Two Perspectives on Thomas Mann and his Translator: Mrs. Lowe-Porter by Jo Salas and The Magician by Colm Tóbín

Jackleg | Scribner

Essay by Jinny Webber

Thomas Mann, Nobel Prize-winner for literature in 1929, is the magician of Colm Tóbín’s novel. In his review in this journal, David Starkey praised The Magician for its seamless prose and depiction of Mann’s era, life, and achievements. However, Starkey was left with the impression of Mann as something of a cold fish, suppressing his homosexuality, marrying the loyal, wealthy Katia and fathering six children with her, leaving his attraction to young men generally unfulfilled. Tóbín depicts Mann’s novels and his family’s later peripatetic life in monumental detail, but through all, the author’s emotions are restrained.

Mann is a significant character in Jo Salas’ novel, Mrs. Lowe-Porter, the story of Helen Lowe-Porter who, as the original translator of his works into English, was key in making his literary reputation. Mann wrote Buddenbrooks some twenty years before her translations. Had this epic novel remained only in German, it’s doubtful he would have received such attention and accolades.

Lowe-Porter is a missing person in Tóbín’s novel. She’s mentioned only once, when a zealous fan of Mann’s, Agnes Meyer, says she hopes “your so-called translator Mrs. Lowe-Porter” won’t “mar” his next book. She should focus instead on translating lesser writers like Hermann Brecht or Hermann Hesse. As Tóbín creates the scene, Mann’s only reply is to correct Meyer about Brecht’s first name. Yet Lowe-Porter continued as his valued translator through to his penultimate novel.

Our interest is piqued from the moment young Helen Porter arrives in Germany to further pursue her studies in German language and literature and devote herself to writing fiction. Her Aunt Charlotte, who helped fund the trip, strongly advised her never to marry. In 1906, the year Helen arrives in Germany after graduating from a small college, women had to choose between wedlock and personal accomplishment.

To make ends meet, Helen translates technical articles, then fiction. Her graceful, literary translations bring her to the attention of  Blanche Knopf and her husband Alfred and their joint NY publishing house.

We watch Helen develop from a gifted, independent young woman determined to avoid marriage to one diverted by Elias Loew, later Lowe, a charismatic young paleontologist whose energy and virility sweep her into his embrace and his life—even though early on he gives her the nickname ‘Hal,’ to her displeasure. Not long after they wed she becomes a mother, but continues translating to help support the family, writing her own novel on the side. Elias can be a great companion, but he personifies gender relations of the day and lands a distressing bombshell soon after their honeymoon.

Then Knopf sends her a giant parcel, the 800-page Buddenbrooks. Helen pours all her creative energy into making Mann’s masterwork into lucid English, short-changing her own works. Over the years Mann becomes a friend, but can be autocratic and impatient.

Salas illustrates Helen Lowe-Porter’s gifts by quoting two German passages, followed by literal English, and then her final version. A whole short chapter is devoted to the art of translation, as is a later talk Lowe-Porter delivers at her alma mater. But even the writeup of that talk in the women’s college newspaper says translation works well for a woman, as it can be done in the nursery. This and other such minimizing comments are disproven as Helen’s story unfolds, but the assumptions galls her.

Helen is no cold fish emotionally, but the situations she’s thrown into bring complicated reactions, not only the demands of motherhood and her desire for autonomy for women, but also what she feels she must accommodate in her marriage and what she can’t.

Most of the book is chronological, but early on and occasionally later skips forward to 1963, shortly before Helen’s death, to give perspective on the arc of her life. We see the residue of her  earlier struggles, a suffragette with a brilliant mind and intense personality jammed into a mold she didn’t fit. Helen observes Katia Mann, who fulfills all Thomas’ needs, pretty much erasing herself.

Despite all the pressures of her life, Lowe-Porter translated 15 of Mann’s books. She’s as assertive as possible in her era, putting her maiden name last and only her initials on the books. Translations by H.T. Lowe-Porter can still be found, and no one else attempted such for decades. A rash of criticisms of her work was eventually followed by positive reevaluations. Thomas Mann himself gave her permission to make changes and omissions, as he also permitted his French translator, particularly with medieval German in Dr. Faustus. So much for those pronouncements about her faults from male critics who most likely never translated a complex German work into fluent, readable English!

Stifling so many of her true feelings wasn’t easy, and our hearts go out to Helen, fitting challenging translations with a difficult marriage and family responsibilities as she yearns for her own creative life, and later feeling the financial pinch of  a tough job that provided no long-term security.

Jo Salas, married to Lowe-Porter’s grandson though she didn’t know Helen beyond extensive family documentation and stories, fictionalizes family members. But the central characters and their difficulties through WWI and WWII ring true, as do the gender attitudes. Her writing in this novel is worthy her subject and her book’s literary focus.

Highly recommended for adding insights missing in The Magician or in connection with any of the works of Thomas Mann—perhaps as translated by H.T. Porter-Lowe.