these translators may have not noticed how important colors and clothes are in the story," she argued. "Threads of story exist as exemplified in both color and specific clothing items that recur throughout the work. If the translator were to miss this continuity, and thus were to render it with less consistency than the original, there would be significant and regrettable translation loss."

Italian director Luchino Visconti took Mann's book to the screen in 1971.

When it was Jeffrey Buntrock's turn, he pointed out that the 1970 version was a revision that Erich Heller did for Random House of the very first translation provided by Kenneth Burke and published in 1924. After Visconti's movie was released, it triggered a boom in new versions, for a total six editions in a span of less than 35 years. Before the 1970 revised title, there had been a 40-year hiatus since Helen Tracy's translation was published by Alfred Knopf in 1930, especially since the translator had the rights to the English version intended for the American market until her death in 1963.

As for the most recent version, the speaker pointed out that it was the least professional of all English renditions. "The 2011 version reads more like a tribute to the gay movement, instead of a serious translation of a piece of literature," he criticized the work done by Martin C. Doege. That was when I took the opportunity to ask him whether he had realized that it was actually a self-published translation, since the publisher is listed as Createspace, an Amazon company that prints books on demand, as submitted by individuals. He then said this piece of information explained the lack of professionalism and care in the final version presented to readers.

Finally, during the latter part of the session, there was a practical workshop in which the audience translated a short sentence of a section referred to as Gustav von Aschenbach's dream sequence:

"Und seine Seele kostete Unzucht und Raserei des Unterganges."

German speakers in the audience analyzed every single word in the original sentence, considering all their possible meanings, as well as the linguistic and cultural weight behind it.

The word that stood out the most was Unzucht ("fornication, lasciviousness, or obscenity" in its current meaning,) for it has a strong sexual connotation. However, back when the book was written, Germany enforced laws that limited the sexual activities of Germans and considered some of them illegal in nature (i.e. homosexual conduct.) Nowadays, these laws don't exist anymore and the word has lost some of its meaning along the way.

When the panel was asked about the risk of modern audiences not understanding the context of the time when reading the translation of a book originally written so many years in the past, Mr. Koby replied, "That's why translator's notes were created!" To add to the amusement of the audience upon hearing such a comment, someone else in the audience wisely suggested that translators looked for a parallel in vocabulary by reading Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), who published his works originally in English and also depicted homosexual themes in his works.


RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates two projects to promote Brazilian literature worldwide: Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS) and Cuentos Brasileños de la Actualidad (CBA).