Fifty years ago, Nobel Prize laureate Günter Grass wrote what's become a classic novel of the 20th century, The Tin Drum. He shares his thoughts on the new translation by Breon Mitchell, German fiction, politics and that famous eel.
Roger Gathman: We've recently seen retranslations of some of the first generation of modernist classics, like Buddenbrooks and most of Knut Hamsun's novels. In these cases, the first translations seriously distorted the prose. Do you think that was the case with Manheim's translation of The Tin Drum?
Günter Grass: Ralph Manheim was an excellent translator, and he was a friend of mine, as he was a friend of my new American translator, Breon Mitchell. Looking at the first translation of The Tin Drum, we have to consider that Manheim had to deal with a book that was, at that time, in the late '50s and the early '60s, something completely new—something new in German literature and language, too. Manheim and Helen Wolff, the publisher of his translation in the States, may have thought that some editing and some cutting would help to make the book more accessible for the American and English readers of that time. And I was then a completely unknown young German author, and Manheim, the experienced translator, did not approve, among other things, of my long sentences, so he broke them up and divided them. But those long periods in the novel have always had a certain function for Oskar, the narrator, and for the writer. In some countries, the translators and publishers did not approve of the open language—what then was called obscenities and blasphemies.
RG: Breon Mitchell gives one instance of a clearly faulty translator's decision on Manheim's part: translating as the “black witch” the phrase which, in German, means “Black Cook,” thus weakening one of the key motifs in the novel. But more generally, it seems that the new translation tries to move away from the “readerliness” of Manheim, his tendency to tuck your unruly prose into a more tidy English sentence structure. Do you think Mitchell has succeeded?
GG: Yes, I think Breon Mitchell has succeeded. The “Black Cook” is only one of many important examples. Breon is one of the 10 translators or “retranslators” of The Tin Drum who attended our translators' conference in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) in 2005 where we discussed for a whole week or longer the questions of the translators. I showed them the Danzig of my youth and many scenes of the novel, for example, the famous Heart Jesus Church. During my last visit to New York in 2006, Breon and I discussed at the Goethe Institute the new translation, and some weeks ago, in July, Breon came to Berlin to participate in a panel discussion on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Tin Drum. He read some pages and spoke about his translation, and again I got the impression that his new translation is not only more precise but at the same time in the end more beautiful and readable. So I am convinced that Drenka Willen [Grass's editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt] found the right man for the new translation.
RG: Thomas Mann had a notoriously bad relationship with his English-language translator, H.T. Lowe-Porter. You seem to have decided to be much more active with your translators, inviting them to tour Danzig with you and to talk to one another. Do you think this will serve as a sort of model for translator/author relations?
GG: It is true, Thomas Mann was unhappy with his American translator. We know it from his diaries. I decided in the '70s, when The Flounder was published, to invite my translators from all over the world to discuss with me and their colleagues from other countries all their questions and problems. We are doing this whenever a new book of mine is out, coming together mostly in Lübeck. Sometimes more than 25 translators attend those meetings. I like my translators, we are friends, and I consider them as my extended family. I always hoped this would serve as a model for others.
RG: An early review of The Tin Drum in the United States pointed out that certain elements of parody in the German—for instance, the parody of Mein Kampf's decisionistic language in the famous scene in which Oskar “decides” to be born when he hears that he is going to get a tin drum—were lost in the Manheim translation. Do you think those parodic moments come through better in the new translation?
GG: Yes, I feel the parodic and satiric moments of the book as well as the many different tones of the narrating hero between maliciousness and sadness come through much better in the new translation. To understand the background of certain scenes and the motives of the author is obviously quite helpful for the translator.
RG: Since W.G. Sebald's lecture on the “amnesia” he found in postwar German fiction—the avoidance, for the most part, of descriptions of the bombing of cities—there's been much talk about whether, in fact, this is true, and whether there isn't something disconcerting about recounting the destruction wrought by the Allies in Germany, considering the crimes of the Nazi regime. Do you think that Sebald's point applies to The Tin Drum, or do you think the description of the hanging of kids and the fires that lit up Danzig are things that both sides, postwar, seemed eager to forget?
GG: Having read early books by German postwar writers such as Heinrich Böll and Siegfried Lenz, I do not agree with Sebald's theory. But it is true that for a long period after the war for many people, and not only for German writers, it was obviously more important to discuss the crimes committed by the Nazi regime than the suffering of the Germans. Auschwitz had a great and lasting impact on writers of my generation. The Tin Drum describes both, the crimes and the sufferings. Think about what happens to the Jewish toy merchant or what is happening at the very end of the war to Oscar's mother.
RG: You are well known for your support for the Social Democratic Party and your disdain for the culture of Adenauer Germany, the '50s Germany in which The Tin Drum first came out. Oskar's ability to freeze his life at the age of three was symbolic of something that stopped in Germany's modernization, and his growing a foot, postwar, but remaining a small hunchback, seemed symbolic of the moral numbness that accompanied the economic miracle. Do you think, 80 years out, that Oskar is now full-sized?
GG: Yes, Oskar obviously survived. I met him again; he showed up in some of my later novels, but he did not want to speak any more about his childhood in Danzig or his young years in Düsseldorf. He had grown up and had become a successful businessman. He clung to the world of the '50s, of the economic miracle. I am sure he did not approve of my commitment to Willy Brandt and the Social Democratic Party or my participation until today in German election campaigns for the SDP.
RG: And one personal question. Do you eat eels? I think surely The Tin Drum must have caused a decline in eel eating around the world, due to the famous scene of the horse's head that impressed itself so on Oskar's mother.
GG: I wish the effects of literature would be as strong as you presume. But smoked eel as it is offered in all German coastal towns looks nice and inviting. I myself like all kinds of edible fishes and fruits of the sea, and I never hesitate to eat eels.