Climbing the Mountain

So today I started working on my new translation of Thomas Mann’s classic novel The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg) as a fellow at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library, where I feel very lucky to be able to spend the year. This book is certainly going to be a challenge. Here’s my first draft of the opening sentence, which I worked on for a while today in between the various phases of getting settled into the new workspace. Now I see that I left out a “so to speak” in this draft (always crucial to triple-check one’s work!), but I’ll post it uncorrected, since it’s a snapshot of a very early moment in this project. What’s the difference between “encrust” and “incrust”? The Oxford English Dictionary seems to like both equally; the current Webster’s flags “encrust” as the more common usage, but according to my Webster’s New International Dictionary 2nd edition (my copy was printed in 1951, but the edition dates from 1934), it’s the other way around, with “encrust” the slightly less common variant.

Today I also learned from Michael Neumann, who’s written an extensive commentary to Mann’s novel, that the composition of MM was far less straightforward than I’d realized. Mann, who’d published his first magnum opus (Buddenbrooks) at age 25, in 1901, was having a hard time writing something else of comparable weight to follow it up with. He kept starting new projects with great expectations that invariably turned out to be slighter than hoped, or picking things up and putting them down again. In 1912, at the age of 37 (still with no second great novel, gah!), he interrupted his work on the novella Death in Venice (an ambitious work, if short) because his wife had been stricken with a pulmonary infection and had to spend time at the spa in Davos to recuperate. (U.S. readers, please be advised that a spa in Europe isn’t where you get a pedicure and facial, it’s a serious health resort where you go for some medicinal R&R, sometimes drinking and/or soaking in pungent mineral waters from a local spring, and sometimes receiving light medical care. Spas can be tony.) Soaking up this atmosphere gave Mann the idea for a sort of companion-piece to Death in Venice, one that would be funny and grotesque where the former was solemn (“a Satyr play to accompany the novelistic tragedy of abasement,” in which the “fascination with death, the triumph of the utmost disorder over a life based in and dedicated to order” would be “reduced to the comical”). But first he had to hurry up and finish DOV, the first part of which was already being typeset (gah!). Oh, and he was also procrastinating working on a book about a confidence-man named Felix Krull that he’d been writing since 1910 (the original idea having come to him in 1905). Maybe you’re getting the idea why Mann would later say, “A writer is a person who has a particularly hard time writing.”

By July 1913 at the latest (still procrastinating Krull), he sat down to quickly write the funny little story set in Davos. Guess how that went. A lot more would happen in his life (and the world) before the book came out in 1924. Please please please let my translation of the novel go more quickly!

Since I can imagine that I’ll want to post a few more things about this 1000-page (at least in German) project before it’s done, I’m going to begin a practice I should have started for this blog nine years ago: tagging my posts. So if, in the future, you want to search for more recent posts about my attempt to Climb This Mountain, look for the tags MM and Magic Mountain.

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  1. Susan, What does ngram say about “incrust” versus “encrust”? And bon voyage on your MM trip! Marian

  2. Rose Waldman says:

    I love this post! I’m so looking forward to more of these.

  3. Fred LaManna says:

    This is a great undertaking Susan. Best of luck. I think a new
    translation is due for this great novel.

  4. Angela Jacobson says:

    Hi, Susan! Ja, Thomas Mann… zusammen mit Stefan Zweig einer meiner Lieblingsschriftsteller. Die Sprache ist wunderbar intelligent und schön.
    Ich bin ganz neu auf dem Gebiet literarischer Uebersetzungen und versuche gerade mit grosser Muehe, mich da reinzuwurschteln… Bin ausgebildete Uebersetzerin, habe aber die letzten 40 Jahre eher im kommerziellen Bereich und als Dolmetscherin gearbeitet. Jetzt ist die Zeit gekommen, mich umzuorientieren und von Thomas Mann kann ich nur traeumen! Muss mich wohl erst hochrangeln, obwohl ich, glaube ich, recht gut bin! Kannst Du mir einen Rat geben, wie ich bei der pitching session bei der ALTA Konferenz ein Buch vorstellen kann? Ich kann doch nicht einfach irgendein Buch nehmen, was mir gefaellt, oder? Kontaktiert man den Autor? Natürlich ins Englische für diesen Zweck
    Waere Dir fuer jeden Rat dankbar und zoegere nicht zu fragen, wenn ich Dir helfen kann mit MM. die Tante meines Mannes, Literaturprofessorin, hat ihn gut gekannt. Wir haben viele Briefe von ihm.
    Alles Liebe,

  5. Angela Jacobson says:

    Hi, Susan! Ah, Thomas Mann… he and Stefan Zweig are among my favorite writers! How lucky you are to work on this project. I am just starting out as a literary translator after 40 years in commercial translations. I have to work myself up, I guess, unless someone takes a leap of faith and gives me a chance! I wouldn’t disappoint, I promise! In the meantime, dont hesitate to ask if I can help – I am a German native and my family has known Thomas Mann well. And I have been vacationing in Davos all throughout my childhood, which, admittedly, does not make me an expert on TM…! But at least on “Kurorte”… good luck, and I would be so grateful for any advice or help.


    It’s so enticing to read already, Susan!
    Congratulations again.
    So eager to read on about your progress:)
    XO Elaine

  7. Morris Vos says:

    Best wishes in your new project! Your previous work is much appreciated. A group of us have been reading some Jenny Erpenbeck using your very satisfying translation. Thanks so much.
    –Morris Vos, Professor emeritus, Western Illinois University

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