Part shoemaker, part actor

In December 2015 we posted a piece about translator Ralph Manheim, written by his widow Julia Allen-Manheim. At the same time Mrs Allen-Manheim presented the Library with several of Ralph Manheim’s unpublished literary translations of texts by authors such as Arthur Schnitzler, Ödön von Horváth and Christoph Hein. (Enquire in Manuscripts Reading Room for MS Add. 10108.) The donation also includes the typescript of an unpublished lecture Ralph Manheim gave at Indiana University on November 4 1981, which gives a fascinating description of his life as a literary translator, and includes references to Michel Tournier, Rainer Maria Rilke, Adolf Hitler, Thomas Mann, Karl Jaspers, Ernst Cassirer, Bertolt Brecht, Louis Ferdinand Céline and Peter Handke. The following extracts give a flavour of the whole …

— Unpublished literary translations of texts

“I say I drifted into it [i.e. the trade of literary translator]. If that sounds disparaging, I’d like to correct that impression. One can drift into good things as well as bad. I think very highly of the trade. As I see it, a literary translator is part shoemaker and part actor. Shoemaker because he works alone and much of his effort goes into craftsmanship, into motions that he masters by repetition and testing; actor because if he takes his work seriously he has to impersonate his author…

It was after the war that my actual career began, that I began to translate one book after another. Through the painter Robert Motherwell, with whom I became acquainted while living in East Hampton, Long Island, I was led to art books – essays by Hans Arp, The novices of Sais by Novalis (9746.e.39), which I call an art book because it was brought out by an art publisher for the sake of the Klee line drawings with which it was illustrated, The Fauvist painters by Georges Duthuit (two copies in Architecture and History of Art Library), and quite a lot of etcetera. I mention the Duthuit book, because of a rather comical incident. After the translation was done the author added a chapter. Since by then the American publisher was in a hurry, the author had this chapter translated by someone in Paris. When I saw the translation, I thought I detected some Gallicisms and wrote to the translator, telling him that his translation was fine (which it was) but that he had been living in France too long. My blush over this has deepened steadily over the years – especially the years during which I myself have been living too long in France… The translator was Samuel Beckett…


Up until 1960 I had done virtually no fiction. Then Kurt Wolff asked me to try my hand at Günter Grass’s The tin drum (1962.8.984), because I had acquired a reputation for doing difficult books and this looked difficult. I was first given a sample from the middle of the book. After several days of bitter struggle I sent it back, saying it was untranslatable. After ten other translators had failed or given up, I was asked to try again. I agreed but insisted on starting at the beginning. That worked. Of course there have always been difficulties with Grass, but strange to say, I had no trouble at all when I came to the original sample, the chapter about the penmanship class. I never understood what baffled me so at first. Since then I have done five more books of Grass’s prose and four or five plays. I like some of the books better than others – the Danzig trilogy and The meeting in Telgte (1981.7.696) – but he is always a pleasure to translate because involute and baroque as the style is, it is invariably compelling. By that I mean that it forces the translator’s hand. The major headache has been the technical vocabularies. But helimg_5912p cometh from the Lord. In connection with The tin drum, for instance, the publisher managed to find me a German-American stone cutter who knew the terminology in both languages. And while doing The diary of a snail (9746.c.438) and The flounder (1978.8.703) I had some delightful correspondence with a conchologist and a mycologist, both English clergymen…

Translating letters is a very special business, because most letters are not written with great care. Of course one should do what one can to preserve the flavour, but to make them readable one is justified, I think, in cutting down on some of the bumbling that occurs in most correspondence. A delicate operation. Translating letters gives me a strong feeling of being with the writer. I can honestly say that I could smell Freud’s cigar smoke, that I felt myself growing older and older with Mann and Hesse, and shuttling between sickbed and social euphoria with Proust. Did this do the translation any good? Well, I hope so.

David Lowe

1 thought on “Part shoemaker, part actor

  1. These excerpts from Ralph Manheim’s 1981 lecture at Indiana University, as well as Julia Allen-Manheim’s fascinating glimpses of his life in Paris, called forth many pleasant memories. As the (then) young man who invited Ralph to our campus, I’d like to share a few additional details about his visit.

    In 1981 the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) was still a fledgling institution, looking for a distinguished keynote speaker. As a college student some years earlier, my life had been changed by reading Ralph’s beautiful translation of The Tin Drum. Now, gathering my courage, I wrote to him in Paris. He said he was flattered by our invitation, but not at all sure, for personal reasons, that he would be able to make the journey. He had not been back for many years, and had yet to see his American grandson for the first time.

    In the end, the IU Patten Foundation made his visit possible, and allowed him to see his grandson on the way. His visit touched our family too: Lynda met Ralph for the first time, and our boys were the proud recipients of signed copies of his children’s books.

    The Patten Lecture Series was well endowed, and their generous invitation included a week-long stay, with two public presentations. Ralph was preceded that year by the renowned philosopher Saul Kripke, and followed by Czesław Miłosz, who had just won the Nobel Prize.

    With typical modesty, Ralph had written to ask me what he should talk about, since he had little interest in theory or literary analysis. I assured him the story of his own life as a translator would be perfect—and indeed it was.

    For the second Patten presentation, “The Craft of Literary Translation,” Ralph read from his recent publication with New Directions of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of Night, followed by questions and answers from the audience. Both the talk and the reading were recorded by the Patten Foundation.

    Our friendship continued throughout Ralph’s life. My trips to see him in Paris, and later in Cambridge with Julia, always felt like pilgrimages. My admiration for him grew steadily. Here in the States, the award of a 1983 senior MacArthur Fellowship provided Ralph with financial security for the rest of his life. (“Breon,” he told me, “now I plan to live forever”). Not long afterward, PEN America created the Ralph Manheim Medal, a career award considered the highest honor in our profession.

    My own life as a literary translator was constantly enriched by what I learned from Ralph’s example, from the eloquence of his literary style, from his persistence in the face of difficult passages, from his modesty, from his willingness to help others. I think he knew how grateful I was to him for allowing me to share some part of his journey. I am grateful too, to Julia and to Cambridge University, for honoring and preserving his papers. I’m sure they will serve as an inspiration to students and scholars for years to come.

    Breon Mitchell
    Indiana University

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