Tommy, Helen, Frank, and Me

S. R. Gilbert

It was as inconceivable to Helen Lowe that she address her author as “Tommy” as it would be for me to open an email with “Cher Frank.” Without question, those writers whose work undergoes translation during their lifetimes must endure some exposure to, not to say intimacy with, those hired to convey their works to other audiences. But Thomas Mann forever opened with “Dear Mrs. Lowe” and, like Professor Hartog, he closed with “Cordially.” Respect, yes, and over time possibly some affection, but a certain distance reminds us of our roles. And yet how very possessive we (Helen and I) come to feel about the books placed in our care. A friend of mine said of one of his translations, “I really think I know the book better than the author does.” That may be, though we (Helen, my friend, and I) know only the topmost layer of the book, and have nothing to say of the antecedent structures that rose and fell and now lie buried—those invisible roots drawing moisture up to the ears of corn we read like the faces of our children.

And yet. There are so many ways we stake claims and violate some imaginary, vain creed of selfless and disinterested labor. In “On Translating Thomas Mann” (included in the Knopf edition of John C. Thirlwall’s biographical study, In Another Language), Mrs. Lowe wrote, “For a long time I kept the promise I made to myself of never sending a translation to the publisher unless I felt as though I had written the book myself.” Such an identification does not arise from masquerading as a half-Brazilian half-German Nobelist; it arises from slipping the German leaves from their German binding, feeding the fire in the hearth, giving the cradle of the sick child a rock, and assuming the role not of oracle but of creator, reading figures in the smoke sent up from those burning pages. (Lowe wrote elsewhere that her work on Buddenbrooks afforded her many of “the pleasures of creative authorship.”)

To me it never seemed that Chronos had stood naked before me; there was no third state between the French and the English.

One feels one’s way in, aiming for the same simplicity, lucidity, elegance, and occasional dab of irony found in the French book. In Lowe’s case, the metaphor of clothing serves: she does not “‘really understand’ T. Mann until I have undressed his thought and put English garb on it.” And certainly the very deliberate—at times enchanting—act of taking a sentence and making it anew endows the reader-who-is-also-a-writer with a very different penetration of a work than that granted the common reader. To me it never seemed that Chronos had stood naked before me; there was no third state between the French and the English. Rather, the book very gradually became, to borrow an image of which François made repeated use, something new, its former language sloughed off not like a skin but like countless tiny scales, each replaced the moment time dislodged it.

To find the right key, liberties must be taken, not as a subterfuge but surrounded by yellow police tape, neon lights, a protracted clearing of the throat. My messages to François might open with “I hope it’s OK that” or “You’ll see in the second paragraph.” I knew that on rising the next morning an answer would be waiting, and what a great relief when my replacement of a declarative sentence with a rhetorical question or my upending of some promotional language met with approval. The dislodged temporalities that favored those emailed exchanges—he once called me “une créature de la nuit” (a nocturnal creature)—belonged to a time when the very idea of distance had come unraveled. Yes, the global pandemic (the translation occurred entirely within covidous time) reinforced national boundaries, yet Zoom rode the COVID-19 tsunami into every digital device in the world, erasing the miles between. François and I employed technologies unavailable to Helen and Tommy, and the Orwellian invasiveness of virtual meetings thrust us into one another’s spaces. Politely, we spoke of Wyoming.

Did I write the book myself? Absolutely not. But maybe his next one I will.

R. Gilbert is the translator for Chronos: The West Confronts Time.

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