Michael Scammell in the NYRB reports on what he correctly calls a “remarkable discovery” by Matthias Weßel while examining the papers of the late Swiss publisher Emil Oprecht — the original German text of Arthur Koestler’s famous novel Darkness at Noon, labeled “Koestler, Arthur. Rubaschow: Roman. Typoskript, März 1940, 326 pages.”
The implications of Weßel’s discovery are considerable, for Darkness at Noon is that rare specimen, a book known to the world only in translation. This peculiar distinction has been little discussed in the vast critical literature about Koestler and his famous novel. In my lengthy 2009 biography of Koestler I barely touch on it, yet the phenomenon is all the more extraordinary when one considers that the novel has been translated into over thirty other languages, every one of them based on the English edition, meaning that they are not just translations, but translations of a translation. This includes the German version, which Koestler himself translated back into German in 1944. […]
American and British critical assessments of Koestler have been very different, of course, but it’s surprising how little attention has been paid to the issue of translation, for Darkness at Noon sounds awfully wooden in its present English form. It is full of Germanisms and awkward formulations, showing that the translator was unfamiliar with the Soviet reality and Soviet terminology that inspired it; but it has not been possible to document this until now. Given the helter-skelter way Koestler conceived and wrote his novel and the chaotic conditions in which it was translated, it’s not surprising that the results were so unsatisfactory. […]
Having acquired and studied a copy of the German manuscript myself, I can confirm the English translation as the source of most of the errors, omissions, and mistranslations that Weßel found in Koestler’s translation back into German. Since it’s virtually certain that most of those errors and omissions have been reproduced and multiplied in the thirty to forty translations made from English into other languages, I’ve been able to form a pretty good idea of what readers of Darkness at Noon have been getting. A spot check of passages from the beginning, middle, and end of the English translation reveals an uncomfortably close adherence to German word order, syntax, and grammar; German cognates are regularly substituted for more apt and accurate English synonyms; and unnecessary inversions of verb form occur on almost every page. There is also an excessive use of the pronoun “one” (in place of “he” or “you”), a symptom of the way the colloquial tone and plainspokenness of the original have been replaced by the stiff language of polite society and by fussy, Germanic circumlocutions that slow the narrative down.
This woodenness is intensified by several other problems. The most glaring is the misleading presentation of Rubashov’s prison regime, which starts on the contents page. Here we learn that Koestler’s novel is divided into four sections: “The First Hearing,” “The Second Hearing,” “The Third Hearing,” and “The Grammatical Fiction.” It’s obvious to anyone with knowledge of the Soviet Union that these are not hearings, but interrogations, and they are carried out not by two “examining magistrates,” as the English would have it, but by two interrogators: Ivanov, acting as the good cop, and Gletkin, the bad cop. Rubashov, at the novel’s opening, is taken to prison not by a “chauffeur,” as in the translation, but by a police driver, and he is watched over not by civilian “warders,” but by secret police guards. Rubashov has been consigned not to the mercies of a civilized and rational system of justice, as the British terminology cozily suggests, but to a militarized secret police apparatus not in the least bound by the niceties of habeas corpus or the rule of law.
There are many examples of the bowdlerization involved. some morbidly hilarious (Rubashov’s “our leadership [is] more grotesque than that jumping jack’s with the little mustache” becomes “more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships”) as well as a riveting account of the origin of the book and the fate of the manuscript; I urge everyone with even a passing interest to read the whole thing, and of course I heartily agree with Scammell’s conclusion: “It’s not only possible, but in my view imperative, that someone undertake a new translation that will communicate the book’s artistic qualities more accurately and offer a richer and more nuanced account of Koestler’s complex narrative.[…] I am speaking of the English, of course, but just imagine the possibilities if translations from the original German into two to three dozen other languages followed suit.” It’s been decades since I read the novel, and I look forward to reading it again in a fresh translation of the original text. (Via MetaFilter.)