As I work on my translation of Thomas Mann’s monumental novel The Magic Mountain, I learn so many interesting things. I’ve decided to start periodically sharing my thoughts on translation questions that pop up as I work. Here are a few:
The carnival scene in MM is a crucial point of heightened tension—the customs of carnival allow Hans Castorp to approach Clawdia Chauchat and address her informally, using the familiar pronoun “du,” which works similarly to “tu” in French. Indeed, most of their conversation takes place in French, a language she’s more comfortable in than German. This language, which Hans Castorp speaks imperfectly, provides another “mask” he can hide behind as he declares his love to her. “Carnival” is a tricky word here, since its associations in English are more with places where Romance languages are spoken (such as Italy and Brazil). Those who’ve been to Germany (above all Cologne) in February are probably acquainted with “Fasching,” the German word for the carnival celebrated in the days leading up to Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. It’s pointed out in the novel by resident scholar Settembrini that the word “carnival” comes from “carne” + “vale” = “farewell, meat!”; because meat is something one might be giving up for Lent. But Mann doesn’t use the word “Fasching” in the book as often as he uses the variant “Fastnacht” (= the eve of the fast) which is what Carnival is usually called in German-speaking Switzerland. So I decided to stick to “Carnival” rather than getting into the whole Fasching/Fastnacht distinction, which I decided wouldn’t be worth the confusion it was likely to create for the reader in English. A confusion created for me, on the other hand, was Mann’s use of the word “Trikot” to describe part of the carnival costume worn by a fellow running around in a cape: “A Greek from the Bad Russian table with comely legs was strutting around in [Trikotunterhosen] of [insert color] along with a little cloak, paper ruff, and sword cane, representing a Spanish grandee or fairy-tale princeling.” Now, “Unterhosen” are underpants, and “Trikot” just means “knit” and refers to fabrics produced through a knitting rather than a weaving process. But just as “tricot” and “jersey” are used in English to refer to garments made of cloth produced in this manner, German calls various things Trikot as well. So I wondered about these “tricot underpants”—were they long? short? In a later scene, however, this same fellow was flashing his “Trikotbeine” (tricot legs), making it clear that the garment in question was indeed long underwear. I even found a German WWI-re-enactor online (this may well be part of a politically unsavory project) describing the exact structure of these long johns. Alas the color of the skivvies is ambiguous as well: it’s “lila,” a color I’ve heard Germans use to refer to everything from pale lilac flowers to things of a shade that I, a person from New Orleans of a certain generation, will eternally refer to as “K&B purple.” It’s the color name used in the German translation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple. But my turn-of-the-20th-century Muret-Sanders dictionary specifies “lilac, pale violet,” so I’ve decided to see these underpants as paler than the classic dark purple associated with New-Orleans style Mardi Gras. In my Magic Mountain, this fellow’s legs are lilac.